The grading lies we tell our students

Editor’s note: In September, the Florida Council of 100, in cooperation with the Florida Department of Education, released a study that pointed to a “rigor gap” between the grades Florida high school students receive and their mastery of content required to pass end-of-course exams in Algebra I and Grade 10 English Language Arts. This commentary from Steven Birnholz, Florida Council of 100 executive vice president and director of policy, and Eric Frey, an economist for the Florida Council of 100, published recently on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s website, expands on that story and explains why the “rigor gap” matters.

Two years ago, Seth Gershenson and Fordham published Grade Inflation in High Schools, groundbreaking research examining the relationship between students’ Algebra I course grades and end-of-course (EOC) test results in North Carolina. Gershenson found that 36% of Algebra I students who scored a “B” in the classroom did not pass the state’s corresponding EOC. Now there is evidence from Florida.

Our recent work in the Sunshine State also uncovered a chasm between students’ grades and EOC scores for courses required for graduation. Looking at Florida Algebra I and tenth grade English students from 2015–18, we found that 55% of students who did not pass the Algebra I EOC, and 72% of English students who did not pass the EOC, received a “C” or higher in the course. Further, more than a third of students who did not pass the EOC for 10th-grade English received a “B” or higher in the course.

We call this disparity between a school’s evaluation of a student’s level of mastery of state standards and the student’s demonstrated mastery of those standards on corresponding statewide standardized tests “the rigor gap.” This rigor gap matters for two key reasons.

First, it is not hard for any of us to think back to a class where we did not learn as much as we could have, or should have, because we knew the teacher’s grading practices made the course an “easy A.” In fact, a 2010 study showed that students study 50% less when they expect teachers to award relatively higher grades.

This reduction in what is learned in a course can have serious personal and economic consequences. Just like we did, today’s students will likely study less than they would have if their teacher held them to a higher standard, and by the time the student has received their EOC score, which raises the question of which measurement of knowledge should be given more credence, it is time to enjoy summer recess or focus on the next class in the subject’s succession.

Second, the rigor gap should be concerning to students and parents because it illustrates that many are investing two of life’s scarcest resources, time and money, into college or career decisions based on incomplete or misleading information about their chance of success. A 2017 nationwide survey found that while 84% of 12th-grade students want to go to college, only half felt that their school had helped them develop the skills and knowledge they need for college-level classes. Part of this likely arises from the lack of conviction students may possess in their abilities when their course grades and EOC results tell opposing stories.

It is also worth noting that, while this research was conducted with student data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we hypothesize that the drastic impact it had on students’ learning experiences during the 2019-20 spring semester has likely exacerbated the rigor gap presented in the cohorts which comprise our research through, among other things, more lenient grading practices. These include “do no harm” grading, pass/fail systems, or even “no grade issued” approaches.

This lack of incentive to work to raise a “C” to a “B” — or to receive any grade at all — likely decreased many students’ mastery of standards typically covered in the latter half of the school year. The effects were further magnified by the cancellation of year-end summative assessments based on the suspension of federal requirements. If a second year of waivers were to be granted, some students could be halfway through high school without an honest answer to how prepared they are for their desired future.

Fixing the rigor gap is not an easy proposition, but research from North Carolina and Florida tells us it will lead to students learning more — regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, or previous academic performance. Accomplishing this will require a collaborative effort among school leaders, teachers, parents, and students.

For district and school leaders, closing the rigor gap can be supported by, among other things, increasing the efficiency by which students’ course grades and EOC scores can be compared. Here in Florida, and we’re confident this issue exists in other states, the amount of effort that must be undertaken by teachers in certain school districts to compare their students’ course grades and EOC scores is unacceptable.

We believe that, once cognizant of the existence of, and educational damage caused by, the rigor gap, many teachers will naturally adjust their grading practices to better ensure that students are mastering state standards throughout the year and, thus, are more prepared for their EOCs. For those classrooms that persistently display a rigor gap, an infrastructure which provides clear, efficient presentation of this information will better equip school administrators to have an objective conversation with their teachers on this important subject.

For parents and students, the awareness of this rigor gap means a failing EOC score should spark sincere reflection, rather than them brushing it off because of a high grade in the corresponding course. If the local school district provides concise interim, formative assessments, it means the reflection and comparison of course grades and EOC scores can start earlier to avoid potentially finding out how behind one is at the end of the school year.

Although the rigor gap is likely nothing new, the time to address it is now. It is high time that students are told the truth so they can approach their dreams with the conviction that they are ready.

One Comment

  1. In education we simply call this “grade inflation”.

    Do you know why this exists? One of the major reasons is that teachers are under enormous pressure from parents, administrators, bureaucrats, government officials, and even students to pass with a decent grade. Caught in the middle of the onslaught of pressure from various sources, teachers give in and inflate grades to avoid conflict. Do you know how much stress teachers are under? Anyone with half a brain stays as far away from education as possible as a career these days. Salaries are horrible, respect is low, and satisfaction is hard to find. Add in the pressure from people who think that every kid MUST go to college – and to do so they need decent grades – and it’s not worth it to fight the battle.

    If teachers are given the freedom to truly assign grades that are deserved then you might see a decrease in the “rigor gap”.

    Furthermore, students know they can take these tests as many times as they want. Some do poorly because the incentive isn’t there to do well the first time. Other students genuinely struggle with long, comprehensive EOCs whereas they might do better in class where there are shorter tests covering only a few standards at a time.

    So, yes, grade inflation exists but you really have to do a deeper dive into why.