Grade inflation is an often unspoken result of pressure on teachers exhausted by unending demands on them from school administrators, coaches and angry parents who question why their child received a less-than-expected grade. It’s easier to make everybody happy by giving kids a higher grade than they deserve, even for subpar work. Former President George W. Bush called it “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
But according to a new study by American University professor Seth Gershenson and his colleagues for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, teachers who inflate student grades are not doing the students any favors.
The study, “Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement,” compared students’ report card grades to their performance on end-of-course tests. Those with teachers who had the highest grading standards — refusing to hand out A’s for B or C work — learned quantitatively more than students whose teachers cut them more slack.
And the gain in student achievement between the easiest graders and the toughest graders was profound. Students with teachers who had the highest grading standards scored 16.9 percent higher on end-of-course tests compared with their peers whose teachers had the lowest grading standards. And those academic gains were evident up to two years later.
The study also refuted the common argument that high grading standards are detrimental to low-income minority students, who tend to be less prepared for school than their affluent white counterparts. According to Gershenson’s study, higher grading standards resulted in higher student achievement across grade levels and demographic groups.
“Having a teacher among those with higher grading standards improves achievement by about 8 to 10 percent of a standard deviation. In short, white, black, and Hispanic students all benefit from exposure to higher grading standards,” the study concluded. “Students in schools with different grade levels and different socioeconomic makeups learn more from teachers who have higher grading standards, suggesting that high grading standards are universally beneficial.”
Researchers then looked at which teachers were most likely to be the toughest graders. They tended to be graduates of selective undergraduate institutions, those with graduate degrees and those with more than 21 years of classroom experience. Female teachers on average grade 18 percent harder than their male counterparts, the study found.
Not surprisingly, the most demanding teachers are mostly found in suburban school districts, where grading standards also tend to be higher than in urban or rural areas.
Standardized testing tends to expose grade inflation, but there is now a growing trend to eliminate it in college admissions. “The current push for test-optional college admissions makes it that much more difficult for high school teachers, who now face even greater pressure to be easy graders to help their students get into selective colleges,” according to the study.
But getting admitted to a selective college and graduating are two different things: “Those who recognize and believe in their students’ potential — and hold high expectations for all of their students — significantly increase the odds that their students go on to complete high school and college,” the study noted.
Yet “mean” teachers with tough grading standards are not always appreciated. One teacher told the researchers that, “We actually get chastised if anybody even fails our classes. If you have a kid failing, the teacher’s the one that’s in trouble, not the kid. It’s the teacher’s fault.”
Teachers who refuse to give kids grades they haven’t earned are actually helping their students reach their full potential. They deserve accolades, not accusations.