- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

It is a disappointment when a child performs poorly in school. It becomes a tragedy, however, when the child and his parents are not told the truth.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of primary and secondary school students are tested and found to lack minimum skills despite having been promoted from grade to grade.

It is a massive and growing problem.

Many have been socially promoted, i.e., moved ahead despite poor marks.

Most, however, are the victims of grade inflation: They were awarded letter grades that were not warranted by academic performance.

In New York City, 15,000 students may have to repeat the third grade because they are unable to pass a test of reading, writing and arithmetic.

In California, the General Assembly delayed its 12th-grade exit exam requirement because an estimated one-third of 2004 graduates would not have received a diploma. The exam required only sixth- to eighth-grade skills. California’s universities admit only the top third of high school graduates, but 37 percent are required to take remedial math and 48 percent remedial English.

Recently, researchers took a closer look at the letter grades awarded in a Florida school district. Judged by the scores students earned on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), only 9 percent of the “A“‘s assigned to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students were deserved. Of the students who performed at a “D” or “F” level on the FCAT, 17 percent had earned an “A” from their teacher. Many had been taught by teachers whom the study called “easy graders.” On average, these teachers assigned an “A” to those who were in reality “D” or “F” students 32 percent of the time.

Why are some teachers so “generous”?

The most commonly cited reason is that they don’t want children to be thought of as failures by other students or by themselves. It is a valid educational concern. Children can become discouraged and quit making an effort.

But it also is true that disappointing grades can spur added effort and bring aboutbothimproved achievement and increased self-confidence.

Teachers may think they are being “nice” when they assign an undeserved passing mark, but in reality they are neglecting to weigh short-term disappointment against the risk of creating a life-long handicap.

The high school graduate without basic skills, for example, faces almost certain failure in college and greatly dimmed prospects for workplace success. Worse, by the time of the inevitable rude awakening, the individual’s formative years and best learning opportunities have been wasted.

There is another, less benign reason for lax grading — one that has nothing to do with the best interests of students. Failing grades put pressure on the adults who have responsibility for a child — especially on teachers and school administrators. For teachers, poor grades imply classroom ineffectiveness. For school administrators, they imply poor leadership, poor policy and poor oversight.

At the heart of grade inflation is a conflict of interest. High grades are more comfortable for everyone involved — including educators. Teachers, administrators and school districts can bolster constituent satisfaction and their public image — or they can do the opposite — depending on the grades they assign. The incentive is obvious.

Grade inflation is the proverbial elephant in education’s living room. It creates complacency and devalues legitimate accomplishment but is ignored because it masks the need for improvement.

Critics complain about accountability measures, such as those mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, but such measures might never have been needed if letter grades were trustworthy. Teacher-assigned letter grades can provide much more timely and detailed information about where a student needs help if they are conscientiously assigned.

Just as many organizations separate operations from budgeting and accounting, truthful grading may require schools to separate student assessment from teaching. At a minimum, grading needs to be externally audited and tied to consequences for teachers and administrators.

Admitting the problem would be a good first step.

John Stone is a senior fellow in education studies at Pacific Research Institute.

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