Dan Weisberg’s recent commentary “The biggest scandal in education is hiding in plain sight,” posted on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website, posits that there are huge grading inconsistencies across America’s high schools, and parents who rely on those grades are being misled by their schools and teachers. Weisberg writes that for millions of families, report cards are misleading and offer false confidence that children are well prepared for their futures.
Weisberg discusses the variability of grading standards as evidenced through a study funded by the Fordham Institute that found huge variation in grading standards among Algebra I teachers in North Carolina. In the study, the researchers found that grading standards were not based on policy, but were influenced by factors such as the teacher’s experience, the selectivity of the college attended by the teacher, and even their gender. The study provided evidence that students learned more from teachers with high grading standards, and those gains continued for years. Additionally, resources like talent, funding, and access to excellent teaching influenced outcomes, which meant that suburban schools typically did better than schools in the North Carolina cities.
Author Weisberg also discusses a study funded by his organization, TNTP: reimagine teaching. The study found that out of students who earned Bs, only 35 percent were at grade level on state reading and math tests, and just half met the benchmark for college readiness on the ACT or SAT. According to the author, these discrepancies were not just from low grading standards on challenging work, but from a lack of opportunities to attempt appropriate grade level work. Most of the students studied in the Opportunity Myth project spent most of their time doing work below their grade level.
Families and students need to know exactly what grades mean, according to Weisberg, and the first step toward solving that is embracing transparency. Schools should make it clear that an A or B does not mean performance at grade level or toward college preparedness. Teachers who apply higher standards should not be pressured by parents, students, and supervisors to give better grades, particularly if doing so does not tell the story about preparedness.
I am glad that Dan Weisberg applauded the Thomas Fordham Institute for conducting and publishing this research. As someone who knows a little bit about learning outcomes assessment, I am somewhat surprised that there has not been more of a focus from schools and teachers agreeing on how to build a course syllabus based on specific course objectives, a transparent grading rubric, and measuring the learning outcomes based on students’ learning achievements.
There exists a discipline, multiple research papers and textbooks, and annual conferences that can assist faculty with building a syllabus and a course that provides transparency on expectations and measures outcomes after the course has been completed. If the goal is for students to learn Algebra I at the state or national average for their grade level, it should not be difficult to state that in a syllabus and explain why the grading represents that achievement or not. Sadly, dealing with the issues of education inequality is something that continues to be unresolved to the detriment of our country.