Average grades rose significantly for Washington students due to the pandemic, and they’re still slightly up, according to a recent study that analyzed nearly a decade’s worth of grade data for middle and high school students.
That finding is unsurprising, given that in 2020 the state advised districts against failing their students while schools were closed during the pandemic. Individual districts made further changes: Seattle updated its policies to award students either an A or incomplete.
But the most recent data shows evidence of grade inflation even in the years after students returned to in-person schooling, according to the study, which was authored by researchers from the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research.
The change in grading standards is not quite as dramatic as during the pandemic’s heyday, said CEDR researcher Dan Goldhaber. The percentage of students earning B’s in science, for example, is back down to pre-pandemic levels. But the relationship between students’ test scores and their grades has drifted farther apart, meaning that grades alone might not be the best signal of how well a child is doing in school. Parents may want to consider taking extra steps to figure out if their child is on track.
We spoke to Goldhaber about the implications of this trend. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- Why did you decide to do this research?
This is a part of a larger project looking at grades. I think that [grades] serve multiple purposes. They are providing a signal of what students know. I also think they are providing feedback that might alter students’ emphasis on what they are studying, how they are studying, and how much they are studying, and they are also serving as an incentive to learn class material.
- What should the relationship look like between test scores and grades?
At the extreme, you wouldn’t want there to be no relationship between grades and objective measures of student achievement, like tests. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want them to be in lockstep. I think most people would agree that either end of that spectrum is not where you want to be.
- What are the consequences of grade inflation for kids who are academically struggling?
I am a little worried that the change in the grading standards is indicating that grades are not a good signal to students [and] their families. School districts are often providing lots of [supplemental] services that students and families can [participate in] … and what the research would say broadly is that the number of kids that take up the offer of those experiences is only a fraction of what school systems are hoping or planning for. Parents are getting the impression their kids are doing very well.
- It’s been a few years since kids came back to school in-person. What’s the trend now?
Grades have absolutely come back down to earth — not all the way back. (There were more A’s in 2021-22, for example, than there were before the pandemic.) But test scores are way down from pre-pandemic, so the relationship is not as strong between test scores and grades.
- What’s the answer? Should schools be reevaluating their grading standards?
There is some good and bad coming out of this. What makes me nervous about erring on the side of returning to pre-pandemic grading is that students are still getting used to schooling. And I don’t know whether getting a bad grade might hurt the re-engagement process. But kids might be disengaged if they think “I’m not really needing to do as much and I’m gonna get a good grade.”
I see with my own kids that when they take a test, they [often] are allowed to retake the test as many times as they like. Some teachers say you have to bring it home and correct it. And your grade will increase. I think those are ways to keep kids engaged and have the grades be an incentive for further learning.
- If the relationship between grades and test scores is not the strongest right now, what should families be looking at to see if their child needs more help in school?
I would say they should be looking at both test scores and grades, and expect some degree of correspondence. But schools should also do some work for parents to contextualize what an A, B or C means. I would expect that if my kids are doing great in a subject, and if they get a B, that’s pretty good. But if my kids are getting a B, and the average GPA in the school is higher than a B, then that means that my kids aren’t doing so well. You don’t want to jump to conclusions — but it is fodder for a conversation.
… And I don’t expect to see this, but I wish there was a little bit of pressure on schools. Not necessarily to change the standards — because I don’t know what they should be — but to have articulated standards (such as a rubric).