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Rising GPAs making it harder to get into college

High schools churning out a plethora of A students

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 23 2007 12:33 a.m. MST

Josh Zalasky has a GPA of nearly an A minus, but he ranks only about in the middle of his senior class at Edina High School.

Jim Mone, Associated Press

Josh Zalasky should be the kind of college applicant with little to worry about.

The high school senior is taking three Advanced Placement courses. Outside the classroom, he's involved in mock trial, two Jewish youth groups and has a job with a restaurant chain. He's a National Merit semifinalist and scored in the top 3 percent of all students who take the ACT.

But in the increasingly frenzied world of college admissions, even Zalasky is nervous about his prospects. He doubts he'll get in to the University of Wisconsin, a top choice. The reason: his grades.

It's not that they're bad. It's that so many of his classmates' are so good. Zalasky's GPA is nearly an A minus, and yet he ranks only about in the middle of his senior class of 543 at Edina High School outside Minneapolis.

That means he will have to find other ways to stand out.

"It's extremely difficult," he said. "I spent all summer writing my essay. We even hired a private tutor to make sure that essay was the best it can be. But even with that, it's like I'm just kind of leveling the playing field." Last year, he even considered transferring out of his highly competitive public school to some place where his grades would look better.

Some call the phenomenon that Zalasky's fighting "grade inflation" — implying the boost is undeserved. Others say students are truly earning their better marks. Regardless, it's a trend that's been building for years and may only be accelerating: Many students are getting very good grades. So many, in fact, it is getting harder and harder for colleges to use grades as a measuring stick for applicants.

Extra credit for AP courses, parental lobbying and genuine hard work by the most competitive students have combined to shatter any semblance of a bell curve, one in which A's are reserved only for the very best. For example, of the 47,317 applications the University of California, Los Angeles, received for this fall's freshman class, nearly 21,000 had GPAs of 4.0 or above.

That's also making it harder for the most selective colleges — who often call grades the single most important factor in admissions — to join in a growing movement to lessen the influence of standardized tests.

"We're seeing 30, 40 valedictorians at a high school because they don't want to create these distinctions between students," said Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "If we don't have enough information, there's a chance we'll become more heavily reliant on test scores, and that's a real negative to me."

Standardized tests have endured a heap of bad publicity lately, with the SAT raising anger about its expanded length and recent scoring problems. A number of schools have stopped requiring test scores, to much fanfare.

But lost in the developments is the fact that none of the most selective colleges has dropped the tests. In fact, a national survey shows overall reliance on test scores is higher in admissions than it was a decade ago.

"It's the only thing we have to evaluate students that will help us" tell how they compare to each other, said Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.

Grade inflation is hard to measure, and experts caution numbers are often misleading because standards and scales vary so widely. Different practices of "weighting" GPAs for AP work also play havoc. Still, the trend seems to be showing itself in a variety of ways.

The average high school GPA increased from 2.68 to 2.94 between 1990 and 2000, according to a federal study. Almost 23 percent of college freshmen in 2005 reported their average grade in high school was an A or better, according to a national survey by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. In 1975, the percentage was about half that.

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