Arne Duncan found himself in hot water a few years ago when, in reference to the higher standards of the Common Core, he said, “It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from…White suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.”
Duncan later apologized for what he called “clumsy phrasing” but at the time, even as a White suburban mom myself, I thought he was onto something. Fast forward to today and, putting aside the inartful and arguably insulting way he framed it, we’d be wise to consider that he might have been right.
The thing is, we “White suburban moms” are just like everyone else. None of us like to face up to hard truths. Change is hard and the evidence is now even clearer that the more affluent a student is, the less likely it is that their grades are accurate reflections of their knowledge or understanding of a particular academic subject. Grade inflation is very real and, in recent years, it has gotten worse in schools that serve affluent communities.
Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently joined forces to answer an essential question: How hard it is to get a good grade in high school and has it changed over time?
The study breaks new ground on the issue of grade inflation because it includes such a broad set of students and the findings, outlined in the recently published report “Grade Inflation in High Schools,” yielded three key—and concerning—conclusions:
- Finding 1: While many students are awarded good grades, few earn top marks on statewide end-of-course exams for those classes.
- Finding 2: Algebra 1 end-of-course exam scores predict math ACT scores much better than do course grades.
- Finding 3: From 2005 to 2016, more grade inflation occurred in schools attended by more affluent youngsters than in those attended by less affluent.
There is an ugly irony in finding 3—America has always been plagued by the insidious narrative that poor people of color don’t really earn their achievements and accomplishments but rather are given an unfair boost or advantage because of their race.
Anti-affirmative action sentiment—or resentment—is often what drives that thinking but experienced superintendents and educators will tell you that they hear the very same skepticism about their own students’ achievements.
In fact, it is the privileged, the wealthy and the powerful who are most likely to exist in a seeming state of denial, either wittingly or unwittingly, because their schools have seen the greatest increase in grade inflation in recent years. Performance on end-of-course exams has remained flat in such schools, but grades are on the rise.
In some respects, the Fordham study only puts hard numbers onto something we already knew. It is indisputable that it is commonplace in America schools for a child’s grades to be far better than their performance on standardized tests like Advanced Placement and the ACT or SAT.
In fact, students who receive A’s and B’s on their report cards often earn low scores on standardized tests in the same subjects. I remember my local superintendent sounding the alarm when he matched up the number of students earning A’s in AP courses and earning 1s and 2s on the AP exam. He identified the phenomenon as grade inflation.
While it’s hard to pin down why grade inflation has been on the rise in more affluent communities in recent years, it’s impossible to dismiss the likely possibility that pressure from parents plays a role. During my days as a teacher in a pressure-cooker community—average home price of $1.7 million—it was common for parents to call and come to the school to plead for the B- instead of the C+. The appeals for extra credit, extensions or any other opportunity to raise the grade were relentless.
In later years when I taught in southern California, a parent followed me from one school to another, in a rage that her son’s deliberate choice not to study for the final and subsequent failing grade resulted in a C. There I was, during a prep period the next school year at a different school listening to a mother berate me over the phone for her son’s report card grade from the previous June. When I told her that her son had actually said to me, in front of the class, that he wasn’t going to study at all for the final, it didn’t matter. It was my fault and I needed to fix it.
In the best case scenarios, teachers and administrators have the courage to stand up to these parents and they have a supportive superintendent. But others are quick to cave to pressure, especially when that pressure comes from influential and powerful people in the community. All of this is anecdotal but in conversations with teachers who have experience working in similar communities, the stories sound the same.
Parent pressure can’t account for all the grade inflation. In many school districts, it’s embedded in the culture and it’s simple: Classes are too easy and grading is too easy. Schools that boast honor rolls as long as CVS receipts often do not boast nearly as impressive numbers when it comes to student proficiency, SAT averages or college and career readiness. But how are parents to know that?
As Mike Petrilli has aptly mused in the past:
Conscientious parents are constantly getting feedback about the academic performance of their children, almost all of it from teachers. We see worksheets and papers marked up on a daily or weekly basis; we receive report cards every quarter; and of course there’s the annual (or, if we’re lucky, semiannual) parent-teacher conference. If the message from most of these data points is, “Your kid is doing fine!” then it’s going to be tough for a single “score report” from a distant state test administered months earlier to convince us otherwise.
And he adds that “nobody wants to tell parents to grab a pitchfork and march down to their school demanding an explanation for the lofty-yet-false grades their kids have gotten for years on end. Maybe they should.”
Parents wielding pitchforks are not out of the ordinary in affluent communities when it comes to the demand for better and higher grades so the likelihood that they’d change course and start banging the drum for fewer “lofty yet false” grades is pretty remote. But it needs to happen. I’ve got my pitchfork ready.