Standardized Tests Deflate Grades

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

Week of February 26, 2007

Dueling reports released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics will do little to quell confusion over high school performance. Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, sums up the data imbroglio this way: “The results don’t square.”

Indeed they don’t. Both studies examined high-school performance in 2005; however, the similarities end there. According to the 2005 High School Transcript Study, American high school graduates are smarter than ever, posting an average GPA of around 3.0, up from 2.7 in 1990. Not only that, high schoolers earned more credits and took more challenging courses than did their counterparts in past years.

But reading and math performance scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “Nation’s Report Card,” tell a far different story. Twelfth grade NAEP reading scores have declined since 1992; this drop was seen at all levels, with the exception of top performers. In math, the news was far worse: A shocking 77 percent of twelfth graders scored below proficiency. Because of a change in the math-testing framework, 2005 results were not comparable to earlier years.

What gives? While no one knows for sure, expert analysts point to “grade inflation” as a potential cause of the disconnect between these two studies. One thing seems clear: pumping up attendance in advanced courses and doling out high marks can’t buy kids a passing grade on a standardized test.

That hasn’t stopped the North Carolina State Board of Education (SBE) from piling on the classes. Now in the process of soliciting public input through eight regional meetings, SBE is proposing the following new graduation requirements, including: a fourth year of math instruction, two years of a foreign language, and four courses involving an “endorsement” based on student interest (options include Career-Technical, Arts Education, JROTC, Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate, or second language).

Given the recent raft of national data, it’s hard to believe tinkering with student course loads will make any discernible difference in academic performance. If anything, 2005 NAEP test scores are proof positive that adding more classes won’t make students learn better, even though they may feel a whole lot smarter. As Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, puts it, “Just slapping new names on courses with weak curriculum and ill-prepared teachers won’t boost achievement.”

Oh, by the way, the State Board of Education finally released the long awaited graduation rates this week. According to this report, only 68.1 percent of ninth graders graduate in four years. Could there also be “grade inflation” in high schools that report higher graduation rates, than students who pass the End of Course tests?

If we’re serious about improving high school performance, we ought to start by tackling the problem at its root. Students don’t just fall apart in high school; academic failure begins early, in elementary and middle schools. That’s why we need tough academic standards in the core subjects for these kids, as well as for high school students. Sure, implementing broad-based K-12 academic reform is hard work, but it pales in comparison to the obstacles facing a generation of uneducated young adults.

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.