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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘Rigor’ is a Potemkin village

High school rigor is often a facade, writes Natalie Wexler on Forbes. It’s a “Potemkin village.”

High school graduates in the class of 2019 took more “advanced” and “honors” classes and earned higher grades, but didn’t do any better on tests, notes a recently released federal study.

Grade inflation and course-title inflation combine to create the illusion of competence.

Some school districts, seeing a lack of minority representation in honors classes, have tried to solve the problem by declaring all classes “honors” or labeling nearly all students “gifted.” Teachers may feel that students who lack access to Wi Fi or tutors shouldn’t be penalized by getting lower grades. In fact, some observers don’t see the discrepancy between grades and test scores as a problem. They argue that grades reflect factors tests can’t measure, like behavior and perseverance. Or they say grade inflation is actually a good thing, because it boosts students’ self-confidence.

“It’s great to boost students’ confidence, but only if you’re also giving them a solid basis for that confidence,” writes Wexler.

“Mary Smith,” an English teacher who’d read Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, told her she’d seen deep knowledge deficits in an urban high school — and also in a “top-performing school in a wealthy district.”

Before teaching Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, for example, she asked them to name five countries in Europe. Most couldn’t, and some weren’t sure where Europe was. “Less than half of my students know where the Grand Canyon is,” Smith wrote in her email. “Not one of my freshmen could list three notable American authors. Only 20% could list 10 U.S. Presidents. It’s no longer a gap. It’s a hole. Nobody has knowledge.”

The emphasis on “higher-order thinking skills” over knowledge has left students ignorant and anxious, she wrote in an email.

“More schools are adopting knowledge-building curricula beginning in kindergarten,” writes Wexler. But it’s too late for many students.

I was in elementary school when I read about Potemkin villages one of Genevieve Foster’s wonderful “horizontal history” books, George Washington’s World. OK, I wasn’t typical. What percentage of honor students know the term?

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