It is almost too good to be true! The United States has seen an increase in high school graduation, from under 70 percent before 2000 to over 82 percent last year—a new record high in students earning a diploma on time. Everyone from the President to state and local superintendents are bragging about this massive improvement in classroom education. If only it was true.
First, I have no intention of demeaning the work of dedicated teachers; I have seen discrete cases where education is improving. Unfortunately, the bulk of this “improvement” reflects much wider actions occurring at many public schools across the country.
One egregious case was a student who was borderline incorrigible and did absolutely no class work or homework. The school, now empowered with a grade management system, had the counselors scan grades before the 9-week period ended and pulled this student from class. Using a programmed-learning system, the student “happy clicked” through the course content, guessing and re-guessing the answers until getting them all correct by chance. This student, who knew nothing of the class content, not only passed but received a high score! And the school had the programmed learning print out showing the student had (eventually) gotten every answer correct (after many random attempts). This is educational malpractice. But when national and state leaders are calling for improved educational outcomes, there is no shortage of administrators who are willing and able to provide that success.
When I learned of this administrative override of teacher professionalism, I spammed my bank of former student teachers who teach in classrooms across the country. The majority of respondents indicated that they had not been coerced or overridden on grading. But a substantial number described subtle-to-blatant tactics that inflated grading and graduation rates.
You can keep your 90-80-70-60 cut-off grade scale for A-B-C-Ds, one teacher was told, but zero performance starts at 50 percent. That means that a student getting 10 percent right passes with a “D” and 20 percent (easy to get by randomly marking a multiple choice test) gets the student a “C”!
But by far the most common inflationary tactic—and it is fairly widespread—is to have all students who received a “D” or “F” on their work repeat the test or exercise, often using the exact same test until they achieve a “C” or better. While that does not inflate the upper grades, it does elevate the students who would have flunked out. It helps achieve an image of school improvement that brings accolades from higher administrators, politicians and the community at large.
Another change from 20 years ago is the rise of “alternative schools” where students are sent when they can no longer function in the regular school setting. These operations often sit the student in front of a computer and utilize less-structured “anytime” learning programs, thus graduating students who were formerly suspended or expelled.
These anecdotal examples stack up into sizeable numbers. To this add the observations by some professors at non-selective public universities that confirm that there has been no increase in college-able students. Indeed, the percentage of college degrees in the cohorts that would have recently graduated college has gone down, not upward.
And with a genuine increase in academic performance that would be expected with a 13 percent higher graduation rate, there should be a significant rise in scores on the NAEP, SAT and ACT tests. To the contrary, those scores have not gone up nor remained level, but have fallen during the same time period schools are reporting this surge in graduation rate.
Even National Public Radio has cautioned that while some improvement may have been made by “stepping in early to keep kids on track,” this new data likely reflects “lowering the bar...” and 3) “gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring or misclassifying them.”
Put simply, at more-and-more American schools, it is becoming nearly impossible to not graduate—short of the student dying.