Portsmouth’s discussion about its high school grading scale is raising important questions. It is also leading students, parents, teachers and administrators to think deeply about educational standards and expectations, as well as subjective grading practices that vary from teacher to teacher.

Since 1978, Portsmouth has used a 7-point grading scale: (A, 93-100; B, 85-92; C, 77-84; D, 76-70; F, 69 and below). While the 7-point scale is not unusual, a large number of schools, including most high schools in New Hampshire, use a 10-point grading scale: (A, 90-100; B, 80-89; C, 70-79; D, 60-69; F, 59 or below).

While Portsmouth has debated this issue in years past, it recently gained traction after hundreds of students and parents signed an online petition calling for a switch from the 7-point scale to a 10-point scale. The petition's signers believe the 7-point scale makes them look less accomplished when compared to students from schools using the 10-point scale, saying it disadvantages them for college admissions and scholarships.

“Given the increased competition for colleges and skyrocketing teen anxiety, what is the justification for making it harder to get an A at Portsmouth than one of the neighboring schools, and easier to fail?” asked parent Alison Forbes.

School Board member Nancy Clayburgh noted the 7-point scale has an impact on students who are working hard simply to graduate high school. "These kids are failing when they could be passing if it was a 10-point scale,” she said.

Similar arguments prevailed in North Carolina in 2014 and in South Carolina in 2016, and grading is now done on a 10-point scale in all public schools in these two states.

While school administrators have not rejected changing the grading scale, they say they have not seen any evidence that it is placing Portsmouth students at a disadvantage. Instead, they note Portsmouth High School students send more students to the top 100 most competitive colleges than all but one public high school in the state. Remarkably, 80 percent of grades given at Portsmouth High are As or Bs. The school does not grade on a curve. Only 1 percent of grades issued at PHS are an F.

While administrators have not offered arguments to show the 7-point scale is superior, they remain unconvinced that changing to a 10-point scale will help students and, they point out, doing it without also addressing the many moving pieces of the underlying grading system, could lead to unintended consequences. One specific consequence would be grade inflation. If Portsmouth simply changed from a 7-point to a 10-point scale, without adjusting the expectations and standards underlying grades, 90 percent of the grades issued would be an A or B, including 62 percent A grades. That could lead to concerns from colleges about grade inflation and lack of rigor.

This leads us to believe that if Portsmouth decides to make a change, it needs to do so thoughtfully and gradually, as has been done in other states.

One very good finding that has already emerged is that 71.5 percent of Portsmouth students feel different teachers of the same course are not consistent in their grading practices (i.e. some allow test corrections, ability to turn in late work). This is something Portsmouth school administrators should address with teachers, and they say they are working on it.

In our view, college admissions officers get to know individual school profiles and we have trouble believing students are not being accepted at schools due to the grading scale. College admissions are more art than science and a student cannot know what a specific college’s needs are in a given year. A student can have all the right grades, test scores and extracurriculars and still not get into a college of their choice. When that happens, the student and parent are left to wonder what happened and a 7-point grading scale can become a convenient scapegoat.

We have not heard compelling evidence in favor of changing the grading scale, nor compelling evidence to accept the status quo. This means we all need to continue to educate ourselves about grading, admissions, scholarships and the needs of students across the full spectrum of academic achievement.