Analysis

Lemov: Students Learn More From Tough Teachers — but Simply Raising Expectations and Not Giving Easy A’s Isn’t Enough

By Doug Lemov | March 3, 2020

When teachers push students to work harder and maintain high expectations by not giving easy A’s, student achievement improves, finds Seth Gershenson in his new report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement. This positive result was present for black, Hispanic and white students, and for students of different economic backgrounds, and it endured for years afterward. 

This may seem intuitive, but it’s good to have a bit of backing for the idea, since there is almost nothing a wide range of people won’t argue against when it comes to educating children.

Still, even with the promising data, how to act on such findings remains a trickier question. Is it possible that better teachers grade harder and get better results because of their teaching, not their grading? This might seem an arcane distinction, but it suggests that just telling weak teachers to grade harder might not achieve positive results. Better teachers might grade harder because they understand more about what algebra requires. 

There are other reasons why simply pushing teachers to raise their standards might — but might not — improve learning outcomes. Consider a typical middle-class high school; call it Central High. At Central, the incentives for grade inflation and conflation are strong. Grade inflation is the steady decrease of standards until the average grade is an A rather than, say, a C. Grade conflation is similar but focuses in particular on collapsing the grading curve such that it’s increasingly hard to distinguish the highest-performing and the weakest students from the median. This tends to happen when grade inflation has gone on for long enough that everyone is in the A range, but it could also happen if, say, everyone got a B. Or if any student group got almost exactly the same score on an evaluation. There are plenty of such cases in education.

The list of people who are happy and believe their interests are served when grades are inflated and conflated is long. Students are happy because they appear successful no matter how little they have worked or achieved. (Please ignore here the faint distressed cries of hardworking and high-achieving students whose efforts are almost indistinguishable from those of their peers.) Parents are happy because their children are in the game for colleges. “In this district, the goal is to make everyone look like a winner,” one parent told me. More than 60 percent of all middle school students in her district were on the honor roll. To be average was to receive honors — literally. Indeed, what most benefits parents and students is a system that dilutes signals differentiating the exceptional from everybody else. The median parent is happy when everyone gets an A. And so, therefore, is the school. No angry phone calls and difficult meetings about whether the 78 was really fair. When easy A’s are the norm, a lot of conflict is avoided.

Under such conditions, tacit collusion is easy. You don’t even have to choose it. You just have to go along with the gentle waves pulling you in to its sandy shores, as the narrative comments of teachers included in Gershenson’s study bear out.

● “This is awful to say: It’s just easier to pass the kid than to actually really give valid feedback, if that makes sense.”

● “It just kind of seems like now there’s so much pressure on teachers to, frankly, inflate the grade to help out a student because I know I’ve been told, ‘Hey, Mr. [name], I got a B in your class. It’s the only class I ever got a B in, and it might cost me the scholarship.’”

● “I get emails from parents that are just like, ‘I demand to know the rationale behind my kid’s score. I demand to know why my kid got a B. My kid has an A in all the other classes but yours. You need to do the right thing and change their grade to an A.’”

● “We actually get chastised if anybody even fails our classes. If you have a kid failing, the teacher’s the one that’s in trouble, not the kid. It’s the teacher’s fault.”

● “When you’re pressured to do those things, you’re kind of on your own … and you could get in trouble if you don’t do what they’re asking you to do.”

To be the teacher who uses a different scale is both hard to sustain and possibly ineffectual. It is to drop tiny breadcrumbs in an immense and confused forest that encompasses not only grades K-12 but also higher education. 

In an article in The Atlantic excerpted from his book Privilege, Ross Douthat told a story about an iconic Harvard professor who felt the pressure to inflate grades.

“As many of you know, I have often been, ah, outspoken concerning the upward creep of Harvard grades over the last few decades. … Nevertheless I have recently decided that hewing to the older standard is fruitless when no one else does, because all I succeed in doing is punishing students for taking classes with me. Therefore I have decided that this semester I will issue two grades to each of you. The first will be the grade that you actually deserve — a C for mediocre work, a B for good work and an A for excellence. This one will be issued to you alone, for every paper and exam that you complete. The second grade, computed only at semester’s end, will be your, ah, ironic grade — “ironic” in this case being a word used to mean lying — and it will be computed on a scale that takes as its mean the average Harvard grade, the B-plus. This higher grade will be sent to the registrar’s office, and will appear on your transcript. It will be your public grade, you might say, and it will ensure, as I have said, that you will not be penalized for taking a class with me. And of course, only you will know whether you actually deserve it.”

It’s clear that, at all levels of education, grading isn’t free of the pressures of high stakes. Higher education has a scarcity problem. Coveted seats in prestigious institutions are increasingly scarce, and significant benefits are bestowed on those who secure them. This causes people with resources to (sometimes) game the system or (almost always) prevail in the system via legal means — while leveraging every resource possible. These efforts have contributed to more and more colleges becoming test-optional, forgoing the SAT or ACT and instead relying on grading as a presumably more accurate and pure form of evaluation. But because of higher education’s high stakes, whatever you rely on for allocating its benefits is going to be manipulated and distorted. Grading standards are, of course, no exception.

So Gershenson’s findings are important and worthy, but the forces behind low grading standards are strong and pervasive, and grades’ increasingly high stakes make them a prime target for gaming and mischief. 

Doug Lemov works at Uncommon Schools and is the author of “Teach Like a Champion” (now in its 2.0 version) and “Reading Reconsidered.” 

Related

Sign up for The 74’s newsletter

Submit a Letter to the Editor