GPA and the Ironies of Integration

Grade inflation, score stagnation reports USA Today.  47% of students are graduating with an A- or higher average (A- undefined, but presumably 3.7 or higher). Back in 1998, just 37% were graduating with similar marks. Meanwhile SAT scores have dropped. Inside Higher Education’s take was more skeptical of the SAT connection but covers a lot of the same bases.

Moreover, the SAT scores are stagnant, so these higher grades aren’t evidence of greater learning!  OK, yeah, the SAT isn’t the only college admissions test and it’s changed twice in 20 years. What’s happened to the other college admissions test, which has a larger test base and which has changed very little? Well, one of the researchers works for the College Board, see.


Yes, GPAs are going up. I suspect this is caused by several states banning affirmative action.

Pause. I’ll wait.

[Reader: wait, what What do high school grades have to do with affirmative action?  Affirmative action usually involves college admissions, not high school…oh, well, high school grades are used for college admissions. In fact, now that I think about it,  high school grades don’t really have any purpose save their use in  college applications. ]

Good, you’re caught up.

It appears that voters have given up banning affirmative action not because they approve of it, but because universities have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning their “pursuit of diversity” and the courts have said yeah, okay, we’ll let you And as this how-to guide for avoiding lawsuits makes clear, top of the “diversity strategies” that allow colleges to ignore the will of the voters is the “percent plan”, or taking in students based on their class ranking. Class ranking is set by GPA.

Texas, California, and Florida all created programs to guarantee admission to public colleges for top graduates from each high school in the state. At their most basic level, these programs generate geographic diversity. But since high schools are frequently segregated by class and racepercent plans also create socioeconomic and racial diversity by opening the door to graduates from under-resourced high schools. These are students who may never before have considered attending a major research university. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have any proof that AA is one reason why GPAs are increasing, and I got a bit distracted because frankly, I don’t care about GPA. No, that’s a lie. I care a lot about GPAs. I think they’re fricking evil, and I get a bit nauseous when someone bleats about how they reflect the virtue of hard work. Look, GPAs are worthless information. Grades aren’t even consistent from teacher to teacher, much less school to school, much less aggregated into one big nationwide chunk. Many teachers grade participation and homework on the same basis as tests–some are even required to boost or reduce demonstrated ability with effort or citizenship grades.  Tests are usually the teachers’ own creations. Some are terribly unfair, some are just terrible. And some are very good–so good, in fact, that the teachers reuse those tests year after year, and the students sell images of them to “tutoring services” and each other, thus rendering their goodness inert.

But I don’t really care why GPAs are rising. The italicized part of the paragraph–since high schools are frequently segregated by class and race–operated like a bright shiny object to distract me from an unpleasant subject.

Yes. Since most blacks and Hispanics go to majority black and Hispanic schools, the students with the highest GPAs will be black and Hispanic. Left unmentioned:  the standards will be lower than they are at majority white or majority Asian schools. Unmentioned but not unnoticed, obviously. If blacks and Hispanics were achieving at the same level, then no one would bother with affirmative action, much less banning it.

Evidence of the lower standards are a time-honored journalism time-killer; I wrote about the  Kashawn Campbell saga a few years ago as an example. But sob stories usually involve kids in the deepest of high poverty cases. Often the top 10% of an all URM low-performing high school will go on to decent colleges and do adequately. They might be the ones we read about who abandon STEM and go into an identity major, but a decent chunk of them are getting through the system that was rigged for them just as anticipated.

Still, these kids represent a  chilling inequity. The  de facto segregation that enable this faux meritocracy mean that the B and even C kids at almost any other type of school is more accomplished, on average.

Just recently I looked at African American participation in AP classes over the past 20 years. Mean scores dropped in almost every test, and scores of 1 saw the most growth.  Hispanics have similar stats. Beware any time someone brags about Hispanic AP pass rates–they have the Spanish Literature and Language tests boosting their scores. Whites and Asians…don’t.

Many black and Hispanic students are prepared and can pass the tests.  An open question, though, is whether the qualified kids are going to the schools that offer up the top 10%. I have my doubts.

But urban schools aren’t really playing GPA games–not consciously, anyway. They don’t have time. Other schools are a different story.

Majority URM charters, for example, have the same incentives as urban public schools–more, even, since what’s the point of charters if there’s no bragging to be done? Charters can be very subjective about grades. Other, more diverse (at least at first)  charters are progressive, designed for suburban parents in racially diverse school districts who aren’t quite wealthy enough for private school or houses in less racially diverse districts.

These suburban charters have another advantage. Remember Emily in Waiting for Superman? Emily’s public high school is in Woodside, California, one of the richest communities in the country. Woodside is considered a very strong school for those in the top track, offering a number of high performance classes that aren’t just open to anyone. Emily wasn’t considered strong enough for these classes, so she went to Summit, a school that’s very grateful for any donations. Think Emily got better grades at Summit?

I’ve written much about “Asian” schools (more than 50% Asian), as well as their selection of Advanced Placement class preferences, as well as the fact that their grades and test scores often seem acquired with no retention (and perhaps not acquired). Most of the students take 11 or 12 AP courses in a high school career, valedictorians have GPAs above 4.4, and they’re ten-way ties. Taking geometry freshman year is considered remedial.

But as both Toppo and Jaschik report, it’s predominantly wealthy and white schools, public and private, that have seen the most inflation.  I suspect that these schools have increased GPAs the most because grades were lower to begin with. These kids were once considered in an entirely different context from affirmative action admits. They had better course offerings, better teachers, stricter grades, but of course much higher test scores. Twenty years ago, affirmative action bans kicked in and Asian immigration skyrocketed. These parents began to realize the competitive disadvantage their children faced and I suspect started demanding more. Class rankings probably disappeared for similar reasons–their 40th percentile student achieves far more than the best students from urban schools. Don’t feel too bad for the students–remember, given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time. Their parents write checks. Plus, legacy.

I know next to nothing about poor white rural schools. Reporters and colleges don’t care about them, and I don’t have any nearby to study.

So that’s all the “racially isolated” cases, be they URM, white, or Asian. What’s left? The Woodside Highs that Emily wanted to escape, at the high end, and schools like mine at the low end. The integrated schools.

Integrated high performing schools, in rich areas that can’t quite shut out the low income and middle class kids, are tracked without fear of lawsuits. Usually three tracks: high (mostly whites and Asians), medium (white boys and  strong URMs, but a mix of everything), low (almost entirely URM).  The rich parents will take their kids, and their money, elsewhere if they can’t be assured of high standards. There will be no talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, but nor will there be complaints  if the students are qualified.

Integrated low performing schools, like mine, can’t track and can’t assure high standards. There will be talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, and wholly unqualified kids are often plunked in despite loud protests from both teacher and students.

In lower performing integrated schools–stop, for a minute. I don’t mean these schools are terrible or that kids graduate incompetent. But these are schools that can’t really push high achievers hard, because of the racial imbalances that result and get them into  trouble. Asians dominate the top track. Their parents demand that their kids be put into advanced classes early, often look for ways they can test out of requirements. White parents in these schools are usually middle or lower class. While they’re often concerned about school, they aren’t planning on stressing the next four years. They’ve realized that their kids are probably going to spend two years at community college and hey, why fight about it? They know competing with the Asians is out–white kids rarely want academic achievement that badly, and their parents don’t blame them. White parents’ biggest fear is the contagion of low grades. Not only are there many other kids around failing classes, making summer school or repeating classes seem normal, but the teachers are used to giving Fs–in fact, sometimes they get in trouble if their Fs aren’t racially balanced. My guess:  white kids at integrated schools have seen relatively little GPA boost in the last 20 years.

Demographic footprints being what they are, Asians and white kids will still fill the top ten percent plans, leaving room only for really bright, accomplished black and Hispanic kids. Average black and Hispanic kids, who would shine at a majority URM school, are often getting Bs and Cs despite far better skills. This is a point I can speak to personally, having seen it often in test prep.  Black or Hispanic kids with low test scores and 3.9 GPAs from weak progressive charters, while those going to the local public schools have 2.5 or lower GPAs and much higher test scores.

So grades at integrated schools, whether high oer low performing, are a drag. At high performing schools, grades are intensely competitive. At lower performing schools ( these integrated low performing schools are a drag for everyone except Asian immigrant kids.  If Asian parents would stop cocooning, they could probably get much better results by spreading out around the country, ten to twenty a school. Enough to tie for valedictorian. But most of them appear to be doing their best to force racial isolation. Asian immigrants, at least, have little interest in attending integrated schools.

Of course, not all Asian kids fit this profile, just as many blacks and Hispanics pass AP tests in Calculus, US History, and Biology.

If I had to rank my personal preference, the rich white kid schools do some fine educating. All Asian schools and high performing integrated schools are joyless places, although the latter have some stupendous sports.

What the integration advocates want, I think, are what they see in progressive charters. Children of all abilities, working and playing together, learning at the same pace, earnest, hardworking, and virtuous. But charters are artificial environments. True integration would probably look something like my school. Poor black and Hispanic kids would get better educations, but worse grades. Colleges wouldn’t be able to get around affirmative action bans. High standards would be impossible unless we were allowed to track.

I do believe they call this a collective action problem.

Anyway. Grades are increasing because colleges are de-emphasizing test scores. Yes, this means they should be required to return to testing, but perhaps in such a way that Asians couldn’t game it? And as Saul Geiser suggests, perhaps criterion referenced tests would be better.

See why I loathe grades?

This is a bit disjointed; I’ve been having trouble focusing lately. I may rewrite it later.




About educationrealist

29 responses to “GPA and the Ironies of Integration

  • David

    My high school was maybe somewhere between the low performing and high performing integrated, at least when I went. It was the one high school of my town, which was not a suburb but was about the size of one (33,000 people).

    The town itself had very few Asians or Hispanics, being deep South, so integrated in this context meant black and white. It certainly wasn’t majority wealthy, as it represented the entire town, but the honors track definitely was; I don’t think that was really intentional but I also don’t think the decisions were made in an objective or unbiased way; definitely something the school needed to work on. It was somewhat less pressure heavy than many schools like it in larger centers and states because nearly everybody went to MS State, Southern Miss, or Ole Miss, even among the top crowd: we weren’t competing with each other for the UCLA, UT, or (ha) Ivy League spots. It was mostly a great school; though the tracking meant I didn’t have particularly diverse classes, I had some untracked classes and activities and was at least exposed to a wide range of people and as you point out the tracking also meant standards were kept high. One of my regrets about living in a major urban center now is I can’t possibly recreate it for my children; schools like that don’t exist here. In fact, as my town grows, the white flight is already happening even there and the tiny “suburbs” of the already small town are growing rapidly with McMansions and lily white schools.

    • educationrealist

      Yep. In certain states and areas, it’s nearly impossible to be an overwhelmingly white campus. In my area, I can only think of 2 or 3 high schools that are majority white. I can think of 15 that are majority Asian, and at least that many majority Hispanic.

  • Jim

    Before recently retiring I worked in a company owned mostly by Chinese investors whose workforce was heavily Chinese including many people from Mainland China. I sometimes overheard conversations among them regarding education and the local schools and they certainly wanted their children to attend schools that were as Asian as possible. They talked of the percentages of Asians not only at local schools but also at colleges and universities. Clearly they regarded non-Asians as a bad influence.

    You spoke of the joylessness of all-Asian schools. Certainly I’m sure most whites would find them joyless but Northeast Asians are a different people and what is best for Asian children is not necessarily what is best for white children. Northeast Asians are better at intense concentration and less easily bored. They require less external stimuli. Their average IQ’s are about a third of a standard deviation above that of white children.

    • educationrealist

      Every so often you post in ways that make me wonder if you actually read this blog.

      • Jim

        I did read the whole thing. You mentioned that Asian immigrants have little interest in attending integrated schools and I was just confirming from my own experience that Chinese parents seem to prefer that their children attend schools which are as Asian as possible. They would prefer their children be racially isolated in school.

      • educationrealist

        Yes. Then you went on to say two things that I’ve only mentioned some twenty times, and oh, by the way, Chinese kids have higher IQs, like I haven’t pointed out many times that this doesn’t seem to result in anything positive.

    • jay

      I dunno Jim, maybe Ed was admiring your deftness in calling out American(or as you put it, white) students for being easily distracted and less-than while glossing over the fact that Chinese nationals’ kids are making the schools incompatible for other learners.

      • Jim

        Separate schools for whites and Northeast Asians might be best. It should eliminate the problem of bullying of Northeast Asian students although I think that comes more from blacks than whites.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah, this is bizarre. Why encourage Northern Asians in the tendencies that hurt them the most in the marketplace? I mean, never mind suggesting legal racial segregation.

      • educationrealist

        That was part of it, also “Chinese kids are smarter so they’re better away from terrible American kids.”

    • Retired Man

      After a career in Silicon Valley, I’d rather dig ditches than work in company owned and operated by FOB Chinese. Holy Cow!

  • Bosch

    “Spreading out” might give high-achieving Asians an advantage in theory but I imagine it’s easier to turn kids into test-prep robots when everyone they know is subject to the same routine. It’s obviously harder to tell students they have three hours of violin practice/trigonometry drills/PSAT prep when their white friends are drifting along with B+ averages and only worried about getting drunk in the woods.

    Of course, it’s better for everyone if more Asians are introduced to environments where it’s obvious there’s more to life than acing pre-calc.

  • Pedug

    googling around it seems like Mr Campbell dropped out of UCB and is now selling financial instruments with Primerica? (which seemed sketchy to me last time i heard about it)

  • Retired Man

    Summit Charter was founded for the reasons you said. Plus to avoid the disruptive behavior of NAM students. Like noisy violence, etc.. Now in Slli Valli more kids attend private schools.
    Yes and grades at my kid’s charter school were a joke. As were the administrators and many of the teachers.

  • Roger Sweeny

    given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time.

    Razib Khan might disagree.

  • Dan_Kurt

    Short anecdote:

    My son went to school with a Chinese girl in his class through 12th grade. She was of course the valedictorian. My son was low A. Both got into an out of state Mega University. She wanted to be a MD but couldn’t keep up with the competition and got a business degree. The first year my son did some tutoring help to her in math and chemistry. My son didn’t complete his first year there the temptations were too much for him so my wife and I pulled him out of that large state school and enrolled him in our own state’s flagship university. Ironically he ended up getting a M.A. and a Ph.D. (mech engineering) full fellowships at the original State University. His Ph.D. cohort was one white guy, my son, and six Chinese five of which were from Red China.

    Lesson learned, work helps but only goes so far as the Chinese classmate discovered. IQ based SATS would be a better sieve IMHO and immune to gaming.

    Dan Kurt

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    […] second semester, and the weakest student just repeating first semester. Remember what I said about GPAs? Shining example, right […]

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