Many moons ago, one of us was a first-year teacher of high school English in a rural district that loved its football. It was the end of the first term as I sat at my desk after school in a musty classroom trailer—there being no room in the main building for rookies—trying to finish up my grades in time for report cards. I heard the steps creak and looked up to find Mr. Simpson, the brawny football coach who’d been at the school since forever, interrupting my calculator punching (this was the Mesozoic era before online gradebooks). Honestly, my first thought was one of alarm, as I was pretty sure Coach Simpson hadn’t said one word to me all year. Yet here he was after hours in my low-rent trailer with no one else around.
Thankfully, he was feeling just as awkward as I was, so he got straight to the point: “I understand that Darrell is just a couple points shy of getting a C this quarter in your class. I know we don’t want to give him a grade that he doesn’t deserve, but I was just wondering whether you had any make-up work for him to do in study hall, or maybe he could re-take that last test again after he studies some more.” My perplexed expression must have signaled that I was no whiz in reading between the lines, so he continued: “I’d personally make sure that he does every assignment in study hall and gives it his best shot. I hate to ask and all, but he’s one of our best players, and we’re really going to need him for the playoff game next Friday.”
So there it was. You see, our high school back then had a policy that athletes had to keep a C average in every class or couldn’t play sports—at least not until they got their grades back up.
I wish I could say that I promptly told Mr. Simpson to take a hike. After all, Darrell had been slacking all fall, barely getting by, though he was clearly able to do much more than execute a perfect pass. I should have responded, “I’ll let both Darrell and myself down if I communicate to this young man that I’m willing to accept less from him than I know he’s capable of!”
Sadly, I didn’t say any of that. I was a twenty-something newbie trying to keep my head above water in a sink-or-swim school. So I dutifully agreed to pull together Darrell’s study-hall packet and breathed a sigh of relief as Coach Simpson shut the door behind him.
We tell you this true tale because it underscores the motivation for our newest study and the complexity surrounding the issues it delves into: high school grading practices and how they intersect with teachers’ expectations for their students, and the impact they have on student outcomes.
The limited prior research on this topic shows that instructors who recognize and believe in their students’ potential—and maintain high expectations for them—significantly boost the odds that their students will go on to complete high school and college. That’s what American University’s Seth Gershenson and his colleagues found in a previous study that used teacher survey data to define expectations.
Another way to define expectations is to measure how teachers approach grading—specifically, whether they subject students to more or less rigorous grading practices. A lone study conducted sixteen years ago by David Figlio and Maurice Lucas in one Florida county found positive academic and behavioral impacts for nearly all students from elementary teachers’ high grading standards. Still, given the central role of grading in U.S. schools, we know shockingly little about how it impacts a child’s future, and virtually nothing about grading standards in middle and high school.
Dr. Gershenson’s existing work on teacher expectations, as well as his prior study for us on grade inflation in high school, made him an ideal partner to tackle this neglected area of research. Like him, we were interested in whether a teacher’s approach to grading students’ work affected their outcomes in the short and long terms, and whether those standards differed by teacher, student, and school characteristics.
Gershenson addresses these questions in Fordham’s new study, Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement. Specifically, he investigated the following: How do the grading standards of an Algebra I teacher affect students’ content mastery, as measured by their performance on the end-of-course exam? Do the grading standards of an Algebra I teacher impact students’ performance in subsequent math courses like geometry and Algebra II and their likelihood of graduating from high school? Does the impact of an Algebra I teacher’s grading standards vary by pupil, school, or teacher characteristics? And what school and teacher characteristics predict teachers’ grading standards?
His data come from the grading standards of eighth and ninth grade Algebra I math teachers in North Carolina public schools. Algebra I is ideal for this purpose, as it was a state graduation requirement for the eleven-year period that the study covers (2006–2016), and it also had an end-of-course (EOC) test during those years. Having both course grades and EOC scores allowed Gershenson to define teachers’ grading standards in a straightforward manner: Teachers who inflate grades—meaning they assign good grades to students who perform relatively poorly on the EOC—exhibit low standards, while teachers who assign lower grades than we might expect given students’ exam scores exhibit high standards. He compared students of teachers with higher grading standards to their peers who have teachers with lower grading standards but still take the same course (Algebra I) in the same school, in the same grade, and in the same year.
There are five key findings:
- Students learn more from teachers who have higher grading standards.
- Teachers with higher grading standards improve their students’ performance in subsequent math classes up to two years later.
- The positive effect of higher standards impacts students of all types and in all kinds of schools. Whether black, Hispanic, white, male, or female, students learn more when taught by teachers with higher grading standards.
- Teachers who attended selective undergraduate institutions, hold graduate degrees, and have more experience tend to have higher grading standards.
- Grading standards tend to be higher in suburban schools, middle schools, and schools serving more advantaged students.
The study includes Dr. Gershenson’s take on what these findings mean for policy and practice—a couple of which we underscore and extend here.
First, we should use information about grading practices to improve instruction. Teachers are not to be blamed for having low grading standards when many of them don’t know where to set the bar for high-quality student work. This is not a major focus of most teacher preparation or professional development. Education Trust has provided a valuable service by taking a closer look at what teachers assign students and asking whether those tasks reflect today’s higher academic standards. Similar questions should be raised about teacher grading practices.
Likewise, schools and districts would do well to share with teachers how their grading standards compare to the standards of other instructors teaching the same subjects and at the same grade levels. Teachers need to know whether their expectations fail to match—or possibly surpass—those of their colleagues. Educators might be more willing to aim higher if they knew they were off target and taught how to get closer to the bullseye.
Second, let’s not forget that none of this is possible without an external measure of student performance. The simple definition of grading standards used in this report can be easily calculated by schools and districts—but only if they have a summative test, such as an end-of-course exam. The current angst about over-testing has likely resulted in the recent dip in such tests administered across the country.
Let’s be honest. Most of us want teachers to have high expectations when it comes to grades, but we’re gradually making it harder, not easier, for teachers to do that. Case in point: More than one thousand colleges and universities have adopted test-optional admissions policies, arguing that college entrance exams provide an unfair advantage to middle- and high-income students. Not requiring them, they say, expands access for poor students and students of color.
There’s plenty of debate about whether that’s true, but one thing seems clear: Grade-point averages will now matter even more, so it’s crucial that they be accurate representations of a student’s academic performance. The current push for test-optional college admissions makes it that much more difficult for high school teachers, who now face even greater pressure to be easy graders to help their students get into selective colleges.
That’s a big problem. Think about it: If there’s pressure on teachers from one of their own to inflate a grade for a kid to play in next week’s football game, just imagine what that pressure looks like from his parents to get him into a good college.