Proposed grading scale would give more Tennessee students access to scholarships

Tennessee high school students would be able to access more academic scholarships for college both in state and out of state under a proposal that’s working its way through the legislature.

The state’s uniform grading policy for high school — which now awards A’s for point percentages between 93 and 100 and B’s for 85 to 92 — would return to a 10-point scale beginning next school year under the bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Hodges.

The shift would align Tennessee’s high school grading scale with its colleges and universities.

But the primary goal, Hodges said, is to put Tennessee students on an even playing field with their peers elsewhere, including eight bordering states.

“In Southeastern Conference states, every school goes by a 10-point grading scale except for Tennessee,” said the Clarksville Democrat. “The problem is that it’s really given our children a disadvantage when they’re applying for scholarships out of state.”

The change also likely would have the effect of increasing the number of students qualifying for the HOPE Scholarship, Tennessee’s lottery-funded, merit-based award that requires either an overall high school GPA of at least 3.0 or a minimum ACT composite score of 21.

While officials with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission said they are uncertain how many more students might qualify under the laxer grading scale, the legislature’s fiscal agent estimated the state’s annual cost would be more than $2 million.

The bill is scheduled for consideration next Wednesday before a House finance panel after passing unanimously through two education committees.

Under a 2004 law, Tennessee adopted its current grading scale as a way to even the playing field for determining eligibility for the HOPE Scholarship. While grading practices traditionally have been set locally across the U.S., some states like Tennessee have moved to uniform systems out of a growing concern about grade inflation for high-stakes awards.

Even so, some districts still calculate GPAs using both the state’s grading scale and their own: one to determine HOPE eligibility and the 10-point scale to determine class rankings and valedictorians. Both are included on high school report cards and transcripts, with one designated as the HOPE Scholarship GPA to indicate it’s a required state calculation.

Rep. Jason Hodges

Hodges filed his bill out of concern for military families in his district who move frequently and whose children must adapt to multiple grading scales when changing schools across states. He cited one high schooler whose GPA dropped after moving to Tennessee, prompting him to move back to North Carolina to avoid losing his college scholarship there.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about lowering the bar in a state that has worked hard to raise its academic standards over the last decade.

“We’re not dumbing it down, are we?” asked Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from Lancaster, during a House subcommittee meeting earlier this month. “The HOPE Scholarship should be something that people challenge themselves and want to get.”

Lou Hanemann, representing the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, acknowledged that the goal posts for obtaining the scholarship would be moved, but not by much. “It is less stringent, although still a 3.0 on a 10-point scale is probably not that different than a 3.0 on the current scale,” he said.

Other lawmakers didn’t see anything wrong with broadening eligibility for the HOPE Scholarship. “Would it be so bad to give kids a chance?” asked Rep. John Mark Windle, a Cookeville Democrat. 

Local school leaders have said a change could be challenging logistically if they’re required to adjust grades retroactively for current high school students. Otherwise, the state superintendents organization does not oppose the bill.

“Most teachers would adjust their level of difficulty to those grades,” said Neel Durbin, director of Dyersburg City Schools. “They know when a kid doesn’t get the information and they don’t deserve the credit, so they would adjust the grades accordingly, I think.”

The current grading scale is:

  • A: 93 to 100
  • B: 85 to 92
  • C: 75 to 84
  • D: 70 to 74
  • F: 0 to 69

The proposed grading scale is:

  • A: 90 to 100
  • B: 80 to 89
  • C: 70 to 79
  • D: 60 to 69
  • F: 0 to 59