In late March, state lawmakers gave local schools emergency authority to determine whether students in the class of 2020 satisfied graduation requirements. The reason was fairly straightforward: Due to the school closures, a number of seniors missed opportunities to meet standard graduation requirements, such as passing state end-of-course exams (likely primarily retakes), finishing an industry recognized credential, or completing a few other options. That legislation, however, was mum on requirements for future graduating classes—freshman, sophomores, and juniors, as well as some middle schoolers—whose state end-of-course exams (EOCs) were cancelled.
The just-passed House Bill 164 addresses this complication by allowing final course grades to substitute for scores on the EOCs students were unable to take. An A is equivalent to the top achievement mark on state exams (“advanced”), a B is equivalent to the next highest level (“accelerated”), and so forth. Earning a grade of C or above yields a “competency” designation on the ELA II and algebra I EOCs, the key assessments for meeting graduation requirements. To count toward graduation, the final grade must be earned in the course that is directly associated with the EOC exam. For instance, a pupil’s algebra I course grade substitutes for her state algebra I exam.
If I had my druthers, policymakers would have opted to administer missed EOCs this fall. Yes, much like AP exams, these tests are supposed to be taken shortly after course completion. But schools could have made efforts to review content prior to assessment—arguably time well spent, given the importance of mastery in subjects such as algebra and English. Alas, agreeing with recommendations from the Ohio Education Association and school administrator associations, legislators felt that defaulting to course grades was a better option given the trying circumstances.
While using course grades may be an acceptable Band-Aid for this year, using them in the place of exam scores should not become a permanent fixture in Ohio’s graduation policy. We at Fordham have previously warned against efforts to substitute course grades or grade point averages for state exams to determine graduation. Let’s review, once again, the formidable problems.
- Grading practices vary, resulting in a multiplicity of standards. Grading policies and practices are determined locally, and rightfully so. Schools and teachers can and should have flexibility in how they evaluate student work. But this flexibility also results in significant variation from school to school, and even from teacher to teacher. Some schools may have more relaxed grading practices—handing out “easy A’s”—while others have stricter standards. When course grades substitute for exam scores, no uniform bar exists that all students have to clear to earn diplomas. In a violation of basic principles of equity and fairness, some students will meet requirements under laxer academic standards, while others will have to do more in order to graduate.
- Double standards will hurt students over the long run. One could, of course, argue that all schools can be trusted to set rigorous expectations for student work. But various analyses cast doubt on whether each and every school maintains a high bar. Consider, for example, the findings from the recent curriculum audit of Columbus City Schools. The most common classroom activity in its high schools is “low-level worksheets.” One district administrator said this about the rigor of coursework: “I haven’t gone in one classroom where I have seen grade-level work yet.” Low expectations, likely also manifested in lenient grading, can only do harm to students. When they receive good grades—and are handed diplomas in turn—under soft standards, they’ll suffer the consequences of entering the “real world” without having gained the knowledge and skills needed for true success.
- Course grades are vulnerable to “gaming” especially when tied to high-stakes decisions. While many educators take grading student work seriously, there have been cases in which course grades have been manipulated. In Washington, D.C., educators awarded passing grades to students who hardly ever showed up for class. Something similar happened almost a decade ago in Columbus, where school officials retroactively changed course grades. In both cases, tampering with grades was done to inflate graduation rates. Though not as blatantly scandalous, teachers may also be pressured, whether by administration, parents, or even students, to award higher grades than they otherwise would—a perverse incentive that is only heightened when diplomas are on the line. These inflated grades can only hurt students who are not only misled by these evaluations but also, as a recent Fordham study found, learn less when teachers soften their grading standards.
- Course grades aren’t reliable indicators of academic competency. Much like a driver’s license test, Ohio’s exam requirements aim to ensure that students have the basic skills and abilities needed to navigate life after high school. For the reasons expressed above, course grades cannot provide the same assurances that students are competent in math and English. A study from North Carolina found that a significant number of students who scored poorly on algebra I exams received good course grades in the same subject. Unfortunately, Ohio does not collect course grades to check whether they agree with state exam scores. However, given the national trend in grade inflation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sizeable number of students receiving solid grades, but falling short of competency on state exams.
Course grades do, of course, have a place in educational practice. They reflect the evaluations of educators who observe students on a near-daily basis, and they may include other dimensions of a well-rounded education such as teamwork and class participation. But as a consistent yardstick of academic achievement, course grades are poor substitutes for Ohio’s end-of-course exams. As such, the emergency provisions granted to the classes of 2020 to 2023 shouldn’t become the “new normal.”