A grade point average is a number representing the average value of the accumulated final grades earned in courses over time. More commonly called a GPA, a student’s grade point average is calculated by adding up all accumulated final grades and dividing that figure by the number of grades awarded. This calculation results in a mathematical mean—or average—of all final grades. The most common form of GPA is based on a 0 to 4.0 scale (A = 4.0, B = 3.0, C = 2.0, D = 1.0, and F = 0), with a 4.0 representing a “perfect” GPA—or a student having earned straight As in every course. Schools may also assign partial points for “plus” or “minus” letter grades, such as a 3.7 for an A–, a 3.3 for a B+, and so on. GPAs may be calculated at the end of a course, semester, or grade level, and a “cumulative GPA” represents an average of all final grades individual students earned from the time they first enrolled in a school to the completion of their education.
In some schools, weighted-grade systems are used in GPA calculations, and they give students a numerical advantage for grades earned in higher-level courses, such as honors courses or Advanced Placement courses, or for completing more challenging learning experiences. In weighted-grade systems, an A in a higher-level course might be awarded a 4.5 or 5.0, for example, while an A in a lower-level course is awarded a 4.0 (yet weighted grading systems vary widely in design and methodology).
A student’s GPA is often used to determine academic honors, such as honor roll, class rank, or Latin honors. GPAs have been one of several major factors used by colleges, postsecondary programs, and employers to assess a student’s overall academic record.
In public schools, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next. When investigating or reporting on grading systems, class rank, or other academic honors, it is important to determine specifically how grades and GPAs are calculated, and what evaluation criteria was used to measure academic performance and award grades.
While the use of grade point averages has been common in public schools for decades, critics of the practice may argue that averaging grades over a semester, year, or school tenure can misrepresent student learning, particularly learning growth over time, and that it can adversely affect a student’s academic performance, educational confidence, and sense of self-worth. Since the arguments against the use of GPAs are complex and nuanced, see class rank, grade averaging, weighted grades, and proficiency-based learning for more detailed discussions.