Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 1

If you live in Georgia like I do, you have probably heard of the statewide cheating scandal in the public schools.  The controversy centers on allegations that administrators and/or teachers in many different schools (10% of Georgia’s public elementary and middle schools are being investigated – 69% in the city of Atlanta) changed students’ answer choices on a standardized test known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). This test is used to help determine whether schools satisfy federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind act.  The evidence for cheating is a statistically abnormal number of erasure marks to correct wrong answers on students’ answer sheets.  Schools under investigation had 25% or more of their classrooms with suspicious erasures.

Such egregious manipulation of students’ grades gains major attention from politicians and the media because of the high-stakes nature of these tests.  Yet perhaps more pervasive, and more damaging, is the inflation of classroom grades that teachers engage in without anyone looking, knowing, and asking questions.  I define “grade inflation” simply as a trend in education for standards to be lowered and grades to reflect more than what students have actually achieved.  In 2009, a study commissioned by the state of Georgia was released that showed major inconsistencies between high school students’ standardized End-of-Course Test (EOCT) scores and their course grades:  in many counties the failure rate on the EOCTs was much higher than the failure rates in the course.  These findings imply that the grades assigned by the teacher in the classroom were not based on students’ achievement of the state curriculum standards, which the EOCTs measure.

As a teacher who has faced pressure to “cook the books,” I have reflected on the social, political and cultural conditions that promote grade inflation and understand well some of the causes.  Fundamentally, apart from any external pressure, it is more difficult for a teacher to teach and evaluate students according to higher standards than according to lower standards.  Simply put, the more you demand of students the more they, and their parents, demand of you: more requests for help, more parent conferences, more complaints, etc.  Teaching complex, difficult concepts and problem-solving strategies also requires more work in designing instruction and grading student work.  Most people in any occupation would rather make their work easier than harder and take the “path of least resistance,” so I would argue that without a strong commitment to high academic standards and a deep ethical conviction to uphold academic integrity, the de facto mode of teachers is to lower standards and thus “inflate” grades.

This natural tendency to lower standards implies that teachers need external support from administrators, politicians, and parents to maintain high standards.  However, what teachers typically face is the contrary – pressure to lower the standards.  This pressure has a political source and a cultural source.  The political source is the expectation by the federal government that schools satisfy Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements.  The metrics for AYP include graduation rates, attendance, standardized test scores, etc.  Not meeting AYP can result in public humiliation for the school, reduction in funding for the school, and job loss for administrators.  The cultural source is the emphasis on the primacy of students’ self-esteem, which basically means that we do not want children to feel bad about themselves by exposing their deficiencies and lack of achievement through their grades.  To build-up their self-esteem, teachers give students higher grades than their performance deserves.

I could write volumes about this topic but I am going to make myself stop for now.  In the future I will write more about the spiritual and ethical problems related to grade inflation and share my ideas of how to combat this trend.

3 comments on “Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 1

  1. Brad says:

    This post has some good subject matter detail that the public is probably largely unaware of. I’m particularly interested in two related aspects of this situation: the impact of school curriculum scope on the development of future teachers & the selection of the curriculum itself.

  2. Elisa Z says:

    As a fellow teacher, I feel your pain. It is a tough call… On the other hand, I do think relying on “external support from administrators, politicians, and parents to maintain high standards” is not necessarily a bad thing. As these are larger cultural issues that beyond schools, it would be impossible to expect teachers to fix them all.

    • I appreciate the comment. I agree; teachers need this support since it is more difficult to have high standards, but often the external influences push them the other direction. It requires courage and perseverance to maintain high expectations for students. I hope you have the support you need and are free to challenge your students. I sure would like to take your class!

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