To Counter Grade Inflation, We Need to Change the Way We Teach
Teaching methods conflict with what science has discovered about how people learn.
Students are getting higher grades, but test scores are declining. One fundamental reason is that standard educational practice conflicts with what science tells us about how kids learn.
No less than three studies have appeared recently documenting an increase in grade inflation after the pandemic. One—produced by education organizations EdNavigator, TNTP, and Learning Heroes—compared two school districts. Two others, done by academics, each analyzed grades and test scores across an entire state.
A study of Washington State found a divergence between grades and state test scores in math, science, and English, with the greatest difference in math. (History or social studies wasn’t included in this analysis—as is often the case—but, given dismal national test scores in history, the situation there is likely to be similar.) A North Carolina study looked only at math, with similar findings.
There’s also evidence beyond those studies. According to education commentator Frederick Hess, more than 89% of high school students got an A or a B last year in math, English, social studies, and science. It would be nice to think that all of them were achieving at high levels, but a report from the testing organization ACT indicates otherwise. Hess also reports that 83% of sixth graders in Los Angeles got A, B, or C grades in spring 2022, even though only 27% met or exceeded standards on state and national assessments.
Grade inflation isn’t new. A national study done in 2019, a year before Covid hit, found that high school students were getting better grades in math and science than they had ten years before, even though math scores had fallen and science scores had held steady. But during the pandemic, education officials and teachers responded to students’ added burdens by adopting even more generous grading practices, and that has exacerbated the situation.
Lenient grading carries risks
It's easy to understand why grade inflation happens: handing out good grades makes everyone happy. And some argue that we shouldn’t worry about it. Higher grades, they say, boost students’ confidence and motivation, whereas strict grading policies can discourage them from making an effort. In line with that philosophy, there’s been a trend towards measures like “no-zero” grading, which makes the lowest possible grade for an assignment or test 50%, even when students turn in no work at all.
But evidence from at least two of the recent studies suggests that lenient grading isn’t doing struggling students any favors. Both found that grade inflation increased absenteeism, and the North Carolina study found that was especially true for lower-achieving students. That only exacerbates the gaps between them and their higher-achieving peers—and possibly contributes to an ongoing absenteeism crisis.
Researchers and commentators have observed that inflated grades can lull parents into a false sense of security, leading them to pass up opportunities to get their children the help they need or even push them to attend school regularly. Reflecting that concern, the recent study of two school districts is titled “False Signals.”
Some grade inflation is likely due to pressure from students and parents in competitive environments—usually more affluent ones—who fear that low grades will jeopardize their future success. One survey of high school teachers and college professors found that 82% had given into demands to raise grades on at least some occasions. Almost half said they believed “Gen Z” students ask for better grades more frequently than previous generations.
The New York Times recently reported that almost 82% of the grades given at Yale University were in the A range, as compared to 67% in 2010-11. The situation is similar at Harvard.
That kind of grade inflation can have pernicious consequences. Education commentator Doug Lemov has argued it’s even a national security risk. He points out that if almost everyone is getting high grades—including students who aren’t putting in much effort—potential superstars may decide it’s not worth pushing themselves, depriving the country of their talents.
Grade inflation at high-poverty schools
But a different kind of grade inflation has long been a problem at schools serving students from lower socioeconomic groups. At schools where most students lack the kind of outside support that could equip them to succeed academically, it’s not unusual to be awarded an A or a B just for showing up and handing in homework assignments.
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One factor behind the push for high-stakes testing in the early 2000s was the idea that it wasn’t fair to delude students in high-poverty schools into thinking they were succeeding academically when in fact their levels of achievement were far lower than those of their more affluent peers. Holding schools accountable for standardized test results, it was believed, would reveal the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as George W. Bush put it—and lead to better scores for everyone.
Needless to say, it hasn’t worked out that way. And the ACT report, released just last year, reveals that grade inflation continues to be more of an issue for students from lower-income families, and for Black students more than for white ones.
Whether we’re talking about students from affluent or low-income families, the real question is what to do to increase their actual learning. Neither grades nor test scores are perfect measures, and to some extent they measure different things. But when there’s a consistent marked divergence between the two, it’s a sign that something is wrong.
For students from more highly educated and well-resourced families, the problem may simply be that many have realized they can get good grades without doing much work. And rigorous grading policies, along with more clarity about what those grades mean, could provide the prodding they need to make a greater effort—and learn more.
But in schools serving lower-income communities where many students are far behind, it’s not enough to inform them and their parents of that reality. We need to enable them to change it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean more test prep or tutoring in reading comprehension “skills.” The basic problem, for many students, is that our education system is grounded in a philosophy that goes against what scientists have discovered about how learning works.
A system that works for the highly motivated
Teacher training and many curriculum materials prioritize letting students “discover” information for themselves as much as possible, downplaying the role of the teacher in building knowledge. Yet cognitive scientists have found that explicit instruction designed to help students retain information—and think about it analytically—is far more effective.
The result is a system that works well for highly motivated, self-disciplined students who have been able to absorb a lot of academic knowledge outside school—basically, students who would thrive no matter what. The others, including some from more affluent families, are left to flounder.
It’s difficult to turn around a ship the size of the American education system so that it works better for all students, but it’s not impossible. At the elementary level, more and more schools are adopting the kind of knowledge-building curriculum that can equip students to succeed at higher grade levels. And teachers at some schools are using teaching methods—including explicit writing instruction—that enable students to succeed in middle and high school even when they don’t already possess the knowledge and skills assumed by the curriculum.
Until we make those kinds of changes to curriculum and instruction, no amount of testing—or grading—will be enough to ensure that all students learn to the best of their potential.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a somewhat different form.