Education is being ruined by grade inflation

We cannot rule out the possibility that the disparities are driven, at least in part, by methodological differences between the studies

When people lose the connection between their actions and their consequences, they lose their hold on reality and the further this goes the more it looks like madness.

~Robert Greene

Students learn less from easy lecturers, according to a research done at the Naval Academy. "Instructors who dole out easier subjective marks... substantially harm later student performance," the researchers write. These statements, however broad, back up everyone who has ever gone to school or met a person. Students will put up less effort when they are able to. So, why are schools attempting to make grading more straightforward?

In my ten years as a high school teacher, I've witnessed a continual drive to minimize writing, reading, and note-taking, as well as to lengthen late work sessions, lighten workloads, dilute the weight of exams, and, most importantly, to remove failures. At the university level, the situation is similar. The amount of time spent on academic study by college students has decreased from 40 hours per week in 1961 to 27 hours in 2003 to less than 12 hours in 2008*. During that period, both public and private institutions' average grades have improved, while national SAT scores have continued to drop. Graduates today are not always brighter or more equipped for the future, but many believe they are.

Generations of self-esteem culture and a gradual educational transition from a standards-driven strategy to one of customer service are at the basis of these developments. Our schools became more concerned with perception and appeasement than learning as materialism engulfed society. School had become a game in the eyes of both parents and instructors, with the classes teaching an arbitrary routine that stood between pupils and the certificate they desired.

All the while, headlines continued to note America’s declining status in world education rankings. More money was targeted at shrinking gaps between different groups and supporting the disadvantaged, yet scores declined across nearly every demographic.

Despite this, schools are straying further from the norms. If you go to any high school professional development, you won't hear anyone talking about what skills students will need in the future or about specific abilities that students are having trouble mastering. Instead, there is a slew of innovative methods for making learning simple. The philosophy of intrinsic motivation has been adopted by schools. If children aren't engaged in their learning, it's because we haven't made the environment enjoyable, fascinating, or safe enough, or (education's response to everything), because we haven't comprehended how today's digitally distracted young learn and, as a result, haven't integrated enough new technology.

To be fair, intrinsic drive, as well as interacting with students and making subject attractive, are important factors. Furthermore, more difficult grading does not always imply higher learning. We've all had that haphazard instructor who didn't bother to educate and instead made a point of asking esoteric questions, as if being tough would hide their inadequacies. There's a lot more wrong with schooling than just low expectations. Despite an obesity crisis, we disregard activity and nutrition, promote wide, shallow curriculums, and overlook logic and critical analysis, which should be the foundation of post-elementary education. In this age of information overload, pupils are never taught to distinguish between fact and fiction, and parents are seldom directed to techniques for minimizing harmful smartphone usage.

Still, imposing standards is a good place to start if you want to enhance public education. We can argue about what should be learned, how it should be taught, when it should be taught, and how many breaks there should be, but when grades stop reflecting mastery, the entire operation becomes performative. Grading loses its significance. Teachers act as a thermostat, cooling down classes when they see too many students are in "hot water." "Just tell me what you want the grades to look like," a 20-year instructor recently said. I can do whatever you want with the breakdown."

Grades are a metric. Like all metrics, they are subject to missing immeasurable components—essential soft skills like how well you interact in groups or how you utilize body language in persuasive argument. Better teachers will develop the ability to detect and integrate these soft skills into grade determinations, but the grade will always be a crude approximation. Still, we must have metrics that intend to measure relevant data and represent it with as much accuracy as possible. A strength and conditioning coach knows that the translation between their workouts and each athlete’s sport is fuzzy. Helping a linebacker add 50 pounds to his back squat doesn’t predict how many more tackles he will make, yet we know it helps. We want to identify the trainable qualities that we believe will most influence his performance and we want to measure these qualities with as much accuracy as possible. If “nice” coaches shave off a few milliseconds when testing 40 yard dash times or randomly inflate athletes’ bench press numbers, then the data is compromised. The more this happens, the less valuable the data.

It is the same with school grades. Rampant grade inflation has made grades less useful while, ironically, making them the entire point of school. The subject becomes a means to an end. It is the topic for the activity that needs to be done to assign the grade.

What did you do today?

I had to fill out a chart matching New Deal policies with their effects.

What’s the New Deal?

I don’t know.

Thus, education devolves into a lot of activity for the sake of activity, with little recognition for what skills truly matter or for the ability of education to improve lives. The same has happened with standardized testing. When improving education becomes a priority, states roll out some new testing regime. The test is supposed to better assess how well students are learning, but the grading criteria are manipulated so that it is very difficult to see how well students have actually learned. Getting zero questions correct on this year’s Texas Biology STAAR test earns a score of 1418. To pass the STAAR students only have to get 19 of 54 questions correct, or as the state reports it, a 3550. Not that standardized testing is the answer. An overemphasis on these tests has led to the de-professionalization of classroom teachers and hurt educational quality, but the point remains. By making feedback confusing, we negate its ability to prompt appropriate adaptations.

The purpose of grading is to provide feedback—to represent reality. When grades are skewed, they stop providing feedback that would allow teachers to effectively assess what students have learned, students to accurately identify how well they are learning and inspire further effort, and the entire system to adjust to students' needs. This is especially true for low-achieving pupils, who frequently graduate from high school without learning how to compose comprehensible emails or perform simple math calculations. I'm constantly astounded by how many high-school athletes I work with who are unable to mentally add weight totals.

Many argue that everyone just needs a high-school diploma so they can move on with their lives. McDonald’s workers need a high-school diploma now too. But this has nothing to do with the skills a high-school diploma is supposed to guarantee. The only reason you would need a high-school diploma for low-skill jobs is because we have made it nearly impossible not to graduate. You don’t have to do anything but show up and occasionally turn something in. Not graduating is now the ultimate red flag. Likewise, we tell every student they need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get a college diploma and then many go wait tables. By inflating grades across the board, we’ve created an insane labyrinth of debt where employers look for candidates with an unrelated college diploma, because it signals they’ve done more than waltz through high school. Our cultural expectations grow increasingly insane as the distance grows between reality and our social indicators.

I've had a brilliant idea. Assign grades only on the basis of academic achievement—the quality of the writing, the precision of the math problem, and the comprehension of historical topics. Everything should be graded only on mastery, and failing to do so is considered unethical. Most kids would put in significantly more effort, learn a lot more, and love it. They'd put forth enough effort to develop more satisfying hobbies and become better citizens. Some people would not be able to meet the challenge and would be left behind. However, this is already taking place.

So many students struggle in algebra classes because they don't understand fundamental arithmetic. We place kids in situations where we know they won't learn anything, making a mockery of the entire system in the process. Worse, this inability to accept reality prevents effective adaptations—technical skill pathways, reality-based community assistance efforts, and targeted remediation for individuals determined to close gaps.

Because of the COVID-19 epidemic and the limits of virtual learning, our pupils have learnt less this year than they have in the past. How much better would they have done if they hadn't been taught to look for excuses and expect them to be accepted? How much more critical is it today to have mastery-reflective grading in order to identify and target gaps? To propose that we should grade unfairly is to profoundly misunderstand what education is all about. It lengthens childhood, reduces engagement, and reinforces a culture of deferred responsibility. Nothing could possibly be more awful.

* We cannot rule out the possibility that the disparities are driven, at least in part, by methodological differences between the studies.

Correction:The assertion "The amount of time college students spend on academic work has gone from 40 hours per week in 1961, to 27 hours in 2003, to barely 15 hours in 2008" has been given an extra reference that was not included in the original version of this article. In addition, the original version said that students spent 15 hours a week on average outside of the classroom studying in 2008, while the exact figure is 11.76 hours. Finally, a study's reported year was wrongly given as 1960 rather than 1961. These inaccuracies have been fixed. We apologise for not spotting them before they were published.

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