In March 2010, the English teachers at the Buckley School felt ambushed. They were seated at one end of a conference table in the office of Larry Dougherty, the tony prep school’s head. Large windows offered a view onto Buckley’s verdant campus in the hills above Sherman Oaks. Three or so school administrators sat at the other end of the table. Dougherty had called in the teachers to discuss why the grades they gave their students were lower than those at Harvard-Westlake and Viewpoint, two other L.A. private schools. He passed around photocopies of the grade distributions. To the teachers, it felt like an interrogation.
“You’re hurting the students!” Dougherty shouted, slamming his fist on the conference table, according to two teachers present. He told them to raise each student’s grade by half a letter. As one teacher put it, Dougherty warned them not to “tell anyone that he was instructing us to lower standards.” According to a source who attended the meeting, Dougherty later told a colleague, “Grades will go up one way or the other by October.”
Dougherty’s request wasn’t unusual. Private and public high schools throughout Los Angeles and the rest of the country are rife with grade inflation, according to school data and interviews with teachers, students, and admissions officers. “The number of As given out has gone up, but it hasn’t had a correlating improvement in learning,” says education consultant Rick Wormeli. “There hasn’t been a place anywhere in the United States where I haven’t seen at least at a little bit of it.”
As online learning continues this fall for the more than 160,000 high schoolers in Los Angeles—and as schools put in place more lenient grading policies because of the pandemic—grades will be less reliable than ever.
Teachers didn’t always give letter grades. The practice started in the late 1800s, when an explosion in school enrollment necessitated a standard way to assess students. But grading never really was standard, and it wasn’t long before educators, concerned that students were receiving grades higher than they deserved, started sounding the alarm about inflation; researchers pointed to data showing how grades have gone up while standardized test scores have stayed the same or gone down. Anecdotally, teachers today don’t think their students are any smarter than in previous generations.
Around 50 years ago, the most common average grade that college freshmen reported receiving in high school was a B, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Only 5.7 percent of students reported an average grade of A or A+. Now 30.9 percent do, making those stellar grades the most common. By contrast, standardized tests document stagnant or falling scores. The average critical-reading score on the SAT fell from 530 in 1972 to 494 in 2016. The average math SAT score remained unchanged. (These numbers have since increased after a test redesign.) On Advanced Placement exams, the average score for all subjects has dropped from 3.03 in 1997, when data are first readily available, to 2.91. The ACT has seen a similar trend, with an average composite score that has changed by just 2.1 percentage points in 50 years, and even less in the last few decades.
“Parents have a transactional mindset: ‘I pay money to go to this school. I want high grades that will get my kid into Harvard.'” —Jon Reider, former college counselor
Yet grades continue to be treated as science or gospel. College-admissions officers rank grades as the most important element when considering applicants, annual surveys show. And families consider grades the most reliable and accurate indicator of how their children are performing, according to a 2019 report. As Americans confront racial inequality, advocates for students of color and low-income students say those pupils have the most to lose from grade inflation. “If you’re in an area where you’re under-resourced and your grades are being inflated,” says Tanji Reed Marshall of the nonprofit Education Trust, “you have to remediate. You’re not prepared for the demand.” According to the most recent federal data, as of 2015, around 40 percent of undergraduates have taken remedial courses since high school, more of them Black and Hispanic than white.
This all leads to an obsession with grades and grade point averages. Videos tagged #GPA have a combined 35 million views on the teen-heavy app TikTok. Many students get push notifications on their phones the moment a teacher enters a mark. The pressure is on to get a certain GPA, to make it into the National Honor Society, to get automatic college admission. “Kids feel like they’re killing themselves, figuratively or literally, to get these perfect grades,” says a person in the test-prep world who requested anonymity, “and even that’s not enough.”
The Buckley School sits on 18 acres in a canyon near the gated Mulholland Estates. A sign at the school entrance at one point read, “College begins at Two,” a favorite saying of Isabelle Buckley, who founded the K-12 school in 1933. The school boasts 100 percent college acceptance for its graduates and has long had a reputation for accepting the children of celebrities. Michael Jackson’s kids went there, as did Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. As “Growing Up Privileged,” a 1982 People cover story about Buckley, put it: “If John Davidson Jr. and Frank Sinatra’s grandchildren could stand it, so can you. Upper school tuition is $5,150.” Tuition is now almost nine times that amount—$43,860—higher than at Harvard-Westlake. Fourteen percent of Buckley families receive financial aid, compared to 20 percent at Harvard-Westlake and Viewpoint.
Former Buckley teachers still find it hard to talk about the pressure they felt a decade ago. Nancy Booth, who was at the 2010 meeting with Dougherty, recorded in her journal at the time: “We give high grades and we hate ourselves because of the lack of integrity; we give low grades and we get called in and screamed at.” She quit Buckley in 2012 and never taught again.“I knew in my heart that every school now is like this,” she says today.
Five more sources, all former Buckley teachers and administrators, don’t dispute that Dougherty wanted higher grades. Four of them say the English teachers were notoriously tough graders. But one of the former administrators says that top brass saw higher grades as necessary to compete for applicants. “Increasing reputation was very, very important to them,” the person says.
Dougherty, who multiple sources at Buckley say was respected by many at the school, says he let teachers control how they graded. “If I had a disagreement with a teacher about grades, I would talk to them directly. But I always left it up to the teacher to make the final decision as to what was the grade,” he says. To suggest otherwise, he adds, is “just not accurate.”
Buckley is not the only private school where educators say grades are bloated. “[At] some independent schools, I think it’s become almost policy to have grade inflation, because they want their kids to be able to get into ‘good colleges,’” says a former admissions officer in the Los Angeles area who requested anonymity. “B- is basically the floor. There are very few schools that don’t have grade inflation.”
In 2018, a student reporter at Sage Hill School in Orange County surveyed 19 teachers. Nearly all of those who responded said they had noticed grade inflation at the school. Taylor Garcia, a senior, told the reporter, “In the last couple of years, I feel like I haven’t been working as hard, and my grades don’t really reflect that. It’s kind of an odd disconnect.” In her article, the reporter pointed out that the school asked teachers to include “categories of assessment,” like class participation, “that allowed more students to score higher grades.” When the average GPA subsequetly went up schoolwide, the head of school called the spike “exciting news.” For this spring’s graduating class, the most common GPA at Sage Hill, out of 4.0, was between 4.25 and 4.65. Tom Green, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, compares GPAs like these to the guitar amplifier that goes to 11 in This is Spinal Tap.
The Great Recession is partly to blame. When private schools took financial hits a decade ago, they countered by increasing enrollment and thus needed more applicants. To attract them, the schools geared their marketing toward promising parents a “return on investment,” says Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. That “return” would be elite college acceptance, which the high schools all but pledged when they sent out lists of where their recent graduates matriculated. Meanwhile, elite colleges bombared by applications were becoming more selective. And when their children’s grades turned out to be too low for those institutions, parents became unsatisfied customers. “Those families who have such substantial financial resources or perceived power and influence may not have much experience with being told no,” Harward says. Jon Reider, a former Stanford admissions officer and private-school college counselor, says, “I took shit from the parents and the kids who didn’t get into Yale.” Those parents have a “transactional mindset,” he says. The thinking goes, “I pay money to go to this school. I want high grades that will get my kid into Harvard.” So high schools responded by inflating grades.
Some Buckley students bristle at the suggestion of easy grades. “We earn our grades,” says one Buckley student who graduated this year. “We work very hard for them.” Another young Buckley alumnus agrees: “Classes are difficult, and you earn your grades.” But their teachers believe otherwise. “Buckley is all about transaction,” says a current teacher. “It’s all about the A. It’s all about the 4.0.”
When James Busby became head of school in 2013, Buckley teachers felt optimistic that the obsession with grades would end. That’s because Busby had come from the prestigious Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, which doesn’t use grades. Teachers were correct—Busby didn’t care about grades—but according to sources familiar with his thinking, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t use his authority to raise them. In 2017, a math teacher learned that Busby had raised a C+ she had given a student—the child of a Buckley trustee—to a B-. The teacher discovered that Busby had changed more students’ grades, and those students all seemed to have parents on the school’s board. When one of these students failed a class, Busby simply deleted the entire course from the student’s record. So the math teacher sent a letter to the head of the board, calling for an investigation. (Busby said he couldn’t speak on the record for this story because of a nondisclosure agreement.)
That fall the board enlisted a lawyer, Katherine Edwards, to investigate. Edwards reviewed documents and interviewed 18 witnesses. Busby had gotten approximately 26 requests to change grades or remove disciplinary records, and he had agreed to raise five or six grades and remove about the same number of records, according to a source familiar with Busby’s thinking. Busby argued privately that he had made the grade changes to help “disadvantaged” students, according to this same source. He believed the students had been treated unfairly, whether or not they were the children of trustees.
His former colleagues believe Busby made the changes for a different reason, though. “He had an insatiable need to be liked,” says one of the school’s former administrators.
As Buckley was wrapping up its investigation, another was ending for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In January 2018, federal auditors announced that in a sample of recent LAUSD graduates, 11 percent had been incorrectly counted as having finished high school, inflating the graduation rate.
While grade inflation at private schools aims to get kids into elite colleges, it is used at public schools to satisfy graduation quotas and keep students moving with their age groups—a practice called “social promotion.” Districts use tactics like credit recovery programs to give students a chance to earn just-passing grades at the last minute. Credit recovery is just one of the ways LAUSD has sought to raise grades; at one point the district offered students higher grades as a reward for raising their standardized test scores. (A spokesperson declined to comment.)
LAUSD has gone to great lengths to turn around its notorious graduation numbers. A decade ago the rate was one of the lowest in the country, with less than half of students finishing high school. It has since increased to 78 percent, still below the national average, most likely due to the credit recovery courses, on which the district has reportedly spent at least $30 million since 2015. Tens of thousands of LAUSD students have taken these courses; one had the opportunity to raise his grade in biology from an F to a C in a single week, according to the Los Angeles Times. As the federal audit found, for the 2013-2014 school year, LAUSD “erroneously reported as graduates students who did not complete graduation requirements” or who did so after the deadline.
Critics question how much learning happens in these programs. A 2017 study conducted by researchers at UCLA and Claremont Graduate University found that as the LAUSD graduation rate increased, the percentage of students who enrolled in college generally stayed the same. And as of the 2018-2019 school year, just around half of 11th graders in the district met or exceeded English standards on state tests, and only around a quarter did for math.
One LAUSD student who kept getting passed through the system was Javier De Los Angeles. As early as third grade, he noticed he was falling behind, but the district let him advance, eventually to high school. “I wouldn’t get the help I needed,” he says. De Los Angeles says he was looking for resources but couldn’t find them at school. “Coming from a low income, I think it was really hard finding the right tutor,” he says. Teachers gave him Cs and Ds, just enough to keep him passing, but he felt like he wasn’t learning. “I remember looking at those textbooks like, ‘How am I going to do this shit? How am I going to understand it?’” He adds, “I just felt like I was being pushed onto the next grade.” He eventually dropped out in 2010 and lived out of his car. He tried a pre-college program but found it too challenging. “It made me realize, if I wasn’t even good at high school, I wasn’t college-level ready.” De Los Angeles says that if high school had gone better for him, he might have more opportunities now.
As wildfires burned through northern Los Angeles in December 2017, forcing Buckley to temporarily close, the student whose grade-change request had prompted the investigation into James Busby received a phone call from her college admissions consultant, William “Rick” Singer. As the student’s family tells it, Singer instructed her that if Georgetown asked about her application, she should say she played tennis. This would have been a lie.
But it was not the only lie on her college applications: the very same day, a Buckley college counselor learned from an admissions officer at Tulane that the student’s application incorrectly stated she was African American and would be a first-generation college student. The college counselor called all the schools to which the student had applied, including Georgetown, and told them to hold her applications. Perhaps Singer had phoned the student to get ahead of what was coming.
The student’s father is Adam Bass, president and CEO of the law firm Buchalter, who at the time was a Buckley trustee and donor. Bass and Singer had met years earlier through a member of Bass’s family, and Bass believed that Singer would be the right person to shepherd his daughter through the college-application process.
Members of the Bass family say they first learned of the false information when Singer called the student and she refused to lie. “Like thousands of families, the Bass family engaged Rick Singer’s company for college counseling services and to help their daughter with her college applications,” the family said in a statement. “They were stunned to learn that Mr. Singer and his company submitted inaccurate information on some of their daughter’s applications, none of which related to her test scores or academic record.” The Bass family was furious and, upon learning more about Singer’s wrongdoing over the course of that weekend, immediately began contacting schools to supply them with accurate information. (The family is not the subject of any ongoing investigation.)
Buckley appears to have more parents with known links to Singer—at the center of the national college admissions scandal in which 57 individuals have faced charges—than any other high school. Two other Buckley parents and donors, Devin Sloane and Stephen Semprevivo, pleaded guilty in the admissions scandal. (Sloane also sat on Buckley’s board.) Brian Werdesheim, a former Buckley parent, donor, and trustee, regularly introduced people to Singer, and reportedly got Singer to invest in a professional soccer team. Singer’s company made donations to Werdesheim’s nonprofit, and Singer joined its board. As Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz write in Unacceptable, their book about the national college admissions scandal, “Werdesheim would become one of Singer’s most fruitful links to wealthy L.A.-area families.” (Werdesheim was never charged in the scandal.)
“My association with Rick Singer was related entirely to his legitimate business activities as a college-prep coach and education expert, which were extensive and came highly recommended to me from multiple respected members of our community,” Werdesheim said in a statement to Los Angeles. “I was shocked and disgusted by the revelation of Rick’s illegal activities, and I severed all ties with Rick and his organizations.”
What hasn’t been reported is that Buckley’s ties to Singer went even deeper. In early 2017, Werdesheim introduced Singer to the chair of Buckley’s board, Valeria Balfour. Werdesheim, Singer, and Balfour talked over lunch about having Singer speak to the board, as Buckley was trying to revamp its messaging. Werdesheim says he didn’t pursue the idea after the lunch because he realized that “Rick’s insights were less relevant.” But a person with knowledge of the situation says that Werdesheim brought the idea to Busby. Busby knew of Singer’s reputation and didn’t like him; a student had once complained that he was unable to log into his application materials because Singer had the log-in information. After that, the school had advised parents not to hire Singer. Busby decided against a meeting.
In February 2018, the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the chairman of the board at Buckley announced the results of the investigation into Busby. The probe had uncovered five grade changes in five years, some for students with parents on the board and some without. It concluded that “there were no preferential grade changes for board member children.” The investigation also found that “Busby received no personal benefit” from the changes, and that “[he] acted within his discretion and did not violate any school policies.”
In the outrage that followed, students staged a protest and signed a petition, alumni published an open letter, and the family of Isabelle Buckley called for Busby’s resignation. The student newspaper devoted almost an entire issue to the controversy. “It was the No. 1 thing on campus everyone was talking about,” a recent graduate says. Facing unrelenting backlash, Busby resigned the following month.
Last year, Alona Scott became Buckley’s head of school. She had grown up in Los Angeles and was a product of its private-school system. She came to Buckley at a rocky time, between the Singer scandal and grade-changing debacle. Five board members had left, as did the head of college counseling. At least two former employees were pursuing lawsuits against the school.
Scott’s arrival was supposed to herald a return to normalcy. Then COVID-19 exploded, and, like schools everywhere, Buckley moved classes online, where they remain until further notice. (Scott declined an interview request, saying by email, “I am focusing my time and attention on the start of the coming school year.”)
COVID-19 might serve to worsen grade inflation, education experts warn. Not only are teachers likely to be more lenient toward students during the pandemic, but schools are also changing their grading policies. Some are abandoning grades and switching to pass/fail. San Francisco’s public schools considered giving students automatic As but decided against it. This past spring, LAUSD announced that during the pandemic, no student will receive an F. The district and teachers agreed that students should be “held harmless” and not receive a grade lower than what they had before the pandemic.
Also because of the pandemic, colleges have waived standardized testing requirements following a movement that has grown in recent years. It’s natural to think that some of these schools might abandon testing requirements for good. That’s what happened at the University of California, which in May became the largest university system in the country to phase them out.
This means that college-admissions officers will need to trust grades more than ever. “When you go test optional, you rely much more heavily on those grades,” says Green, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Lump on top of that a whole bunch of scattered information on grading, and it just became the Wild West for admissions offices for this fall.” With the new grading policies, he says, “just mathematically, it has to contribute to grade inflation.”
High schoolers have other things to worry about now besides grades. “I miss seeing everyone, especially my friends—even that teacher who talks too much,” a California student named Julia commented on a recent New York Times article. “Sometimes I just feel really lost because I feel like I don’t have anything to hold on to. I’m just trying to do well in ‘class’ and waiting for this to end.”
Max Kutner has written about education for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and Boston Magazine.
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