From high school B's to college F's

Students who’ve glided through high school with inflated grades are ending up in remedial English and math in college, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The state gives a Hope Scholarship to B students — but a high school B average doesn’t guarantee passing grades in college.

Students such as Brandon Curry, 20, a graduate of Redan High in DeKalb County, said they were surprised to learn decent high school grades don’t always translate into college success.

“English was my strongest subject,” he said after a remedial reading class earlier this spring at Georgia Perimeter College in Clarkston. “But when I came to college, I was like, ‘Whoa.’

“I’m on this level,” he said, motioning to about knee-level. “And I’m supposed to be up here,” he said, raising his hand above his chest.

In some cases, students wrestle with basic reading comprehension, said Karen Duncan, an assistant reading professor at Perimeter.

“It’s abysmal,” she said. “We’ve got students in there who may be on the fifth- or sixth-grade level.”

At some high schools, there are huge gaps between students’ class grades and their performance on state-written end-of-course exams. At one high school only 2 percent of students failed economics but 57 percent failed the state’s econ exam;  at another,  0.4 percent of students failed economics, but 63 percent failed the state economics test.

Teachers say they’re pushed by principals to pass students along, so they won’t lose heart and drop out, hurting the school’s rating.

They said that some schools bar teachers from giving “zeroes” — or even failing grades — for work never submitted, let students retake classes without penalty, and punish teachers who fail too many students.

Tracking drop-outs accurately is only the first step, writes Eduwonk guest blogger Michael Goldstein.  Track the college success rate of graduates so there’s no reward for dumbing down diplomas.

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  1. Two years ago I wrote about an experiment with my then Pre-College English class. They’d complained about my grading–which I told them was actually quite lenient. I took an essay I had graded as a B- and asked a local professor to score the essay. The result, an F and a referal to the student writing center! I learned from the experience; yet many of my students claimed that the professor was crazy.

  2. I graduated in 2000. I don’t know how much as changed since then, but since working for a school district in 04 I suspect not much.

    Most of my high school experience was about facts. What can I remember to repeat back on the tests. College was completely different. Teachers expect you to not only remember those facts, but be able to analyze them and intelligently explain how you came to your conclusion about them. I’m thinking more about my experience with history here, but I experienced this in just about every subject I took save math and some computer courses.

    The problem with K-12 is often not what subjects they are teaching, but the methods they are using.

  3. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that grade inflation is the natural consequence of giving scholarships based on grades. Give the scholarships to kids testing above a certain level on either the ACT or the SAT.

  4. An acquaintance was a star pupil at her southern California high school–student leadership, extracurricular activities, great grades. But when it came time to apply to a college outside of California, she ran into big trouble. Turns out her ACT score was quite low–talk about an unpleasant way to get a reality check on the quality of your life’s education so far! Only with some help from my mother (who knew all about the problems of the schools in that part of California, having taught in them herself, and had a friend in the college admissions office) was she able finally to get into the college of her choice.

    School quality is dramatically uneven in our country. I can’t agree that the solution is simply to give scholarships only based on ACT/SAT scores. That penalizes hard working, intelligent students who go to terrible schools. They think they are learning what they are supposed to, but the quality of their instruction is so poor that, through no fault of their own, they can’t compete on national standardized exams.

  5. Tracy W says:

    I can’t agree that the solution is simply to give scholarships only based on ACT/SAT scores. That penalizes hard working, intelligent students who go to terrible schools. They think they are learning what they are supposed to, but the quality of their instruction is so poor that, through no fault of their own, they can’t compete on national standardized exams.

    This seems an odd way of looking at the world. Surely, the poor instruction is the penaliser and the student’s inability to compete on national standardised tests is merely the messenger. Why do you say the message is the penalty?

    I suspect Stacy’s idea is that removing the incentive for schools to inflate grades means that the students will get the message that their instruction is sucking a lot earlier, before they’ve wasted years at high school.

  6. deirdremundy says:

    Hmmm…. My Highschool B’s and C’s with the occasional A translated to B’s and A’s in college……..

    But then, college graded based on papers and exams, not on busywork.

    I was lucky–I got into a very selective school on the basis of SATs and the Essay…….

    Maybe high school report cards should be more honest— break it down by Test Grade, Participation Grade and Homework Grade as well as overall grade.

    Then colleges could see which students were mastering the material and which students were simply getting by on the strength of ‘She’s friendly and tries hard’

  7. deirdremundy says:

    Oh, I would like to add that my AP English teacher was an AMAZINGLY good predictor, IMO

    Her A/A- grades translated into A-/B+ grades in my first-year humanities class. But she had a reputation as cruel, evil, heartless, and a hard@ss. Of course, she also produced lots of ‘5s’ on the AP English test…..

    And she made us write 2 papers a week–one at home, one in class, and gave HORRENDOUSLY hard tests on the books we read.

    So maybe the key for college-prep is to take classes from the teachers everyone hates?

  8. Widebody says:

    Nowadays, parents would demand that deirdremundy’s teacher be reprimanded for making the poor darlings’ lives miserable. And the administration would back them up. Nowadays parents demand high expectations — just as long as their kids don’t have to work too hard.

  9. Physics Teacher says:

    I think reporting the grade as a pair of numbers, (your grade)/(average grade), would help put an end to grade inflation.

    When a B/C becomes more coveted than a A/A I think the pressure to inflate will lessen dramatically.

  10. AndyJoy says:

    I’m not surprised at all.

    Last year I taught 6th grade math, 7th grade Pre-Algebra (part 1 of a 2-year course), 7th grade Pre-Algebra (1 year course), and 8th grade pre-Algebra (those who flunked the previous year). I gave A-F grades in every single one of those courses except 6th grade (not corrupted by middle school yet!)

    This year, I was subbing for my replacement. She put easy “extra credit” problems on the test totaling 15%!!!!! on a test! Guess what–no one flunked. And the highest grade I saw was not even over 100%, though I taught some of these kids last year and they were getting true grades of 95%+ on difficult material. I don’t think she’s teaching them well, and she’s making herself look good with inflation.

  11. Richard says:

    When the problems of grade inflation, achievement gaps, unprepared college freshmen, ensconced mediocre (at best) teachers, clueless administrators has been solved, I have a little unified field theory problem here…

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    True story: I help out in a remedial Algebra class at a local community college. Although I don’t know how many of the students in the class have a high school degree, probably almost all do. Yesterday I asked one student. “OK, what’s 2 divided by 1 What’s 2 over 1?” He pulled out his calculator.


    the reason for all the drop outs is
    the schools allow disruptive students to rule
    they do not teach anything that is currently happening
    or how to fill out a employment application
    balance a check book
    the kids have figured out that they can make more money SELLING DRUGS OR ON THEIR BACKS OR BOTH

  14. Tracy W says:

    True story – I was tutoring at university and was helping a student through an elasticity problem. We got to 5/2 and I asked her if that was less than or greater than 1. Out came the calculator.
    Admittedly she was a mature student, and for some reason if you’re over something like 20 in NZ you can go to university regardless of what your Bursary results were.

  15. SuperSub says:

    Blame the hippies, I say. This lack of respect for education goes right along with the avoidance of personal responsibility and the celebration of narcissism that the ‘revolutionary’ 60’s promoted.

    I say ‘revolutionary’ because it seems to me more of a de-evolution to pre-Renaissance times.

  16. momof4 says:

    Supersub has a point; lots of the problems stem from the 60s and 70s. The breakdown of stable families has been a huge part of the problem, both because of illegitimacy/promiscuity and because of easy divorce (where there are children). Lack of respect for education is only part of the issue; lack of respect for what used to be common standards of behavior, respect for authority, deferred gratification and hard work. I’m ashamed of my generation; even though most people were never part of the 60s scene, even at the time.

  17. SuperSub, de-evolution or re-primitivization? 😉

  18. Our department chair’s meeting on Thursday has an agenda item on grading. I believe we are going to be asked to not give Fs any more. It really holds kids back. Our district has a large failure rate and it’s trying to change the bad press it’s been getting for failing to graduate students. I’m sure this is going to solve all problems.

  19. deirdremundy is right…we teachers who have a reputation for being hard get good results from our students and those who go on to college come back and tell us how much they appreciate the work we made them do. A prior student stopped by today to tell me she still has her portfolio from my class. She finished community college in two years and is headed to the local university. She used her writing skills to get a scholarship.

  20. I like Physics Teacher’s idea. When you see how someone did COMPARED TO an overall average, it makes more sense. Or maybe going to percentage grades – report it as a number on a 0 to 100 scale, and then report the class average on the same scale.

    I was also one of those kids whose high-school As and Bs became (mostly) college As and Bs. I went to a “selective private” high school where the teachers had a reputation for being tough – and they didn’t put up with discipline problems – you acted out, you were out of the school. (Then again, because you had to apply and WANT to be there, most of the people who were there were pretty respectful)

    Of course, I also came from a family of professors, where education was seen as important, where weekly trips to the library were a treat.

    But I was actually pretty well prepared for college. I actually wound up teaching some chem concepts (like reaction rates) to my friends in the dorm because I had had them in high school and they had not, and the prof we had in our 700 person intro lecture was not that great. (I also had five APs – four with a 5, one (calc) with a 3)

    But yeah, I’ve had some students where what they didn’t know shocked me.

  21. I also have to say that a teacher in high school that I “hated” at first (because she was very very hardnosed and expected A LOT from us), I wound up thanking at graduation because I realized how well she had prepared me.

    That said, I liked most of my “tough” high school teachers – they challenged me, they essentially told the class, “We KNOW you can do good work.” Some of the “meaner” teachers were actually my favorites because I felt like I was learning a lot from them – that they expected a lot of us.

    It’s kind of sad to be in a society where people with high expectations sometimes take flak because it “hurts people’s feelings” to have a lot expected of them.

  22. Ponderosa says:

    It’s easier to justify grade inflation if you have mushy ideas about what education is for. I think a lot of teachers think, oh, well the important thing is that the students ENGAGED in activities, exercised their thinking skills, that, not test scores, is what counts. Why not nudge the grades up then? But if you believe, as I do, that the important thing in most courses is to learn a body of knowledge, then inflated grades seem like falsifications of what really happened in that course. It’s a minority view in this country that education is about acquiring knowledge.

    I teach 7th grade history. Until recently, I followed convention and based a lot of the grade on various little projects and assignments, items for which, by and large, kids would get passing grades if they merely turned them in. Now, however, I’m making the grade depend almost exclusively on tests and quizzes, as these give a cleaner, clearer sense of what kids have in their brains after each unit. I feel good about the A’s I give: these kids have learned. I feel good about the F’s I give, because they’re honest reflections of what these kids got out of the course. Of course, I wish they’d tried harder and studied and, thus, learned, but I have the satisfaction at least of showing them and the world the truth about what happened.

  23. Ponderosa —

    You’ve described so well some of our well-regarded, leafy suburban school district’s policies on grading.

    Just a few examples of how grades are inflated without measuring mastery of the subject:
    • Intricate origami projects in middle school math (hands on geometry learning, don’t cha know)
    • 30% of essay grade based on decorative cover
    • “Learning stations” where students handle materials representative of historical periods
    • Pretty posters in all classes

    By the time they graduate high school, it may be hard to tell if a B+ student is truly prepared for the rigor of college. Meanwhile, many of the families who recognize this phenomenon are busy aftershooling and/or paying tutors for their children.

  24. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Ponderosa: I’ve changed the weights in my grading the same way. 80% of their grade is based on summative assessments: tests, essays, and the occasional project (public speaking is part of our state standards, and that’s what I use projects for).

    My kids know I have a fit if they put a cover on their papers. It isn’t MLA or APA format.

    I have a rep for being pretty tough (my remedial classes think they’re quite something for having a class with the dreaded AP teacher). I’ve had a few D’s for AP over the years, but I don’t think anybody has flunked (the class self-weeds); in my regular level classes my failure rate is generally between 15% – 20%. Most of the kids who fail tell me they really like me and really liked the class – just didn’t do the work.

  25. You can heap a lot on us boomers, including the regrettable advent of hippies, but grade inflation predates the boomers. Grade inflation’s the natural result of the lack of an objective, widely-accepted, inflexible standard of performance.

    Kind of like the gold standard, if there’s no standard, objective measure of value the internal measure of value’s up for interpretation by whoever has the political clout to get what they want.

    If you print the dollar bills the advantage to hammering out a few extra dollars for pet projects is obvious; you get something for nothing. If you hand out the grades the value of substituting of an “A” for a “D” is just as obvious. You give the impression of accomplishment – something – without the dreary work of accomplishment – for nothing.

    The second worst thing about the situation is that the teachers, administrators and school board members who oversee the inflation of grades aren’t really to blame. They’re just reacting in a normal, predictable, if not particularly admirable, manner to a set of circumstance which they didn’t create. The first, worst thing about the situation is, of course, lots of kids getting lousy educations without knowing it until it’s too late.

  26. Independent George says:

    Maybe college applications should include a norm-referenced test of some sort. The subject matter would be standardized and publicly available to ensure objectivity, and performance on that test could be used as an indicator of how well the student learned a given subject.

    We can even take this idea even further – what if schools regularly offered such tests to their students, to give them a snapshot of where their achievement stood at various times. The data can then be disaggregated to identify problem areas which require more attention.

    Surely, nobody could object to anything like that, right?

  27. > Surely, nobody could object to anything like that, right?

    You crack me up.

    I don’t think it’s necessary for a teacher be a “hard@ass” to communicate the idea that they believe the students are capable of great things and are thus going to be expected to do great things.

    My high school calculus teacher was one of the nicest, most affable teachers I ever had (and she won texas state teacher of the year a couple of years later). She had been teaching the subject a long time and knew what her students were capable of doing. Every day, she took us right to the edge of what we were capable of doing. After a while, we started to realize that, damn, we could really succeed if we just trusted her and applied ourselves.

    She wasn’t a strict disciplinarian or against giving you an occasional extension on a homework assignment. Instead, she was absolutely firm in her ideal that we WOULD learn the material, come hell or high water.

    I tested out of first semester calculus in college and went all the way through DiffEq, she knew what she was doing.

  28. Lightly Seasoned says:

    George: Um, I think ETS beat you to that idea.

  29. This topic relates back to something I’ve noticed. Many students get inflated grades, then fail dismally at the state tests, required for graduation. They, and their parents, always say he/she “doesn’t test well”.

    On the contrary, they test extremely well – their failure is an accurate reflection of their failure to master the material.

    Mind you, I’m unlikely to say that this year – the principal is of the opinion that any failure on the part of a student is SOLELY the responsibility of the teacher. If I were a better teacher, I’d have:

    – no behavior problems
    – no sleeping kids in class
    – no problem taking kids from below middle-school learning to high performance – in one year
    – no problem when students leave class for field trips, concerts, ROTC work, special assemblies, and miss lab or class work


    June isn’t near enough.