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Savannah Sparkman was used to automatically getting As for doing her schoolwork. She was stunned to see her grades sink after she transferred to Kearny High School of International Business.

“I put in all my effort and got Bs and Cs,” said Sparkman, who moved from Japan as a junior. “I thought I was doing something wrong. Then I found out the average was Bs and Cs.”

Teens swear there are no easy As at this school. And the numbers back them up.

Good grades are common at San Diego schools with high test scores. But not at the School of International Business, one of four small, themed schools carved out of Kearny High. It has some of the highest test scores in San Diego Unified. But its students aren’t swimming in As and Bs.

Grades and tests don’t always line up neatly for each individual. A teen might work hard in class and blow off state tests. But comparing grades and scores across whole schools helps reveal the gulf between grading at different schools. An A is not an A is not an A.

voiceofsandiego.org earlier examined grades at the Met, a small school accused of grade changing. Grades there are tops, but test scores are not. International Business is at the opposite extreme, a school with top scores and surprisingly low grades.

How teachers grade students differs so much from school to school that it is nearly impossible to decipher what grades really mean. Scholars say even when teachers have the same set of marks, they often calculate grades differently. For instance, the Met allows students to improve their grades over time by doing more work, even months after a class ends. Less than a mile away at International Business, the only way a student can improve an old grade is to retake a failed class.

Grades may be slippery, but they can decide teens’ futures. Tougher grading at schools like International Business could better prime students for tough colleges, but also hurt their chances to get in if colleges just don’t know the difference. The school has tried to ensure that its grades mean something.

But its kids have to compete in a world where grades can mean anything.

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Mike Little warns his accounting class that if they leave their balance sheets unbalanced, they’ll get an F — maybe a D if he feels nice. He knocks off points if students round to the wrong penny or forget to bring their calculators. A big poster made by students sends a stern message:

“I’m very intolerant of things that would be bad for business,” Little said. “If you work in a bank and your computer program rips people off, you get sued.”

Principal Ana Diaz-Booz jokes that she braces for phone calls from parents and kids pleading to get out of Little’s class when each semester starts. But tough grades are a point of pride for her school.

Teachers at International Business say their grades are unusually low because their standards are unusually high. The small school has pledged to wipe out grade inflation, the practice of giving good grades for not-so-good work. Most of its students are not failing; more than half got between a B and a C average last year. But International Business warns colleges that even its valedictorians don’t get straight As.

Students there are roughly half as likely to get a B average or better than students at other San Diego schools with stellar scores. For instance, only 32 percent of International Business students in grades 10 through 12 had a B average or better last year, compared to 63 percent at La Jolla High School. International Business ranks fourth in the school district on state tests — and 23rd in good grades.

International Business decided it would set a consistently high bar. Different standards from one classroom to the next can lead to unfairly inflated or deflated grades, so math teachers decided to use the same quizzes and tests. They opted to give less weight to homework to prevent kids from coasting.

“If you turn everything in but you can’t pass the final, what are you going to do in precalculus?” said Erica Heinzman, who teaches math. “That comes back to haunt you.”

English teachers assign the same essays on the same books and hashed out a common standard for what makes each essay worth an A, B or C. They scrutinize the same student essays and compare grades to ensure they’re on the same page. And they come up with specific standards for what it takes to get an A, such as convincingly using evidence to back up an assertion.

While teens say International Business is grueling, the school also showers them with tutoring and other help. Eighteen-year-old Vananh Pham once rewrote a term paper four times, weeks ahead of her deadline. Her teacher helped with each draft, pointing out awkward wording and irrelevant points.

“They push us to our limit,” said Pham, who graduated a few weeks ago with a 3.97 GPA. “When I really put in the time, I could get the grades that I wanted. But it came with a lot of hard work.”

Sticking to the standards can be wrenching for teachers, especially with students who are still mastering English. More than one-third of International Business students are English learners, including some of those accounting students jotting down definitions for “depreciate” and “asset.”

“You know how far they’ve come to write an analysis of The Great Gatsby,” English resource teacher Beth Smith said. “But we want this student to be able to write as well as anyone else.”

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Teens say the slog is worth it. Almost all International Business seniors graduate in the middle of their fourth year and hop to San Diego Mesa College. Pham says college seems easier than high school.

Savannah Sparkman is also glad her school forced her to work hard. But as she waits to hear back from colleges, she frets that universities won’t understand what her Bs and Cs stand for. While many private colleges consider how hard schools grade when they weigh applications, the California State University system simply crunches grades and SAT scores to decide who is eligible.

Teachers argue that stricter grades are ultimately better for students. “If you send a kid off to UCSD, are they going to make it?” asked counselor Dawn Swanson. “Or will they become defeated and drop out?”

Schools don’t have sweeping data about how all their students do in college, so it is hard to tell whether their tough love is working. Data on a small slice of International Business graduates, those who went on to San Diego State University, show the problem is still there: Only 14 out of 37 students tested well enough to avoid remedial classes over the past five years. But teachers believe their stiff grades have helped.

“We could just give them 4.0s,” said Heinzman, the math teacher. “But we wouldn’t be doing them any favors.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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