For decades, schools have been dealing with a problem called “grade inflation.” With the educational chaos caused by COVID, a problematic situation is becoming catastrophic.
Built into the Existing System
Grade inflation is an easy concept to understand. It is the process over time by which students have gotten higher and higher grades for doing less and less work.
Socialist systems favor equality. American education is replete with socialist ideas that seek equal outcomes. However, grading tends to divide individual students into achievement groups. Grades reflect good, mediocre and poor students.
Schools can’t eliminate grades. Some parents demand to know how well their children are doing. Colleges use grade point averages as an essential criterion for admission.
To bolster their schools’ image, administrators pressure teachers who give too many low grades. Teachers then face two choices. They can “dumb down” the content so that everyone gets a good grade, but nobody learns much. The other option is to keep the coursework rigorous but devalue the grades to the point that everybody passes. In this way, the students that care do learn something.
Until George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” made standardized testing mandatory, the general public knew little about grade inflation.
According to a recent article from the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the differences between the grades in the class and the standardized tests are startling. “Two years ago, Seth Gershenson and Fordham published Grade Inflation in High Schools…. Our recent work in [Florida] also uncovered a chasm between students’ grades and EOC scores for courses required for graduation.”
The word “chasm” was not used purely for dramatic effect. Seventy-two percent of the students who failed Florida’s tenth-grade English exam between 2015 and 2018 received a course grade of “C” or better.
Covid – Coming to a School Near You
Covid has turned grade inflation into an epidemic.
Since schools closed in March, many have not returned to anything like a typical school schedule. The suddenness and severity of the lockdown left schools scrambling to cobble together a program.
At first, most schools thought that their students would return in a few weeks. Public health “experts” said that a fourteen-day lockdown would eliminate the threat of contagion. Thus, many schools treated it like an extended Easter vacation. The kids could make up March’s work in April, May, and June. It would be difficult, but it was do-able.
However, students didn’t return at the end of April, May, June, or even in September. Some schools plan to return in January, but a “spike” in Covid cases could end those plans overnight.
The most common plan around the crisis is some form of “distance education” over the Internet. However, many students do not have computers at home. Students also need high-speed Internet service to watch lessons, films and submit assignments. Families with multiple students need multiple computers and more “band-width.”
Private and parochial schools solve the problem by asking parents to take care of supplying these needs.
However, public school systems have a legal obligation to provide free education to all students. Thus, they can either provide computers and Internet access – an expensive proposition – or not hold students responsible for those assignments.
A New Set of Problems
The new situation has raised a new set of challenges. Those without computers must work from textbooks and worksheets sent home by teachers. The assignments must be sent back by students in a timely fashion. Getting everything back and forth involves much more effort.
Special education students present especially thorny problems. They need extra attention from their teachers. By law, these students have the right to a “free and appropriate public education.” Each special education student has an “individual education plan” (IEP) to determine their needs. A most common element in the IEPs is extra attention from the teacher and “preferential seating” as far from distractions as possible. Both are difficult (or impossible) when the student is at home and the teacher is on the other side of a screen.
Student and family privacy presents other issues. In distance education, the teacher enters all students’ homes through computer screens. Some schools record class sessions for students who need another dose of instruction. Therefore, many districts allow students to participate in online learning with their computer cameras turned off. That means that teachers are teaching students whose faces they never see. They can tell if the student is “present” in the online session because their computer is on, but nothing more.
“Do No Harm”
Many school districts have adjusted grading practices to be “fair” to students who did not have computers or have special education needs. Other students will be guaranteed the grades that they had before. According to Education Week, “at least 16 states have suggested or mandated a “do no harm” approach to grading, recommending that, given the pandemic, grades shouldn’t negatively affect a student’s academic standing.”
Although there are no available statistics, anecdotal evidence implies that districts in states other than those sixteen embraced this “solution.” Thus, student grades can go up because of online activities but not go down. All students who were passing when school closed in March would still pass at the end of the year, even if they did no work from March to June.
Thus, students are currently receiving grades that have no relationship to work that they have completed from teachers that they have never met, at least not in person.
Indeed, “grade inflation” has gone from being familiar to being almost universal.
What effect will this policy have on the students, especially the graduating class of 2021? Assuming that school resumes soon, they will have missed almost a full year of classes. All will be less prepared to enter the workforce. However, those who enter college in September 2021 will be the worst prepared students ever. Their Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) scores will probably be far lower than those of preceding classes.
No one can predict the outcome, but it can’t be good.
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