How to reverse grade inflation and help students reach their potential

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. and Michael Petrilli:

One of us recently mused that perhaps the reason dismal state test scores don’t resonate with parents is because they conflict with what parents see coming home from school. Who knows their kids better: their teachers or a faceless test provider? The teachers, of course. But what if the grades that teachers assign don’t reflect the state’s high standards? What if practically everyone is getting As and Bs from the teacher—but parents don’t know that?

That was the impetus for Fordham’s newest study, Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016). We wanted to know how easy or hard it is today to get a good grade in high school and whether that has changed over time. We can’t develop solutions until we’ve accurately identified the problem. And in this case, we suspect that one reason for stalled student achievement across the land is that historically trusted grades are telling a vastly different story than other academic measures.

So we teamed up with American University economist Seth Gershenson, who is keenly interested in this topic, and whose prior research on the role of teacher expectations in student outcomes made him a perfect fit to conduct the research.

The study asks three questions:

How frequent and how large are discrepancies between student grades and test scores? Do they vary by school demographics?
To what extent do high school test scores, course grades, attendance, and cumulative GPAs align with student performance on college entrance exams?
How, if at all, have the nature of such discrepancies and the difficulty of receiving an A changed in recent years?

Related: Seeing the Forest: Unpacking the Relationship Between Madison School District (WI) Graduation Rates and Student Achievement.