On grade inflation and giving Fs
MSNBC recently another ran another “report” that seems to indicate that American teachers and American education are doing a terrible job. The major point of the story is that while grades for American high school students have been improving over the last fifteen years, test scores aren't improving at all. The very clear impression given is that teachers are giving out higher and higher grades in their core classes while students are learning no more, and possibly even less.
“The reality is that the results don’t square,” said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the national tests.
If they had conducted that study at my school, the results would probably be about what they were nationally, but the impression it gives would be completely unfair.
I would guess that the average GPA in our school is higher than it was fifteen years ago, but it isn’t because teachers are giving out higher grades in their classes. There are a number of other reasons for the higher GPAs. First of all, about ten years ago, our school decided to start “weighting” our AP classes. We hadn’t done that before, but it seemed to make sense that a B in an AP Government class should probably mean more than a B in a regular Government class. So would that raise a student’s GPA? Yes. Does it mean that the teachers of those classes are grading any easier than they were before? No. But is that a reasonable thing to do? I think so.
Our school, like many others, has found that most students do a very poor job of utilizing their time in study halls. Because of this, we have increased the number of credits kids need in order to graduate. In order to fulfill this requirement, more kids are taking more electives, and many of those electives aren’t very hard. Grades tend to be high in Weight Training and Native American Arts classes. So would that raise a student’s GPA? Yes. Does it mean that the teachers of those classes are grading any easier than they were before? No. But is that a reasonable thing to do? I think so.
Finally, in our school we have also had a proliferation of student aids, who assist teachers in running off copies of tests and assignments and run other various errands for them. Being a student aid is treated as a class, and guess what grade the kids tend to get? Once again, does that raise students’ GPAs? Yes. Does it mean that teachers are giving higher grades in their actual classes than they were before? No. But is that a reasonable thing to do? This time, I’m not so sure.
Since I am only in my own school, I can't say with certainty that the same things going on here are going on in schools nationally, but I suspect they are. Did MSNBC or Darvin Winick check into things like that? I doubt it. It seems that the media--even the so-called "liberal" media--can't wait to throw a little dirt at American education and teachers in general.
There is one area, however, in which I think most teachers are too generous, and by doing so, I think we are doing our students a disservice. I believe one of the greatest mistakes of teachers today is their refusal to give F's to kids who deserve them.
The fact of the matter is that most teachers don't want to give students F's because doing so creates a lot of headaches. When a teacher gives a student a failing grade, he's going to be catching flak from the student, from his parents, and maybe from the administration. He had better have enough evidence supporting the grade to make a prosecuting attorney smile, and he had better have given ample warning to everyone about what was coming. Many teachers feel there are a lot more effective ways they can use their time and energy, so they will often just give a kid a D and be done with it. The problem with this approach is that we are teaching too many students that they can do almost nothing, and still get by.
If a student is doing failing work there are two possibilities. The first one, which is the case about ninety-five percent of the time, is that the student isn't trying very hard. Over the last several years, I have had a number of students who were shocked by Fs on their report cards into making much better efforts in the following marking periods. In the process, they would demonstrate that they were capable of doing much better work than they had been doing. Early in my career, when I would frequently give the same kinds of kids "breaks," I would never see improvement. As a matter of fact, their performances often deteriorated because they learned one lesson very well--if they didn't do their work, somebody would give them a break.
The second, and much less frequent reason for a student doing failing work is that she needs more help than what she is being given. It's tempting to give these students passing grades, especially if they're quiet and cause no problems in the classroom, so it's easy for them to end up never getting the help they deserve. In either case, when we give kids "breaks" by giving them passing grades that they haven't earned, we are not actually doing them any favors.