Why It Matters
This research suggests that there is potential for schools to use grades not only as reliable indicators of student content mastery, but also as leading indicators of who will be successful in college. Schools can also use grades to help identify students who may need additional supports in turning around their high school experiences. There is, however, more to learn on why grades are so predictive of future outcomes and what attributes grades are measuring in addition to content mastery. For example, grades may also reflect students’ perseverance or growth mindset. Having high grades across many classes may be evidence that students have successfully navigated different expectations and assignments across multiple teachers. The factors that teachers consider when giving grades—students’ attitudes, behavior, and effort—are likely characteristics that students need in order to be successful in higher education and in the workforce.
The Importance of Grades
A growing body of recent research documents the power of grades to predict students’ later educational outcomes, suggesting that grades may not be as subjective a measure of student achievement as often thought. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s 2017 report "The Predictive Power of Ninth-Grade GPA" finds that, despite concerns about grades having different meaning at different schools, ninth-grade GPA is a strong predictor of not only high school graduation, but also college enrollment and persistence. Ninth-grade GPA is, in fact, a much stronger predictor of high school graduation, college enrollment, and college persistence than standardized test scores. Another recent study by Education Northwest found that high school GPA was a stronger predictor of college course grades than standardized test scores among Alaskan high school graduates. This could be because grades are thought to capture both academic and noncognitive factors that play a role in students’ academic success, such as perseverance and a positive mindset. Economist Kirabo Jackson used GPA as one measure of students’ noncognitive ability and found that noncognitive ability, which measures students’ engagement and effort in school, is a better predictor than test scores of college enrollment.