Good Grades Teach a Negative Lesson

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When I’m working with school leaders, we usually spend a considerable amount of time talking about the fact that actions speak louder than words. While a principal may verbally express their appreciation for teachers’ time, if they consistently start staff meetings late or overwhelm them with insignificant tasks, their words lose credibility. Likewise, although most adults in the education field claim to value excellence, responsibility, and rigor, the message we are sending to students is quite different.

This autumn, ACT published a new report that analyzed high school grades over the past decade. The findings revealed a significant increase in grade inflation, despite the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing a consistent decline in academic performance. These results should prompt us to question the level of instructional rigor, the soaring graduation rates, and whether lenient grading policies, implemented under the guise of equity and student well-being, warrant further scrutiny.

There is indisputable evidence of grade inflation. Between 2010 and 2022, student GPAs experienced a significant rise. According to the ACT study, the average adjusted GPA in English increased from 3.17 to 3.39, while in math, it increased from 3.02 to 3.32. In 2022, over 89 percent of high school students received an A or B grade in math, English, social studies, and science. Additionally, the 2019 NAEP High School Transcript Study revealed that students were earning higher grades compared to a decade earlier, despite demonstrating less learning. In Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the country, 83 percent of 6th graders received A, B, or C grades in spring 2022, even though only 27 percent met or exceeded state and national assessment standards.

Grade inflation is not a recent phenomenon in American schools. In 2009, Mark Schneider, now the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, discovered that despite a one-third increase in the proportion of students completing Algebra 2 between 1978 and 2000 and a rise in math GPAs, assessed high school math performance actually declined from 1978 to 2008.

The proliferation of impressive transcripts and higher grades has resulted in diminished student learning. How could this be possible? The answer lies in the fact that course titles and grades hold little value. What truly matters is not the grades students receive or the labels of the courses they take, but the actual content being taught. This is where we have become too comfortable with Horace’s Compromise, a concept vividly described by Ted Sizer: “The agreement between teachers and students to appear orderly and purposeful is a conspiracy to minimize any inconvenience.”

Just last week, Doug Lemov, the author of Teach Like a Champion, wrote an essay that presented a damning portrayal of the negative consequences of lenient grading and a lack of rigor. He made an insightful observation: “A sort of unspoken agreement emerges: when almost everyone gets what they want, running the school becomes easier. Teachers are content because no one challenges their grading decisions, and students are no longer competitive or eager to excel.”

Harvey Mansfield, the renowned Harvard political philosopher, has attributed grade inflation to social and cultural shifts that began in the late 1960s. (Mansfield gained recognition for giving students two sets of grades: one reflecting his personal assessment of their performance and another based on Harvard’s inflated grading system.)

A recent poll revealed that 44 percent of educators claim that today’s students frequently request higher grades than they have earned. Furthermore, 4 out of 5 educators admit to giving in to the demands of pushy students or helicopter parents, partly due to experiencing harassment from students and parents concerning grades.

What’s truly insidious is how effortlessly grade inflation occurs for all parties involved. Meanwhile, influential advocates have successfully legitimized these practices, using the trendy language of “equitable grading” to encourage schools to eliminate zeros, abolish graded homework, eradicate penalties for late work and missed assignments, and provide endless opportunities for retests. Consequently, students are being taught that deadlines are optional and that there are no real consequences for their actions.

Teachers, caught between helicopter parents and anti-grading ideologues, often struggle to maintain high expectations. Educational leaders must champion rigor and support classroom teachers who are dedicated to implementing it. This also highlights the crucial role of states in providing honest assessments of student learning and ensuring that graduates possess essential knowledge and skills.

After all, awarding nearly every student an A or B has tangible and unfortunate consequences. Such grades send the message that it’s acceptable to coast, mislead parents into thinking their children are performing well, and enable students to graduate without acquiring essential knowledge or skills. Most importantly, it undermines our claims of valuing hard work and excellence. This lesson does not benefit anyone.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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