Grades are up, Scores are down

23 02 2007

The US Department of Education announced today that the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was down dramatically with only 35% of high school seniors across the country scoring “proficient” in reading.  The percentages for math and science were even more dismal with less than 25% of Seniors scoring proficient in math and about 18% scoring proficient in Science.  (The National Assessment is often viewed as the nation’s education “report card” because of the assessment being the only nationally standardized exam.) 

At the same time, the transcripts of students coming out of high schools make these kids look like the smartest generation in years.  The national average GPA for students is a 2.98, about a B+.  So why the discrepancy?  Shouldn’t these little savant’s be aceing the test like it’s just another Teen Beat Poll? (By the way, in case you were wondering, 35.6% of Teen Beat readers LOVE Justin Timberlake’s new “Future Sex/Love Sounds” album.  Come on, you you know you were curious.)  The problem seems to be that the questions on the National Assessment don’t ask about Britney’s new hair style or how many shades of lipstick Paris carries in her Gucci purse, but real questions that should be covered in the classroom and these “high performing students” with B+ averages would be expected to know. 

The discrepancy comes from an issue that has been creeping up in academia for a number of years now, performance blind grade inflation.  Teachers seem to be in an ever increasing predicament with expectations of the performance of their students tied to their career ambitions, as well as to their personal connection with the kids. 

The cycle goes something like this:

Johnny is a great kid, he’s captain of the Varsity track and soccer teams, president of the Student Body, and volunteers at the local retirement home on the weekends making paper hats and popsicle stick houses with the over 80 crowd.  Johnny is extremely popular with the school’s students and teachers, and is always polite and courteous with something interesting to say in class.    Now Johnny has his eyes set on college and he wants to go to Big Name University, because it is the best school around.  The high school administration and all of the teachers at Johnny’s school are excited about Johnny’s choice; having such a high profile student attending such a high profile college would be prestigious for the high school. 

But with all of the activities that Johnny does, he doesn’t have a whole lot of time for homework and studying, so his academic performance doesn’t seem to match the rest of his profile.  So because Johnny is such a good kid, and this is so important to Johnny, the school and community, teachers tweak the grades a little bit because they understand that Johnny tries really hard and that its tough to balance all of these activities and school work.  And who really uses square roots and the chemical composition of carbon molecules in the real world anyway?  Plus, the better that the students in a teacher’s class perform, the more likely she is to get that 5% pay bump at the end of the year. 

So Johnny’s grades go up and so do all the other students because their situation is similar and all the teachers are facing the same promise of a 5% pay bump that is tied to the performance of their students (Please note, tied to the STUDENTS performance, not the TEACHERS performance.).  And with that little helping hand, most of these kids are able to get past the tests and the transcript wars and into the college of their choice.

Once Johnny is at Big Name University, he goes from being a big fish in a small pond to a guppy in the ocean.  But Johnny is stubborn and he isn’t used to getting poor grades on his exams and quizzes so he takes his case up to his professors asking them to reconsider his performance.  The professors understand Johnny is a freshman at Big Name University and he might be having trouble adjusting to the thrills of life on the Big Name University campus, so they help him out a little by offering a little bump in each test grade.  They’ll do the same for everyone in their class, just to be fair.  And anyway, they are up for tenure review sometime in the next year, and they don’t really want to invite 20 students to file a challenge to their grade the semester before the review process.  So its a win-win really. 

Then the next year, things escalate when Big Name University gets a wider pool of applicants, all with the same inflated GPA, test scores and activity points.  So to limit the pool, they up the standards on GPA, test scores and activity points.  In order to compete with all the other applicants, high school seniors are stuck pressing teachers for even more grade inflations, etc. etc.  This is a slippery slope towards letting dolphins major in electrical engineering at VA Tech.  Sure they can’t get their flippers around the screw driver, and they can’t actually touch the electrical conduit, but dang it, they try hard. 

So where do we draw the line in the sand?  At what point do we say “You just need to know this stuff and get it and focus on your school work and academic performance?”  I dealt with this issue on a limited scale while serving on Marist College‘s Academic Integrity Committee.  Grade inflation was starting to become a problem, but no one really seemed to know what to do about it without changing the entire system.  A few ideas were discussed and it was agreed that this was a big problem with the potential to become a HUGE problem, but ultimately, nothing was done to curb any of the effects. 

One thing that we should really remember is that this is not the student’s fault.  I’m going to be a little daring here and assign the blame to the teachers and administrators – at all levels.  Remember, Johnny’s teachers went through the same process and got the same breaks as Johnny did.  This isn’t new, it’s been going on for generations and its why most older generations get frustrated at whatever the younger generations are learning (or not learning) in schools today. 

The main driver of grade inflation is tying the performance rating of teachers to the success of their students.  This is an antiquated and torpid approach to evaluations that presumes that the students are invested in performing as much as the teacher is invested in students performance.  We need to take a more holistic approach for evaluating teachers, including mandatory periodic re-certification by both CPE credits and institutional testing, increased in-classroom evaluations, school leadership, and yes, student performance.  The main (and radical) concept here is to begin testing teachers’ knowledge and capabilities and shifting the burden of teacher performance off of the students.  Educating the next generation is one of the most important tasks that one can have in society.  These educators are professionals and need to (and are demanding to) be treated as such.  That professional designation should include periodic testing and re-certification, the same as is required for doctors, nurses, first responders, CPAs, investment brokers or insurance agents. 

Once these professionals are able to control their own careers based on their own performance, the pressure to take the easy way out and simply inflate students’s grades will make the students work harder to perform better also.  And as the schools in a particular district begin to ACTUALLY perform better, the community will grow larger with more families moving in to take advantage of the great school system, thereby increasing the tax base and making it easier for school districts to attract better educators.  And so on, and so on.

Its time to start creating a different type of “win-win” in our education system.  Now, who’s going to take the first step?

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