Making (up) the Grade

Fordham Institute’s recent study on the issue of high school grade inflation has received widespread and well-deserved attention.  The phenomenon of teachers being pressured by parents and administration to change or pad grades is nothing new, but the context in which this is increasing is the result of some larger trends.

The narrative of “college for all” has created a culture in which students who may not have pursued a college degree in the past have felt pressured to do so.  Some of this pressure may come from parents and peers; other times, the pressure comes from schools whose metrics rely too much on college attendance as a proxy for a successful outcome.

Colleges naturally want to take advantage of this market, and as Stephen Hurd has documented in “The Real Reason that Colleges Go Test Optional,” they can do so by removing the ACT/SAT requirement.  This change is attractive to students who may not have scores that would traditionally have met the cut-off.  But it also benefits the colleges in that they can appear to be increasing their exclusivity — the idea being that students who do submit their scores are likely to have higher ones, and this average then makes it look like the institution is becoming more seletive.

Despite the promise that this would open doors to more minority students, Mr. Hurd points out that this idea has not led to more diversity on campus; in fact, it seems to be going in the other direction.

The promise of the SAT was an egalitarian one.  The idea was that a lot of talented students not to the manor born were wildly underrepresented at elite universities, and that these universities were missing out on promising future alumni.  A test was supposed to even the playing field.

When universities started taking “test-optional” approach to admissions by giving more weight to high school grades and extracurriculars, an unintended consequence was likely to flip the scales in favor of the connected again.  Those who can afford schools which are responsive to parental pressure to raise grades as well as the cost of robust extracurriculars definitely benefitted under the new, holistic standards.

If the idea is that your ACT or SAT may not matter as much as your grades or extracurriculars, these schools have every incentive to ensure that their graduates are not at a disadvantage relative to other students in similar circumstances.  Hence, grade inflation.

I think the real solution is to make it less “mandatory” to go to college.  This will require us to help create a culture in which we

  • as parents and teachers, encourage students to carefully examine all the paths to success that they might pursue,
  • as friends and social media participants, praise the dignity of work,
  • as employers, open up apprenticeships, paid internships, and jobs to qualified applicants without college degrees.

These three cultural shifts are already underway.  I’m guessing we’ll see less grade inflation if parents and students aren’t so deeply worried about how their grades will affect college admissions.

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