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Needed: Truth in Grading

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It is a disappointment when a child does poorly in school.  It becomes a tragedy, however, when a child and his parents are not told the truth.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of primary and secondary school students are tested and found to lack minimum skills despite having been promoted from grade to grade.

Many have been socially promoted, i.e., moved ahead despite poor marks.

Most, however, are the victims of grade inflation: They were awarded letter grades that were not warranted by academic performance.

In New York City, 15,000 students may have to repeat the third grade because they are unable to pass a test of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

In California, the General Assembly delayed its 12th-grade exit exam requirement because an estimated one-third of 2004 graduates would not have received a diploma. The exam required only sixth- to eighth-grade skills.

California’s universities admit only the top third of high school graduates, but 37 percent are required to take remedial math and 48 percent remedial English.

In a rare study of K-12 grade inflation, researchers took a closer look at the letter grades awarded in a Florida school district. Judged by the scores students earned on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), only 9 percent of the A’s assigned to third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students were deserved.

Of the students who performed at a D or F level on the FCAT, 17 percent had earned an A from their teacher.  Many had been taught by teachers whom the study called “easy graders.” On average, these teachers assigned an A to those who were in reality ‘D’ or ‘F’ students 32 percent of the time.

Why are some teachers so “generous?”

The most commonly-cited reason is that they don’t want children to be thought of as failures by other students or by themselves. It is valid educational concern. Children can become discouraged and quit making an effort.

But it is also true that disappointing grades can spur added effort and bring about both improved achievement and increased self- confidence.

Teachers may think they are being “nice” when they assign an undeserved passing mark but in reality, they are neglecting to weigh short-term disappointment against the risk of creating a life-long handicap.

The high school graduate without basic skills, for example, faces likely failure in college and dimmed prospects for workplace success.  Worse, by the time of the inevitable rude awakening, the individual’s formative years and best learning opportunities have been wasted.

There is another, less benign reason for lax grading – one that has nothing to do with the best interests of students. Failing grades put pressure on the adults who have responsibility for a child — especially on teachers and school administrators.

For teachers, poor grades imply poor teaching.  For school administrators, they imply poor leadership, poor policy, and poor oversight.

Low and failing grades confront adult stakeholders with a need to defend their practices, find answers, and redouble their efforts. High grades, by contrast, are an indicator of a job well done.

At the heart of grade inflation is a conflict of interest.  High grades are more comfortable for everyone involved–including educators. Teachers, administrators, and school districts can bolster constituent satisfaction and their public image – or they can do the opposite – depending on the grades they assign.  The incentive is obvious.

Grade inflation is the proverbial elephant in education’s living room.  It creates complacency and devalues legitimate accomplishment, but it is ignored because it masks the need for improvement.

Critics complain about accountability measures such as those mandated by the federal law, but such measures might never have been needed if letter grades were trustworthy. Teacher-assigned letter grades can provide much more timely and detailed information about where a student needs help if they are conscientiously assigned.

Effective treatment depends on accurate diagnosis. If children are to be helped, the adults in their lives must face facts about their strengths and weaknesses. Adults know the future, the kids don’t.

Just as many organizations separate operations from budgeting and accounting, truthful grading may require schools to separate student assessment from teaching.  At a minimum, grading needs to be externally audited and tied to consequences for teachers and administrators.

Admitting the problem, however, is the critical first step to addressing it.

by J. E. Stone