Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Education in America - high school grade inflation

Most efforts to reform education in America come with some sort of push to improve graduation rates.  For some strange reason, graduation rates are seen as an excellent measure of school and teaching success.  In reality, graduation rates are largely irrelevant, and what really matters is how much the students actually know.  When schools and teachers are evaluated based on graduation rates, their natural response is to simply graduate more students.  They don’t actually have to teach any better than before and students don’t need to know any more than they did before.  In fact, standardized testing, the only reasonable way to actually compare performance from teacher to teacher, school to school and state to state, is getting a bad rap for being unfair to certain groups or inaccurate in the measurement of knowledge.  Maybe they can be unfair in some ways, but they are certainly better than no measure at all.  The National Center for Education Statistics doesn’t have data on the breakdown of high school grades, so proving that grade inflation is occurring is difficult.  But there is other data available that strongly supports that conclusion.

First off, high school graduation rates have been steadily improving for the last 30 years, consistent with the push to improve school performance.  The following table shows the national average dropout and graduation rates (all ethnicity combined) from 1980 to 2008.  The dropout rate was nearly cut in half.  One would assume then that the students must know more on average, since more of them are graduating.

National Dropout/Graduation Rates by Year - from NCES

Looking at standardized test scores however, we see that they don’t.  The same math test was given to 9, 13, and 17 year-olds from 1973 to 2008.  The scale range was 0 to 500.  The 9 and 13 year old show noticeable improvement in those years, however the 17 year olds haven't changed.  Apparently the primary schools are doing something right that the secondary schools are lacking.

Standardized Test Scores

Finally, there is some data available at the college level showing the high school grades of incoming freshmen. High school GPA can be correlated to remedial classes taken by the students in college for two time periods, 1995 and 2004.  Sure enough, the percentage of straight A students needing remedial coursework in college more than doubled in that time period, while the overall percentage went up only slightly.  This is particularly troubling if you consider that colleges are also experiencing grade inflation, so the bar on what would necessitate remedial coursework is no doubt lower today than in the past.

Remedial College Courses

So there you have it.  Yes, graduation rates are improving, but no, education in America is not better off for it.


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