About That Grade Inflation in High Schools Study And Our Policy Makers’ Addiction to Manufactured Outcomes

With the HOPE Scholarship, many students in the state of Georgia who were not able to attend a four-year post-secondary school immediately had an avenue to pursue higher education.

When it was initially incorporated in 1993, any student in a Georgia public high school who graduated with at least a “B” average could go to a state supported college / university tuition free as long as he / she gained admission and maintained at least 3.0 GPA. If the student did not receive a 3.0 GPA in a semester, the scholarship was revoked with only one chance to regain it.

The state’s educational lottery provided the funds for the HOPE Scholarships. But a problem began to arise a few years into it: too many students were receiving it.

Before I left Georgia to return to North Carolina to continue my teaching career 13 years ago, there were high schools in GA that had almost %80 of their graduates receive the HOPE. That’s a lot of students. The problem was that less than half were able to keep the HOPE after the first semester of collegiate academic work.

That’s a disconnect that had to be corrected because at that pace, the scholarships would not be able to be funded.

High schools were very aware of how they were ranked and perceived as far as their academic prowess was concerned; they were measured in the court of public opinion by how many of their graduates received the scholarship, not be how many kept it for an extended period of time. Over the years, the requirements for the HOPE Scholarship have changed to combat the what was happening early in its existence: grade inflation.

A recent report in EdNC.org talked about grade inflation, highlighting a study by American University. It is entitled “Grade inflation in high schools” and it has some rather interesting conclusions (https://www.ednc.org/2018/10/02/grade-inflation-in-high-schools/). And it focused a lot on North Carolina.

Mike Petrilli and Amber Northern summarized the report in the EdNC.org selection.

Utilizing student-level data for all public school students taking Algebra I in North Carolina from 2004–05 through 2015–16 (including course transcripts, state end-of-course exam scores, and ACT scores), the study yielded three key findings:

  1. Although many students get good grades, few earn top marks on the statewide end-of-course exams for those classes.
  2. Algebra I end-of-course exam scores predict math ACT scores much better than do class grades.
  3. During the decade studied, grade inflation was more severe in schools attended by affluent students than in those attended by lower-income pupils.

These alarming findings carry several implications.

Course grades and test scores each have their place. Both grades and test scores provide valuable information because they measure different aspects of student performance and potential.

Yet parents don’t seem to value both equally. When there’s a big difference between what the two measures communicate, parents tend to take test scores less seriously—especially if the scores are low.

Although external exams convey valuable information, educating teachers about high expectations is key. Educators can’t hold students to a high bar if they don’t have a clear vision of what excellence looks like.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to assume that an A truly represents excellence. And that’s a real problem for the future of individual kids and the nation they live in. Are we ready to do something about it?

grade inflation

As a teacher, I am not going to dispute the actual findings as presented. But I do have a little problem with some of the perceived implications especially the one that states, “Educating teachers about high expectations is key. Educators can’t hold students to a high bar if they don’t have a clear vision of what excellence looks like.

Why? Because it seems to be that if anyone needs to be “educated about high standards,” it should be the policy makers, the ones who constantly change the parameters of how we as a state measure “excellence” through amorphous terms like “test scores,” “student achievement,” and “graduation rates.”

When speaking of “student test scores”, “student achievement”, and “graduation rates”, you are speaking about three of the most nebulous terms in public education today. And while I applaud anyone who wants to improve student outcomes, one must be willing to see how each of those terms can be defined with political spin by those who want to paint public education in a certain light to further a political agenda.

When speaking of “test scores,” we need to agree about which test scores we are referring to and if they have relevance to the actual curriculum. Since the early 2000’s we have endured No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives that have flooded our public schools with mandatory testing that never really precisely showed how students achieved.

In my years as a North Carolina teacher (1997-1999, 2005-2018), I have endured the Standard Course of Study, the NC ABC’s, AYP’s, and Common Core. Each initiative has been replaced by a supposedly better curricular path that allegedly makes all previous curriculum standards inferior and obsolete. And with each of these initiatives comes new tests that are graded differently than previous ones and are “converted” into data points to rank student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

There seems to be no consensus and continuity in what tests effectively and consistently measure “student achievement” over time. That does not even begin to cover the amount of local assessments that have been created to measure how well students might perform on ever-changing state and national tests. It almost boggles the mind to see how much instructional time is lost just administering local tests to see how students may perform on state tests that may be declared invalid with new education initiatives.

Along with “student test scores” and “student achievement,” “graduation rate” might be one of the most constantly redefined terms in public schools. Does it mean how many students graduate in four years? Five years? At least finish a GED program or a diploma in a community college? Actually, it depends on whom you ask and when you ask. But with the NC State Board of Education’s decision to go to a ten-point grading scale in all high schools instead of the seven-point scale used in many districts, the odds of students passing courses dramatically increased because the bar to pass was set lower. That drastically affects graduation rates.

Let’s take that a step further. In some school systems, the lowest grade a student can make in a quarter grade is a “50.”

In a four quarter system for a yearlong A/B class like an AP course, a student could do absolutely no homework, complete zero papers, and refuse to answer any questions on any assessment and get a true zero percent for a quarter score while that student was present for class on almost all possible days.

I would still have to give that student a “50” for the quarter. That’s ten points below a passing grade for doing nothing. I could have a student who is busting his/her butt to complete work, but is not mastering the concepts as quickly as others. I offer tutoring, extra credit, and differentiate instruction, but that student is still struggling. That student gets a 65 for the quarter.

I would have to say that there is more than a fifteen point differential in the performance of the two students.

It is hard to fathom, but there are students who literally can do nothing for over half the year (or semester for a block class) and still salvage a passing grade in a class where other students have literally sweated and toiled just to pass. They simply pass two quarters and the state exam, an exam that is not made by the teacher but a third party and graded by a third party who then can designate a conversion formula to alter the outcome.

So it’s almost impossible for a student to not pass a class in my system if he/she does work. I have no control in making those standardized tests that measure achievement or the grading of them, plus they change almost yearly. And the state pushes high graduation rates at a high cost because it looks good to the public.

That’s not a teacher’s fault. That’s on the policy makers.

It seems that the “implications” the authors are making include blaming teachers for the lack of understanding what truly is “excellent.” In reality, the ability for a teacher in North Carolina schools to honestly assess work has mostly been taken from them. That’s because the state is so much more interested in manufactured outcomes than it is in process.