The American Interest recently published an article decrying rampant grade inflation in American schools. They’re right about the inflation, but as is so common, they don’t understand the reasons. The public is getting exactly what it asked for. It always does. Some excerpts from the article:
Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.
In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%.
That’s right: Nearly half of America’s Class of 2016 are A students. Meanwhile, their average SAT score fell from 1,026 to 1,002 on a 1,600-point scale — suggesting that those A’s on report cards might be fool’s gold.
The erosion of intellectual standards is worse at the elite level: “the upward creep is most pronounced in schools with large numbers of white, wealthy students. And it’s especially noticeable in private schools, where the rate of inflation was about three times higher than in public schools.” This is probably explained at least partly by the attitudes of overbearing parents whose children are in the Ivy League rat race: Giving out anything less than an A is likely to lead to email protestations and parent-teacher conferences with mom and dad.
The brief article also suggests dumbing down tests such as the SAT to raise the scores of groups that traditionally do poorly on such measures is a contributing factor. The College Board—the company that writes and scores the SAT and collects the cash—has indeed dumbed the test down, and they’ve also gone full Leftist in their versions of history for their Advanced Placement exam, but this is, at best, a side issue. Grade inflation is primarily a result of testing culture, and the data production cultures, the contemporary crazes that grade buildings and teachers, and while pretending to produce “accountability,” all but remove individual responsibility.
Using the SAT for such analysis is deceptive. Not only has the test dramatically changed over the years, not only has the means of scoring changed, as have the number scales, but far more people are taking the test than ever before, people often spectacularly unprepared for college.
The idea that everyone should attend college, the federalization of the entire student loan industry under Barack Obama, and the willingness of colleges to accept just about anyone with a solvent bank account and a measurable pulse are all a significant driver behind plunging SAT scores. What else would one expect? We have, for decades, but most surely in the last decade, changed from a country whose capable and college-bound students took the SAT, to a country where just about everybody takes the SAT. It should not be surprising such scores have declined. But what about grade inflation?
With the advent of the mandatory, high stakes testing craze, grade inflation was a likely unintended consequence. Once state education bureaucracies—to say nothing of the federal education bureaucracy with the now, thankfully, defunct No Child Left Behind mandate—focused on testing rather than education, grade inflation was inevitable.
The accountability movement forced schools to focus single-mindedly on high test scores, but the unprecedented power grated the educrats ensured they would also enact all manner of pet mandates. Across the nation, all teachers and students had to suddenly become above average. Students were not allowed to fail, nor were they allowed to be absent or to drop out of school. Matters that before were the province of local schools and districts suddenly became the business of state education bureaucracies, and were closely tracked as schools were forced to produce reams of data.
Suddenly the careers of teachers, principals and administrators depended on the quantity and quality of data produced by mandatory, high stakes tests, attendance figures, drop out rates, and a blizzard of other related measures. The net effect was to remove virtually all student/parent responsibility for learning.
Let’s take Johnny P. Student. Johnny is a freshman at Anytown High School. Like every high school in Anystate, the Principal of AHS is responsible for a wide variety of measures relating to Johnny. Johnny must not only pass a number of mandatory, high stakes tests—usually five or so—to graduate from high school, the passing rate will have a significant affect on the principal’s–and teacher’s–continuing employment. Not only that, Johnny, and every student, must not miss a day of school, must pass all his classes, and must never drop out. Not only is tare educator’s schools at stake, state funding for schools hangs on most of these measures.
To adapt to the new, intrusive measures and mandates, the school board votes to force teachers to award students 50% each grading period for doing nothing. This is done on the theory that if a student falls too far behind, they’ll become discouraged and never catch up. In reality, it allows kids to game the system and do little or nothing much of the year. If a student allows their grade to drop that low, the idea they just need the encouragement of a badly failing grade is nonsensical. It also conditions kids, and teachers, to give credit for no work. After all, teachers reason, if we’re giving them 50% for nothing, what’s the point of grades?
The principal is also being pressured to ensure every student is in school every day. This is, of course, impossible, but the data must relentlessly be produced and documented, and inevitably, data will show virtually every student was in school every day. To help maintain the fiction, students will be allowed virtually unlimited time to make up work they missed by choice. This contributes to grade inflation because there is no longer any score penalty for late assignments.
The principal is also pressured to have a 0% drop out rate. This forces him to bend over backwards to retain kids that would have dropped out long ago. Such kids are commonly discipline problems, disrupting learning for the kids that want to learn, and accomplishing nothing. But for the purposes of our examination, it also puts pressure, subtle and not so subtle, on teachers to pass every student. This normally means no student may earn less than 70%, which has the practical effect or raising the overall grading tide to lift even the least seaworthy student boat.
When buildings, and the people that work in them, are being graded, the idea that Johnny, and his parents, are responsible for Johnny’s education goes out the window. Everyone is responsible for producing data to demonstrate how magnificent their school is. Johnny is merely a data producer, one that will not be allowed to produce less than the necessary data, whether he does any school work or not. In the process, individual responsibility is obliterated, and Johnny, in essence, cannot fail. Of course, for this to happen, Johnny’s grades have to reach at least minimal levels regardless of what Johnny does, or more likely, does not do. There are few, or no, consequences for failing to do school work, and minimum standards continue to rise, pushing all grades upward. Everyone becomes above average.
There is one more significant problem…actually, there are a great many, but I’m not going to write an eternal article. Far too many contemporary kids–and I suspect, their parents–are not readers. I don’t know that this has ever been quantified, and I would be suspicious of any polling results. After all, who is going to admit they don’t read and comprehend as well as the 4th graders of previous generations? Oh, they can read texts, and the short excerpts of longer works used for mandatory, high stakes tests, provided they have more than enough time, but reading for information, pleasure, or to learn? It’s pretty much a thing of the past.
By the time Johnny makes it to 9th grade, he’s already two or more years below where he should be in reading and comprehension. This serious deficit also directly affects Johnny’s ability to spell, reason and write. If Johnny is going to graduate on time, and produce the appropriate data along the way, Johnny is going to need some help. Not only will his mandatory, high stakes tests be dumbed down, the entire curriculum, particularly in English, will be dumbed down, or a great deal less of it will be taught. What choice do teachers have when students can’t read a passage that took only 30 minutes in the past in less than an hour today?
High school teachers can’t teach a traditional curriculum because the kids don’t have the background knowledge they should have been taught in the lower grades. They can barely read, and have never developed the reading habit. This means the literature of the past fades away in favor of far more elementary, contemporary writings. This tendency is particularly exacerbated in schools run by social justice warriors who do all they can to indoctrinate kids, in part by abandoning anything written in the past by white men long dead. The foundational ideas of western civilization are being erased. The kids wouldn’t understand them anyway.
Ultimately, we get exactly what we deserve, what we, through our negligence and inability to pay attention, have told the educrats we want. Grade inflation is merely a symptom of a much larger cultural problem.