When report cards lie

Ninety percent of students who flunked Massachusetts’ graduation exam said they had a C average or better; 70 percent were planning to go to college. Teachers who give passing grades to semiliterate students are cheating them, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Students will try harder if they know it’s necessary. They need accurate feedback.

(Teachers) will deny that they are acting dishonorably and dishonestly in their grading of marginal students.

They will say it is wrong to deny diplomas to students on the basis of a single test. They will say the tests do not accurately measure what students need to learn to survive in the world. They will say the tests are cancers smothering all the life in their classrooms. They will say that some students just do not do well on standardized tests. They will say that as professionals they cannot in good conscience fail a student who is trying hard and needs that diploma to have any kind of shot at a job after graduation. They will say that employers want applicants of good character, who show up on time and respect the rules. They will say whether or not a student graduates knowing how to discover an unknown quantity in an algebraic equation or summarize a complex reading passage is not so important.

And they may be right about all of that. But they are paid with tax dollars to do their best to teach their students what the community has decided is important to know. That includes reading and doing math well enough to pass a test that at least 90 percent of high schoolers in Massachusetts seem able to pass . . . It is cheating to accept a salary for helping students reach these standards and then not assess students honestly when they are in danger of flunking that test.

Education Gadfly has a link to the “Seizing the Day” student survey (pdf file) by Mass Insight Education and Research Institute.

About Joanne


  1. Ahhhh,

    The mantra of self-esteem and feel-good malarky rears it’s ugly head again. Students who are given grades which by definition they didn’t earn, are being set up for failure later in life.

    I know from personal experience that you may be able to fool some people, but you cannot fool yourself (i.e. – do you really know the material you were given grade for, or did you just BS your way through it)?

    The concept of being ‘average’ seems to have GONE out the window, and given that I have an exam average of about 78% for 13 chapter exams doesn’t mean I don’t know the material, I just need to study harder on the 3 chapters where I got sub-average scores is all).

    When will the insanity stop?

  2. I wonder how many of those students had an IEP?

  3. Isn’t it entirely possible they (teachers) say all these things because they are incapable of doing better? I assert that every school has a small minority of teachers intellectually challenged enough to be unable to get the job done right.

  4. jeff wright says:

    In fairness to teachers, there are often enormous pressures to award higher grades than earned. At the high-end schools, it’s all about GPA and that coveted college acceptance. At the lower end, it’s about moving them on to the next grade. And, yes, self-esteem plays a large role. There is a great deal of pity for disadvantaged children and there is no doubt that the school establishment wants to avoid piling on kids who’ve already got it tough. Demographics play a role, too. If you flunk a sizable number of kids and hold them back, e.g., make them repeat the grade, there won’t be room for new accessions to that grade. I saw this happen at a school where I taught and I suspect it’s not an unusual occurrence.

    The old saw, “if the student failed to learn, the instructor failed to teach,” is often used against teachers inclined to be tough. It seems to me that it would be an entirely normal human reaction to, after a few years of this, kind of say, “well, if you don’t care, why should I?” Who wants to be a voice in the wilderness?

    If the tests are all-important for the diploma, and it doesn’t matter whether you got all As or all Ds, so long as you pass, why not eliminate letter grades in favor of a pass-fail system? At the high school level, grades are all about qualifying for college; let the colleges fend for themselves. To draw a parallel, state universities supported with tax dollars routinely give scholarships to “student athletes” who don’t have a prayer of doing college-level work. In this case, the colleges are merely serving as farm teams for the NFL. Where is it written in stone that high schools have to be farm teams for colleges?

  5. I had seen Ms. Jacob’s name before, though I am not sure if I have been to this weblog. (I might have.) From what I’ve seen, it must be a famous weblog.

    I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment here before, though. This looks like a well-designed site, and a great weblog. It is well-maintained, and the entries look good and well-written as well.

    Keep up the great work, Ms. Jacobs!

  6. Hunter McDaniel says:

    The problem is that there is a real cost to the teacher for grading accurately – unhappy kids, angry parents, pressure from administration – and ZERO cost for inflating grades. It is not realistic to expect teachers to maintain the integrity of the grading system if they are the only ones who care about it.

  7. I can attest that there is indeeed pressure on teachers not to give failing grades. At inner-city schools, I have heard principals say “do not fail more than 25% of the class.” The when students give “too many” failing grades, they are called into the principal’s office and told to change the grades. If they still stand up for their principles and refuse, then it will reflect on their annual evaluation. It’s a shame, because as we all know it is only cheating the kids to make them think they know more than they do, and set them up for a big shocker in college. This is one reason Georgia is having a crisis with it’s beloved HOPE scholarship. It’s being awarded to more students than actually deserve it and the money is about to run out.

  8. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘There is a great deal of pity for disadvantaged children and there is no doubt that the school establishment wants to avoid piling on kids who’ve already got it tough. ‘

    Good thinking! – then on top of their supposed disadvantages you can add a real one. They’re uneducated. I recall a statement ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations….’

  9. Here’s the part I really like: “The mayor and the [D.C.] Council won’t control D.C. vouchers,” Norton said. “The fix is screwed in tight.”

    My, what a terrible thing to take control away from a group of chronic screwups.

  10. At the risk of being burned at the stake here, I will put forward the idea that grade inflation *is* the market at work.

    If we actually had true matriculation exams with high standards that were completely and strictly enforced in any one state, you would almost certainly see the following:

    Massive dropout rates, especially from schools were the graduation rate was less than 10%
    Destruction of the college education system when there is less than half the regular pool is available for recruitment
    Economic destruction caused by steep decline in the “educated” pool (yes, “educated” is in quotation marks, but most businesses are far more concerned about the paper than the knowledge)
    Economic destruction caused by mass movement away from the state which “fails all its kids”
    General shunning of a state “with all the stupid people”

    The system works the way it does for a reason – its evolved to benefit for the greatest number of people (of course, at the expense of others).

    The whole argument for stricter standards is based in the idea that students will work harder if they need to in order to pass a test. I challenge that assertion. Student effort (or the lack thereof) is mainly an effect of the general well-being and wealth of society. The idea of life being ruined because of failing a test (or failing to get a degree) is foreign to most of them (although not to their parents). I don’t think simple enforcement of standards is going to strongly increase student effort (of course there will be some effect, just not enough to make a significant change).

    I think educational efforts are *far* better spent in the sort of programs that Joanne has documented in this blog that show real changes in student accomplishment rather than trying to “scare” students into working harder.

    There’s precious little to be gained by the “well, in *my* day, students worked hard…”. Well, it’s *not your day* anymore (or mine for that matter). The markets determine (and have determined) our society. Now it’s up to us to deal with it. Rather than whining about students and society as a whole, we need to adapt education to the students it does face today.

  11. Tom, while you may be correct, remember that ‘real life’ usually has VERY little to do with anything taught in school.

    If you fail to turn in homework and assignments in school you earn bad grades and have to do it over again (or repeat the class), in the world of work, if you fail to do your job, you get fired (at least in the private sector) and can be replaced by any one of a number of persons willing to do the job right.

  12. Yes, it’s amazing just how much personal growth there is as soon as the safety net is removed :-). (And not so amazing how many can’t keep a job while living at home…)

    As I said, I’m of the opinion that society’s wealth makes it very difficult to motivate students who know that parents can essentially support their children ad infinitum. In previous generations, that just wasn’t possible, so there was no possibility of resentment at being told either work hard at school or support yourself (and would consider themselves fortunate to have even that option).

    The trouble is that there will always be a few that will “sink” in a “sink or swim” test, and yet for many, the test itself is what creates responsible human beings. It was a lot easier for both parents and children when the test wasn’t optional.

  13. Dear colleagues:

    Two more chapters from my book on strengthening the characters of boys, “The Men They Will Become,” are now available for reading on the Internet:



    The gist of my argument is that both honesty and cheating have to do with trust. But mostly we parents and teachers, despite our best intentions, fail to promote the former and to discourage the latter. This is because of our ignorance of children’s deepest strivings for connection and their basic human rights, similar to those that we have encoded into our constitutional protections and legal principles. Too often, I suggest, we neglect these at home and in school, with unfortunate consequences.

    In the honesty chapter I try to demonstrate that

    “honesty is a complex and subtle subject, not so much an end in itself as a means of being responsible and respectful to the needs of others and of oneself. When honesty is at issue, there is usually something about the situation that makes being honest an act of courage. It isn’t easy to be honest. Often the easy way is some version of dishonesty, which is why the dishonest way is so frequently taken.

    “Honesty is a principal ingredient in any establishment of trust. One person can’t trust another deeply without believing that the interaction between them will be carried on at a high level of honesty. Trustful relations can bear the occasional white lie to be sensitive to the feelings of others, but not habitual dishonesty. Beyond the damage it does in specific situations, the reason we all are anxious about dishonesty is that it erodes trust. What misrepresentation of the truth will the person who is known to have been dishonest next put forth? When? For what motive?”

    In the chapter on cheating, I close with the following observation:

    “The great leap in trust possible in adolescence or later adulthood is for an individual to become trustworthy individually—even when it is not reciprocated. Trust has to be reciprocal in infancy or the infant develops basic mistrust. In childhood, trust is still basically reciprocal in the service of many ends of varying value. But an individual can decide to strive for general trustworthiness. Such an individual would choose not to cheat in financial matters, taxes, or professional responsibilities because he couldn’t do so without breaking trust with someone, maybe someone he doesn’t even know.

    “I believe males get to this highest level of trustworthiness only when they are inspired to it by encountering someone who embodies it. It is a level of character that is much more effectively caught than taught.”

    If you find these writings to be useful, please don’t hesitate to copy, distribute, refer, or link to them. Other chapters on my web site address the following themes of male development: Discipline and Punishment, Self-Control, Teasing and Bullying, Early Adolescence, Late Adolescence, and Play and Sports.

    With kind regards,

    Eli H. Newberger, M.D., Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School