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News / Northwest

Grade inflation is hurting Washington students, researchers say

By Jenn Smith, The Seattle Times
Published: February 20, 2024, 6:15am

Grades in Washington may not indicate how well a student is doing in school, researchers say. And they worry about kids falling further behind if things don’t change.

New research shows educators are awarding higher grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past, a practice known as grade inflation. At the same time, test scores among many classes are flat or declining.

Experts suggest schools need to give clear, contextual signals about student progress that goes beyond grades. They’re urging school officials to discuss these gaps with families, community organizations and municipal leaders so they can work together to support student needs.

They also recommend schools use remaining pandemic relief funds on high-dosage tutoring and summer- and after-school academic support programs that can help kids make the gains they need.

“No one wants to see poor kids footing the bill for the pandemic, but that is the path Washington is on,” said Thomas Kane, who co-leads the Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration with researchers at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project.

The recovery scorecard data shows many Washington students are close to half a year behind in learning and achieving when compared with pre-pandemic levels.

In looking for signs of improvement, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction found 70.3% of ninth graders passed all of their courses in the 2022-23 school year. But the data doesn’t indicate whether those students are performing at grade level.

Researchers for the national scorecard project analyzed test scores and found Washington students statewide lost more than five months of learning in math between 2019 and 2022 and about three months in reading.

The results varied widely for individual districts. For example, Seattle Public School students lost the equivalent of 4 1/2 months of learning in math, while Kent students lost more than six months.

Districts in higher-poverty areas, including Highline, Yakima and Auburn, lost a full grade equivalent or more in math between 2019 and 2022. Higher-income districts like Bellevue, Issaquah and Northshore lost the equivalent of three months or fewer of math learning, but their students actually made gains in reading.

What parents should know about grades

Test scores are one way to look at how well kids are doing in school, but they increasingly don’t match grades. This is problematic when families use both to signal academic gains or strains.

“Grades are such a fundamental currency in that they’re one of the main ways that schools communicate how things are going for a child,” said Tim Daly, CEO of the EdNavigator nonprofit, which works with health care providers and businesses to help families navigate school decisions.

Last November, the organization co-published the report “False Signals: How Pandemic-Era Grades Mislead Families and Threaten Student Learning.”

Researchers partnered with two anonymous public school districts to analyze the pandemic’s effect on student absences, learning and grades. Their research revealed the number of students who were not yet on grade level and chronically absent quadrupled. Yet more than 40% of these students still earned B’s or better in core subjects.

Researchers from the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research recently published a study examining evidence of grade inflation in Washington schools.

It worries Dan Goldhaber, as the center’s director and a parent, that there’s a share of kids getting A’s and B’s but also not meeting the state standards for grade-level achievement.

“I would want school systems to hopefully do more to use grades to make clear how much kids actually know. Because that really does forecast a lot about their post K-12 likelihood of being successful in college or the workforce,” Goldhaber said.

Despite the data, most parents believe their kids are meeting grade-level standards, and some have “relatively low levels of concern,” multiple new reports are finding.

Many schools fail to provide grade transparency and helpful context about grades to kids and their families, Daly said. And that’s concerning.

Schools, students and families could all benefit from knowing the context behind what a grade means, how a student is doing compared to peers and whether students can demonstrate they understand the subject matter.

Goldhaber suggests parents and caregivers should regularly ask their students if they retook a test or redid an assignment before getting a more satisfactory grade. They should also ask what they learned from that process. If a student gets a poor grade the first time around, the parent should ask if the student understands why they initially got the lower grade and what they are doing to go back and learn how to solve the problem correctly.

“Sometimes what you end up valuing is that the child persisted until they displayed something that looked like mastery, once. That’s a little different than consistent mastery, and consistent mastery is what some grading systems are predicated on,” Daly explained.

How parents can track grades

Seattle Public Schools requires parents and guardians to set up not one but two online accounts — one called Schoology, one called The Source — to see how students are doing.

These tools provide a lot of data, often in real-time as kids complete assignments. But the relational element — kids and parents having to go to a teacher directly to ask about a grade and to come up with a game plan to do better — might not happen if they’re just scrolling through.

This school year, SPS is requiring educators to provide biweekly check-ins with students and families for students at risk of earning an “incomplete,” “no credit” or a failing grade. But SPS teachers are not allowed to give any grades lower than 50% on any assignment or assessment, even for a missed assignment.

Researcher Karen Mapp says the correlation between human connection and student success cannot be underestimated. The Harvard University educator and her colleagues have published at least half a dozen books and studies on the subject, highlighting decades’ worth of evidence-based strategies.

Online grading systems, she said, aren’t helpful if caregivers and parents don’t sign up for the portal, don’t know how to navigate it or encounter an accessibility barrier.

Harvard researchers found evidence that simplifying the process for families to access things like parent portals can increase family engagement. For example, automatically enrolling families with one click and letting them choose to opt out.

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“We’ve got to be smart about these tools,” Mapp said. “It’s the glue that holds everything together. So you’ve got to do a little bit of that connection piece. The tools can’t create the relationship.”

And that relationship, she said, requires good communication.

Go beyond the grades

Goldhaber said honesty matters. It’s not helpful if a teacher sugarcoats how a kid is doing in school or if they’re padding grades so as not to offend or make people feel bad.

“You want to know if your kid’s doing well in X, Y and Z. But I want to hear the areas of concern, too,” Goldhaber said. “Teachers probably know and hopefully they can express that to me. “

Daly fears schools and families aren’t having honest conversations about what grades mean in terms of progress. “One of the things that we need to maximize our recovery chances is kids have got to be engaged and invested, and they have to work,” said Daly. “Learning is not magic.”

Teachers and families have to believe their kids are capable of doing hard work and show they’re willing to support them in that work, Goldhaber said. When kids have a sense their teachers and families believe in them, “they come to expect that of themselves.”