How to Fix Grade Inflation
Part Two of a two-part series on how lenient grading is locking in learning loss.
In my previous post, we defined grade inflation and reviewed (lots of) new evidence suggesting that it is a barrier to pandemic recovery - especially for less privileged students.
Today, we will identify solutions.
First, we need to acknowledge that this is a thorny issue. Over the course of decades, grade inflation has persisted despite plenty of well-intentioned efforts and a seemingly infinite number of strongly worded opinion pieces. Let’s be happy with surfacing reasonable steps that can reduce the level of dysfunction around grading as a step on the road toward a broader reset.
Second, grade inflation is not a victimless crime. It hurts struggling students. On the flip side, researchers such as Seth Gershenson have shown that students learn more from teachers who have high grading standards.
To increase our chances of putting a dent in grade inflation’s winning streak, I’m going to begin by borrowing smart ideas from other people.
What do experts think we should about grade inflation?
Two academics, Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt, sharply criticized grading policies (and lots of other things, like testing and school accountability) in a new book released this year called Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To).
They argue that:
Assigning a single, permanent letter grade is reductive. It becomes the only thing kids focus on. They no longer care if they are learning anything.
It’s difficult for parents to discern the meaning of grades when they combine so many different pieces of information, from effort to mastery.
Schools and districts should make grades “overwritable” rather than fixed. A student who fails at first but later in the year demonstrates proficiency should have their grade changed to reflect their new level of achievement, not their level at some past point in time.
Transcripts should be more than records of grades. They should be made “double-clickable” so an admissions counselor or prospective employer could view a representative piece of work from a course such as an assessment or graded paper.
Hence, the enemy is bad grading systems, period, not just inflation. Schneider and Hutt want new schemes that motivate kids to engage for the right reasons. They are exhausted with efforts to rank and sort students, teachers, and schools based on what the view as crude one-moment-in-time snapshots.
I will acknowledge - because otherwise I’m going to get a bunch of emails from readers pointing it out - that some of their arguments recycle longstanding positions among progressive educators and teachers unions. Ok, fine. But they are exactly right that an obsession among students (and parents) with obtaining the “token” represented by a high grade has become a serious problem that undermines learning. It also fuels misleading grade inflation.
On the other end of the spectrum, Doug Lemov recently unleashed a much talked-about broadside with the scary title Your Neighborhood School Is a National Security Risk.
He argues that:
Grade inflation eventually becomes conflation as grades creep higher and higher and the distinction between excellence and mediocrity is compressed - just like in the Harvard example I used in Part One of this series.
Schools have incentives to scrap traditional grading systems for long, confusing report cards full of happy talk. With communication channels “clogged” by inflated messaging, parents are less likely to raise concerns or make waves. Teachers are happier once they are no longer forced to field calls from argumentative parents about grades. Schools becomes easier for administrators to run. It’s a form of passive collusion.
While schools justify the elimination of academic distinction on the grounds that it decreases toxic stress on students, it’s actually harmful for schools to abdicate responsibility for helping students develop healthy approaches to the types of stress that are inevitable in real life.
As colleges place less emphasis on tests and inflated grades increasingly tell a similar story about every student, there’s little reason for students to strive for excellence. Peers who don’t work nearly as hard are just as likely to be admitted to good colleges. In this way, we are dissuading our most capable young people from maximizing their potential.
Lemov’s solution set is basically the polar opposite of the one proposed by Schneider and Hutt. He calls for restoring the importance of college admissions exams while adding subject-specific tests like the ones used in England, providing parents with points of comparison about grades so they know when all the kids in the class are earning the same high marks and their child is actually not a special outlier, and defending rigor - plus some level of academic stress - in the classroom.
It’s tempting to see these perspectives are incompatible, but they share key elements. They agree that the chase for good grades is a problem. They are concerned with increasing authentic student motivation to learn. They believe that our existing approaches exacerbate inequity.
I think we can learn from them both.
The key to addressing grade inflation is to take the entire grading endeavor more seriously. Ask anyone who’s trained to be a teacher, for instance, and they’re likely to tell you that they completed their entire certification program without any instruction whatsoever on how to grade. Schools often leave teachers to their own devices, content to have different grading standards even among teachers of the exact same courses. This laissez faire strategy has helped create the mess we’re in. Certification programs must include research-based training on which grading practices are beneficial for student learning and development.
Schools need clear definitions of grades so they have the same meaning to all parties. The harmful aspects of grade inflation come from misleading parents and students. Teachers and administrators know that - in most schools - a B no longer signifies mastery of material and an A can mean a student is simply compliant, not fluent. Parents don’t know that.
Give your teachers cover. At the start of the year when you are trying to reset grading standards, communicate this to families. Tell them to expect a wider range of grades. E.g. last year only 10 percent of our grades were C or lower. This year, it will be more like 30 percent. Asking teachers to shift grading standards on their own and then defend those changes to families is a recipe for conflict.
As Lemov suggests, schools should also provide context to families so they understand whether their child’s grade is near the top, near the middle, or near the bottom for their particular class. Parents care quite a bit about comparisons to peers. They would take note if they learned that their child’s B- put them in the bottom third of math students. They deserve to know. This could be done in simple ways, like color coding the letter grades, with green signaling top-third and red signaling bottom.
As Schneider and Hutt suggest, schools ought to make grades overwritable - but include the full record on transcripts. Imagine two students. The first one does every assignment on-time, studies for tests, and earns a solid B for the first quarter of the school year. The second student barely turns in anything, blows off preparing for tests, and gets an F. But the F is a wake-up call. During the second quarter, the student makes up the work and asks to re-take the tests - this time scoring quite well. It’s reasonable to supersede the F on the transcript and replace it with a newly-earned B. But the transcript should reflect that the B was earned as an overwrite. For many audiences, there’s a meaningful difference between the performance of these two students - even if they ended up with the same grasp of the material, eventually. For other audiences, that difference is not significant. Let them decide - with full information.
Schools and district should monitor grade inflation and report on it publicly. If grades nudge upward but so do other key indicators like test scores and student attendance, there’s probably nothing to worry about. But when we see patterns like those in False Signals, alarms ought to be sounding.
At a minimum, every district should be looking honestly at what’s happened since 2018 - particularly for vulnerable student groups who are most likely to need academic support and least likely to receive it if their report cards are fairy tales.
My fellow parents, did you think we were going to be off the hook here? You knew this was coming. We need to stop encouraging schools to deceive us with inflated grades. Grade inflation did not arise all by itself as a conspiracy among educators. Parents who complain, pressure, cajole, and dispute their child’s grades send the message that that only path to peace is giving their child the grade the parent thinks the child deserves.
Ask any teacher for their war stories and you’ll be shocked at how often this happens, how nasty the interactions can be, and how quickly administrators fold to parent demands. Nobody thinks it’s worth the fight.
For all of us
We need to own that school is a form of academic competition. Yes, it’s a public good. Yes, it’s the quest for knowledge. Of course, we’re developing informed citizens. Sure, we’re nurturing whole children.
At the same time, kids are striving to demonstrate their mastery relative to others. As students move through the system, there will be key moments when opportunities are allocated to those best prepared for them.
Grades are the core currency for distinguishing academic accomplishment. Our systems for assigning grades need to be worthy of the role they play. Grades cannot be arbitrary or wholly negotiable. Nor can we hide from the competitive element of schooling by inflating grades until we’re pretending that nearly every student is in the same near-perfect strata.
It’s important that we get this fixed. Right now, pandemic-era setbacks are being made permanent because students and families are largely unaware of them. That’s on us. We didn’t have any control over the onset of COVID. That’s not the case with grade inflation.
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