Deflating the potential for grade inflation
And you know what? Based on the way the system has been managed to this point, that’s exactly what would happen. In fact, it’s already happening: this article, for example, highlights the widening gap between reported grades and NAEP scores, while this one showcases the gap between reported grades and performance on state tests.
But it doesn’t have to be that way; in fact, one simple change has the potential to flip the entire dynamic to make the most challenging schools the most desirable.
That change is independent assessment.
In the current, grade-based system, there’s no independent verification of learning: the person who teaches is the same person who assigns grades. And, since assessment is subjective - there’s no external evidence of achievement – it’s easy to game the system. There’s no way for anyone outside the classroom to know what kind of learning went on. If you got a high grade, was it because you excelled in a rigorous class, because you stayed awake in an extremely easy class, because the teacher liked you and gave you those mysterious “extra points for effort,” or because the teacher grades on a scale, and you were the best of the worst? There’s no way to know – and that opens the door wide open for demands for undeserved higher grades.
And of course we have to give a hat tip to the administrators who override those teachers who are trying to maintain standards. While I’ve not seen hard data, there are innumerable anecdotal stories about this (see here for a particularly compelling story).
Of course, it’s not like this outside the classroom. Where there is independent assessment of some sort, the equation changes from “give me the best grade” to “teach me to excel” – a profound difference.
The football team isn’t judged by the coach; it’s judged by its performance against other teams, and therefore the players and their supporters want preparation to be as rigorous as possible. The dance teacher isn’t the sole judge of a student’s progress – they hold performances so others can see how well students are doing, giving teachers and students an incentive to prepare. And karate students aren’t evaluated by their sensei – they participate in competitions and demonstrations to work for new belts, an independent evaluation that forces them to strive to meet a predetermined standard.
And so it can be in formal education. If we build an external measurement model that’s respected, allows for comparison across schools and states, and that has some weight (such as being a graduation requirement, and offering comparative scores that are looked at by colleges for admissions purposes), it won’t be possible to game the system. I don’t care if it’s a national test or an independent review panel, as long as the evaluator is an independent entity and the standards and assessment method are known, objective, and uniform.
At that point, since evaluation is out of the hands of the instructor, the conversation will have to change from “give me an A” to “help me become capable of getting an A.” And I believe that simple change in dynamic would revolutionize public education as we know it.