By James Grossmann and Ben Black
Sofia McIntosh, a senior at Ponte Vedra High School (PVHS), juggles taking six AP classes, is president of the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) chapter at PVHS, and participates in various other extracurricular activities. Through her hard work, and often having to “sacrifice other things, like time with friends or sleep, at the expense of my academics or extracurricular activities,” Sofia has managed to uphold above a 4.0 GPA. Sofia stands among 766 students at PVHS with a GPA of a 4.0 or above in the 2022-2023 school year, which is approximately 40 percent of the 1,914 students at PVHS.
At first glance, this exorbitant number can be attributed to the seemingly well-motivated and hard-working PVHS student body. However, a deeper analysis suggests that grade inflation, the phenomenon by which students receive artificially higher grades, is at play in St. Johns County School District (SJCSD) as a whole, devaluing what grades truly represent.
The mission statement of PVHS is “Empowering Every Learner to Develop Good Character and to Achieve Success.” To reach that end, students are expected to “assume meaningful responsibility for their own learning and the learning of their classmates.” However, such an ideal becomes more and more distant with grade inflation, which allows students to obtain a high grade without going through any sort of meaningful learning process which would encourage development of this responsibility. By shifting the focus away from learning and toward the final grade, policies implemented in SJCSD over the past five years have resulted in a dramatic change in the work ethics and attitudes of students, inflating grades while driving academic dishonesty and building a stressful environment.
Traci Hemingway, SJCSD Director for Secondary Instructional Services, explained in an email to The Tiburon that the implementation of the retake policies and the formative/summative split aimed to “develop recommended policies that would inform and promote consistent grading practices for all middle and high schools.” This claim, however, is contested by many teachers across the district, who feel that the emphasis on mandated remediation and formatives have actually driven inconsistency in grading, which devalues their grades as a whole.
I. THE RETAKE POLICY
The most pivotal force that drives grade inflation is the district-wide remediation policy. This policy states that for any summative assessment in which a student scores below 85 percent, the student will have the opportunity to retest or remediate up to an 85 percent. Ms. Hemingway explained that “a district committee was formed in 2018-2019 school year and a recommendation was made to the school board to update the grading policy in the Student Progression Plan.” Based on these updates to the SJCSD High School Student Progression Plan, it is evident that this policy has the goal of maintaining consistent expectations among classes districtwide, as well as providing students with a chance to fully understand material they may have struggled with during an academic unit, allowing them to improve their grades in the process. While the remediation policy does allow for the latter to occur in ideal conditions, it also opens the door to grade inflation.
Megan Goyette, a biology and AP Environmental Science teacher at PVHS, shared insight into how she handles remediation. Within her biology classes, in addition to offering retakes after each individual test, a cumulative test is given at the end of each quarter, covering content from the entire quarter. If students perform better on the cumulative than their lowest test grade, then that test grade will be replaced with the cumulative grade.
Due to the lack of clarity from the district, Ms. Goyette has felt pressure from her students to switch to the test corrections model of remediation, where students just work through questions they previously missed, typically for half credit back. Students often prefer this model, as they do not have to study for a full retake and can instead focus on just the questions they missed. However, Ms. Goyette feels that this will not prepare her biology and AP Environmental Science students for their End-of-Course (EOC) Exams and AP exams, respectively. “Students need to learn how to take a test,” Ms. Goyette said, explaining that students must become conditioned to place emphasis on test-taking skills in order to prepare for the required higher stakes standardized assessments at the end of the course.
“Students need to learn how to take a test.”Ms. Megan Goyette
Ms. Goyette also compared her own experiences as a SJCSD student at Creekside High School – before the remediation policy was implemented – to the environment she sees as a teacher today. As a student, Ms. Goyette learned how to work harder in higher stakes situations. Because of the current emphasis on remediation in SJCSD, Ms. Goyette thinks that the skillset she obtained in high school – and what students are currently learning in other districts – differs dramatically from what current SJCSD students are being taught.
Former Nease High School IB, AP, and Honors Biology teacher Steve Lyons agreed with many of these concerns. For over 20 years, he offered remediation solely in the form of quarter, semester, and final test grades that replace lower average grades earned earlier in the year. Similar to Ms. Goyette’s thinking, Mr. Lyons’ grading policy explained that “This is in line with the concept of standards-based grading – if you can meet the standard by the end of a grading period then you will be awarded that level of achievement.” This policy largely serves to help students in difficult classes improve grades, but also worked to keep content mastery as the main goal of his course. “[In the 2021-2022 school year], for example, 18 of 35 students had their year’s grade improved by their AP test score,” says Mr. Lyons. “17/35 got a 5 (A for the year). This was my intention from the beginning – find a way to motivate them to stay engaged until the end – and there is no better motivation for these students than a grade that they are not happy with.”
PVHS AP Physics teacher Martin Hillier also shared his experiences with district policies on remediation. Mr. Hillier does not require full retakes or offer quarter cumulative tests; rather, he allows his students to reattempt questions they missed previously for half-credit back via the test corrections process. “My method only requires the students to correct what they missed. I don’t think a student should have to do a full retake because they have already shown mastery of the questions that they got right,” Mr. Hillier believes. “This saves the student and the teacher stress and time.”
Kaitlyn Collazo, a current teacher of honors and AP Art History and a former teacher of all course levels of United States history at PVHS, compared SJCSD’s approach to remediation to the “idea of a safety net.” While initially a strong proponent of these types of policies, as the district has imposed more mandates onto teachers’ gradebooks, her enthusiasm has waned. Matthew Hurford, a sophomore engineering student at Cornell University and PVHS Class of 2022 Valedictorian, noticed this during his time at PVHS, explaining that in college “there is no standardization at all between professors, while PVHS’s testing policy is district mandated… I believe it doesn’t really give teachers any room to structure their class in a way that fits their teaching style.”
Due to the small amount of questions available for her AP Art History classes, Ms. Collazo has leaned into having the test corrections model of remediation, which she believes is “100 percent” driving grade inflation in her classes. “The district doesn’t realize how hard it is to create equivalent tests…so teachers [use test] corrections.”
As a bar for remediation, Ms. Hemingway believes that “85 represents competency,” while Ms. Collazo argued that “85 is an insane number” that can enable students who failed every summative to still obtain a “B” in a class, a claim echoed by many students and other teachers. Since its initial conception, the retake policy, according to Ms. Collazo, has “become a joke from lack of communication with the district.”
Ms. Collazo’s focus when it comes to remediation is on learning, while it appears that the district is focused on the grade. Ultimately, she feels that the district is expending an inordinate amount of effort into something that is not ultimately beneficial for students. “There is no service to the student other than GPA,” she claims. “How much of a 4.4 [weighted GPA] is district policy?” Notably, a 4.4 GPA would’ve ranked a student at 88 out of 445 in the PVHS Class of 2023.
Mr. Hillier supports remediation and, due to district policy, allows his students to complete retakes in addition to the aforementioned test corrections. “Grade inflation definitely exists and remediation is certainly a major component. Many students get an A in my class, but I feel it is justified because those students nearly always get a four or a five on the AP exam…If I didn’t allow for test corrections, the grades would be lower, but my AP test scores would also be lower.”
Remediation as a concept is widely supported amongst students and teachers as it is one of the most effective mechanisms of learning, as having students correct their own mistakes promotes student engagement with course material. This is essential for courses that revolve around a cumulative exam at the end of the year, which the vast majority of classes taken in SJCSD – such as AP classes – do. The issue many have stems from the forcing of remediation onto teachers, and having retakes theoretically be the required method. SJCSD wants consistency, and many think the way they are trying to achieve this is by “chasing a number;” in other words, students focus on the final grade and not the learning process that preceded it.
II. THE FORMATIVE/SUMMATIVE SPLIT
According to the SJCSD High School Student Progression Plan, grades are comprised of two categories: formative assessments, counting for 30 percent of the final grade, and summative assessments, counting for 70 percent. The district requires that there be at least three summative assessments per quarter, and two formative assessments predating each summative assessment. A summative assessment is typically a test, cumulative project, or other form of major grade, meaning that in most classes, “summative assessments” are often just an epithet for tests. In contrast, the definition of a formative assessment is drastically vaguer. Formative assessments are theoretically meant to communicate immediate feedback to a student regarding their skill in a given unit of material, such as a quiz or a teacher-led activity. However, the district has no concrete grading guidelines for formatives, which has led teachers to develop their own interpretation of how to administer and grade them.
The fundamental ideal of a formative is feedback; in essence, both the student and teacher should understand where a student’s current skill level lies after the completion of a formative. Expounded upon, “Formal and informal assessments generate data for informing adjustments to the teacher’s instruction and the students’ learning tactics,” states W. James Popham in his book Transformative Assessment, which is frequently cited by PVHS administrators. However, when formatives are simply completion grades so teachers can mark off a district-mandated checkbox, any semblance of feedback is lost, as students are more likely to focus on the grade rather than the preceding process.
Even when formatives are graded, the question of how much actionable feedback is received from a formative must be raised. For math and science classes, teachers typically give quizzes for this purpose. In other classes, such as English classes, this line is blurrier since formatives are supposed to mirror summative assessments. If English teachers make essays summative grades and other assignments formatives, then the formatives do not necessarily mirror the summative. Even amongst different teachers of the same course, some may give completion grades for homework and classwork, while others assign accuracy grades on quizzes or worksheets. In project-based classes, such as art and theatre classes, then the distinction becomes even more obscured as these classes cannot follow the typical formative-summative model.
This is why Mr. Hillier has critiques with the formative-summative split, stating that “The 70/30 summative/formative split doesn’t make sense to me. Every subject is different so you can’t use a blanket policy for every classroom in the district.”
Despite this, this policy can often benefit grades for students. PVHS junior Penny Zarczynski explains that “the formative-summative grading system benefits me because formatives are a nice cushion for my overall grade as they tend to be higher than my summative grades.”
For other students, however, they can be a needless chain. Students who perform well on the summative without completing the formatives often see their grades drop substantially, even when having proven full mastery of the content. Some teachers will waive formative grades in lieu of summative grades, allowing for students to replace their formative grade with their summative grade, but this is by no means a consistent policy. Ultimately, the emphasis on graded formatives has encouraged some students to try to game the system and use formatives for the sole purpose of increasing their grade, while those who do not complete them are hurt by their weighting. This dual effect has made many teachers wonder if formatives should be graded at all, or if their percentage of a student’s overall grade should be altered.
The valedictorian of the PVHS Class of 2023, Nico Fasanelli, feels that graded formatives are fundamentally flawed no matter how they are approached. If they are graded for completion, students will simply get an automatic 100 with little effort and have padding under their grade – with nothing gained as far as knowledge goes. If they are graded for accuracy, Nico feels that students will be pressured to cheat on the assignment to keep their grade high, citing that the “stress and competitive environment lead to cheating.”
If they are graded for completion, students will simply get an automatic 100 with little effort and have padding under their grade – with nothing gained as far as knowledge goes.
III. “GRADE GRUBBING”
Compared to others, Mr. Hillier sees grade inflation on a deeper scale: a product of the competitive nature fostered at PVHS. “‘Grade grubbing’ has always existed at PVHS…Based on the general population in my AP Physics classes, most students expect to get an A and are disappointed if they don’t get an A,” Mr. Hillier has observed. Mr. Hillier also believes that this stress pressures students to keep high grades at any cost.
As Mr. Hillier implied, competition has become extreme among PVHS students. The fixation on high GPAs and class rankings has driven students to focus on the number and not the learning. “Students that would have otherwise stayed in my class have dropped the class or chose not to take the class because of the potential effect on their GPA and their class rank,” Mr. Hillier stated. This “grade grubbing” is compounded by the loose requirements of grading formative assessments, as well as the variety of implementations of the district-wide remediation policy. The same subject can have an entirely different difficulty level in achieving a certain grade given it has multiple teachers who teach the class. Students certainly keep this in the back of their minds when schedules are released. At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, the PVHS administration received over 400 schedule change requests during the first days of school – most of which were ultimately denied. Policy changes implementing stricter rules for dropping classes reduced this number for the 2023-2024 school year.
Haley Jasper, the assistant principal who oversees the guidance department at PVHS, revealed that many of these requests for the 2022-2023 school year were due to students requesting large amounts of difficult courses and realizing the workload was simply too heavy. Additionally, Ms. Jasper also believes that a number of these requests were students trying to drop a course because of the teacher, likely motivated in no small part due to speculation about which teachers grade more leniently than others. Another contributor could be over-placement in higher-level courses. For example, it is difficult to tell a student with a high “A” in their underclassman English class that they are not ready for an AP-level English course; however, due to grade inflation, this grade could have been earned regardless of individual aptitude, which could lead to problems for students as they try to take on challenging classes they may not be prepared for.
For example, it is difficult to tell a student with a high “A” in their underclassman English class that they are not ready for an AP-level English course; however, due to grade inflation, this grade could have been earned regardless of individual aptitude…
SJCSD’s goal with the formative/summative split and remediation policy is to drive standardization and consistent expectations within the district. Under this model, there should be no motivation for students to attempt to modify their schedule based upon their teacher, as their classes should be consistent. However, this ideal does not seem to match reality, as over a fifth of the PVHS student population did attempt to modify their schedules.
Ms. Jasper also supports “teacher autonomy,” which is to say a teacher is the one who should have lenience in how they handle grading. Ms. Jasper believes the formative and summative policy follows the right idea, but when there’s multiple teachers for a given class and they all have autonomy in how they handle their class’s structure, then differences among the classes will arise – directly contradicting the district’s goal of consistency. The only way the district’s goal of consistency can be realized is through a lock-step curriculum; the only way consistency can be found is if every teacher’s lecture is the same, if every test is the same, if every assignment, reading, and discussion that take place across the rapidly growing district have no differences between them.
One chief difference Ms. Jasper noted was that teachers often handle remediation in their own ways, such as some teachers allowing students to remediate above 85 percent. Ms. Jasper is in complete support of teachers having this leeway, and she supports the idea of students being able to master content they once did not fully understand, but she expressed concern that the consistent safety nets that are provided to students in PVHS and across the district are pushing artificially higher GPAs, questioning if a student in SJCSD is being adequately prepared for their entrance to higher education, noting that “if you ask your college professor for a retake, they’ll tell you to pounce off.”
“If you ask your college professor for a retake, they’ll tell you to pounce off.”Ms. Haley Jasper
Many college students concur. Matthew Hurford stated that “In high school I always knew that I could, if needed, have a second chance at a test. In engineering classes this is simply not the case.” University of North Florida (UNF) freshman and 2022 PVHS graduate Lucas Bell concurred. “Most classes… the grades that you get are pretty much set in stone,” he explained. “Most of the time there is no regrading or test corrections.”
Ms. Jasper’s biggest concern with the remediation policy is the stress it places on students and teachers. Several students shared the impact of grade inflation and competition at PVHS. Sofia McIntosh noted that “I am incredibly hard working and want to see that reflected in my GPA. However, to keep my GPA even slightly competitive at PVHS, I feel obligated to overload myself with hard classes, and even then, it still seems impossible to get my GPA/rank high enough… the competitive nature of PVHS and the ever-increasing difficulty of college admissions make it feel necessary.”
“However, to keep my GPA even slightly competitive at PVHS, I feel obligated to overload myself with hard classes, and even then, it still seems impossible to get my GPA/rank high enough… the competitive nature of PVHS and the ever-increasing difficulty of college admissions make it feel necessary.”Sofia McIntosh
Penny Zarczynski, agreed with this sentiment, stating that “my desire to have a high GPA definitely does stress me out. Because I have such a demanding [swimming] training schedule, having enough time to prepare for the test and fully understand the material, along with completing all the necessary work tends to be quite difficult.”
The impacts of grade inflation have by and large affected higher preforming students who take AP and Honors courses, as they are primarily the students who load up with difficult classes and get caught in the stressful cycle of remediation. Despite this effect, the retake policy originally had the aim of evening out the playing field between AP, Honors, and Standard students, allowing lower performing students to remediate to improve grades and increase learning. However, like many of the goals of these new SJCSD policies, this has not been the case. Standard students often do not take advantage of retake policies, with some reporting feeling demotivated by the level of competition they see among their peers. Ultimately, the gap between students of various levels of aptitude widens.
Ms. Jasper believes that the emphasis on retakes also pins teachers in a stressful cycle; mainly, the number of tests they must create. Teachers often create multiple versions of a test to begin with to limit the impact of cheating, an inevitability teachers must keep in the back of their mind. Ms. Goyette attested that the emphasis on retakes and having to create and grade new tests constantly is a major driver of stress. Ms. Goyette stated that the constant cycle of grading drives “teacher fatigue,” as, even five years into teaching at PVHS with tests already built in previous years, each new school year brings in a slew of adjustments that need to be made. Ms. Jasper believes a potential remedy to the simple test-retest cycle is to increase focus on strategies and development for teachers to build remediation into their unit planning, such as how Ms. Goyette incorporates quarter cumulative tests into her class. However, this also comes with its own limitations, especially for AP or other final-test based classes that need to stay on track with their schedules for their respective exams at the end of the year.
Similar to Ms. Goyette’s attitudes, Ms. Collazo feels like the emphasis on remediation has collided with her enthusiasm, stating that “I still love teaching…but these policies distract from the content, which I am passionate about.” While Ms. Collazo wants all of her students to succeed, the focus keeps shifting from fixing learning errors to “chasing a number.” Because of this, Ms. Collazo feels that the district’s policies have made student GPAs much less valuable, which in turn devalues the grades she gives as a teacher. Since students are pressured to game the system to keep their GPAs high, the focus on learning slips farther and farther away.
Ms. Jasper believes students also fall into a similar cycle as teachers, having to study for a test, potentially a retest, and then the next test and its corresponding retest – only for students, they must do this for all of their classes. Ms. Jasper is concerned that the true purpose of remediation – to master content once misunderstood – has been forgotten by students who wish only to see their grade increase. Additionally, Ms. Jasper is fearful that the 85 percent benchmark has made students feel that a grade below that mark is unsatisfactory, leading students to believe that getting a “B” grade is not okay. Mr. Lyons agreed with this, adding that the retake policy “hurts students by teaching them it is ok to not worry about each task at hand. By allowing them to put it off until the retake, you have helped them get behind, because the class is going to keep moving forward and not wait for them to catch up. Just like life.”
As previously mentioned, cheating is a large issue in both SJCSD and PVHS on the whole. While the district obviously does not outright endorse cheating, labeling it a Level II offense in the Code of Conduct, the emphasis on formatives has made students see no better alternative. Bizarrely, SJCSD’s stance towards cheating has odd exceptions – SJCSD’s Student Progression Plan states that a student caught cheating on a test can retake that test for up to 75 percent.
Mr. Hillier also attested to the impacts of cheating. “…[Due] to the pressure that the students are under, I have seen a decrease in academic integrity. I believe that cheating is more prevalent than most like to admit and I have had to make significant changes to my courses to try to minimize the effect of cheating…The ultra-competitive environment at PVHS also causes students to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.” Penny Zarczynski also echoed this sentiment, saying that “formatives are stressful… and I think they can encourage academic dishonesty among others.”
Sofia McIntosh agreed, arguing that “Students would rather cheat, earn a reasonable grade, retest whenever needed…as opposed to actually learning…If students can cheat on the useless formatives, then they can fail the test and retake, and then get an ‘A.’ Not earn, get.” If a student manages to maintain 100 percent for their formative average and leverage an 85 for their summative average via remediation, then their grade will be an 89.5 – an “A.”
The gravity of the situation is simply that cheating has become the norm at PVHS. Every day, hundreds of students will copy a peer’s work, try to illegitimately gain knowledge of what will be on their test, or even obtain entire sets of answers to tests. When polled, the vast majority of a group of PVHS students answered that they would cheat in a class. Some students explained that the looming stress of getting into college drives cheating. Other students argued that the futility in formatives drives this apathy towards academic integrity, with one stating that “Formatives grade the learning process” and not the final mastery, leading students to not take them seriously. Another student explained that whether or not a student cheats, “It doesn’t matter. You take the test to get a grade.”
Certainly, it does not appear that students are learning to “assume meaningful responsibility for their own learning and the learning of their classmates” as PVHS’s mission statement claims. Ultimately, students are not retaining information and basic skills, and many students may consequently struggle with the basic concepts of future courses.
VI. “CONSISTENCY,” OR LACK THEREOF
Aside from the inevitability of cheating, Nico Fasanelli pointed out that the fact that competition present at PVHS has driven some students to want to avoid getting a grade below that mark at all costs. Nico believes that this mentality drives a large amount of stress at PVHS, leading to students acting in inordinate ways that they wouldn’t otherwise. To this effect, Nico believes that many PVHS students would have significantly lower GPAs without grade inflation.
Mr. Lyons explained that since the retake policy has been implemented, he believes the district community has “come to realize that it is only hurting students and adding extra work to teachers, but change always takes a long time. People don’t like to admit that they were wrong until it gets really bad, and those that thought this was a good idea are still in charge.”
“People don’t like to admit that they were wrong until it gets really bad, and those that thought this was a good idea are still in charge.”Mr. Steve Lyons
And yet, as more time passes since the implementation of the remediation policy, the average GPA of students continues to stand tall – a 4.5 GPA would’ve ranked a student at 62 out of 445 in the Class of 2023 PVHS class. It seems that this desire for consistency has resulted in a sense of pseudo-achievement becoming the quintessence of grades in the district – something that college admissions officers may take note of.
The district continuously extols their policies, with Ms. Hemingway arguing that “A baseline standard for grading practices is necessary to promote fairness, accuracy, and consistency between schools. The expectation is that all students earn a grade that reflects his/her proficiency on standards represented in a course.” But the discrepancies in Ms. Goyette, Mr. Hillier, Mr. Lyons, and Ms. Collazo’s grading policies show that despite these aims, this lofty goal of consistency is not being met. This “inconsistency” is not a bad thing; teachers know their class and content far better than a blanket district policy impacting over 27,000 students across 23 schools ever could. Numerous administrators openly acknowledge that these discrepancies exist, and it seems highly unlikely the district does not see this issue. This all raises the question: what is the true purpose of the retake policy?
SJCSD is far from a dysfunctional school district. In fact, testing data consistently shows SJCSD as one of – if not, the – most successful school district in the state of Florida. According to SJCSD’s Academic Services Department, the remediation policy came into effect in the 2018-2019 school year, and the district believes that “Standardizing grading practices continues to propel us as a district in the PLC process which in turn contributes to our number one rating as a school district in the state of Florida.” However, this reasoning falls short. SJCSD has maintained an “A” rating since the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) began the ranking system in 2004, and it is unclear as to how supposed increased consistency, which would have come into effect around the 2018-2019 school year, impacts these results. District grades are also not based on student GPA, taking away that potential explanation for the policy. Although several of these years do align with school years disrupted by COVID-19, potentially altering overall effectiveness, the updated grading policies have had a seemingly negligible effect on subject scores compiled by FLDOE, as none of the scores suggest a significant change among student performance since the implementation of the district’s formative/summative split and the remediation policy.
As grade inflation lies on a systemic level, fixing it is easier said than done. Some teachers, such as Ms. Goyette, feel that reducing the stressful, competitive environment in SJCSD will make it easier for teachers and the district to move away from grade inflation. Mr. Hillier feels that a plus-minus grade system, where grades within a ten-point range are not weighted the same way in terms of GPA, and removing the rank system would indirectly alleviate some aspects of grade inflation. Others, such as Ms. Collazo and Ms. Jasper, see it on a philosophical level stemming from fundamental flaws in how people view grades and the systems from which they arise.
The issue of grade inflation involves a multitude of broader issues that have affected schools on the national level, from lowering acceptance rates at colleges and universities to debates over the validity of standardized testing scores. However, at the local level, SJCSD can only focus on the policies it has in place and the effects of them. To fix SJCSD’s grading system, the mentality of the district, teachers, and students must shift away from chasing a number and instead to following a number. That is to say, the district must focus on the process that builds up to student success rather than focusing solely on the final result. While implementing policies to encourage student success is not a flawed idea, that success must be genuine and cannot come at the cost of actual learning. As they currently stand, SJCSD’s policies only serve to drive up the final number and not the education itself. As Mr. Lyons stated, “It is only fools’ gold,” which may be the best descriptor for the current state of grades in St. Johns County School District.