Grades are inflated, SATs aren't going anywhere
What should parents know.
Hi all! This is The Educated Parent, where we chat about the week’s hot topics in education, and what it means for your kids and for you, as a concerned citizen. This morning, the topic is grade inflation and the return of the SATs. Yes, grade inflation and SATs are related.
In this morning’s Proof Positive newsletter, Jill Barshay highlights a recent blog post from an education think tank and points to research that shows that high school students are taking more courses and getting better grades in the past ten years, but test scores have gone down in that same time period. Achievement fell, despite all those A’s. She said, “this is evidence that grade inflation and watered-down course titles, detected earlier in a 2005 study of math curriculum, is getting worse.”
Meanwhile, others are responding to MIT’s decision to reinstate the SAT/ACT requirements, even though many cheered the move for colleges to become test optional just a couple of years ago. (Fun fact: the average test scores for MIT: Reading and Writing 730-780, Math 780-800.)
Defending this move, Kathryn Paige Harden in The Atlantic writes “The SAT Isn’t What’s Unfair” :
But the income-related disparities we see in SAT scores are not evidence of an unfair test. They are evidence of an unfair society. The test measures differences in academic preparedness, including the ability to write a clear sentence, to understand a complex passage, and to solve a mathematical problem. The SAT doesn’t create inequalities in these academic skills. It reveals them. Throwing the measurement away doesn’t remedy underlying injustices in children’s academic opportunities, any more than throwing a thermometer away changes the weather.
What does this mean for you?
Parents know that kids are getting A’s too easily, and probably also know why that’s happening: School administrators HATE getting phone calls from angry parents. Teachers HATE getting phone calls from angry parents. It is much, much easier to lower standards and give out the As, because nobody is getting paid enough money to deal with that kind of nonsense.
School administrators also do not want to get phone calls from angry local politicians. Home values are based on the appearances of good schools with shiny happy children and parents. The good reputation of a school district is subjective, based on appearances and images. Nobody really tracks what happens to students after they graduate from high school. So, keeping the parents happy, and the school reputation high is all that matters. Hence, more and more A’s.
As parents, we want our kids to be happy, right? If they come home with As, rather than Bs. Does it really matter? Who wants unhappy, demoralized kids? Also, some parents care more that their kids go to a good college and get that degree, rather than whether their kids actually learn anything. However, parents should fight back against this trend. Caring more about grades than skills/knowledge can lead to disaster down the line.
Grades are an indication of whether or not your child is prepared for college. College is hard, particularly in highly competitive STEM majors and in the high expectation majors in the humanities and social sciences.
If your child cannot whip out a five-page essay in two days, integrate multiple sources, and is not familiar with the debates and thinkers in the western canon, they will struggle with a major in history, English, economics, and political science. If your child hasn’t taken honors biology at a competitive high school and AP biology, and attended a science summer camp, they will have a very hard time passing Introduction to Biology at the flagship state college. Yes, that class really is that hard.
Grades aren’t just useful for measuring whether students know the periodic table and the proper citation methods. Grades also indicate that the student can complete assignments on time, manage multiple deadlines, not get neurotic about assignments, and can dutifully continue to jump through academic hoops (and there are many) in higher education.
School is a game, after all. And good students have mastered the rules and learned how to appear smart. Those rules are the same for high school and college. Students with high SATs and a B-/C+ average may be smart, but aren’t playing the school game; those kids often struggle in college.
In the interest of keeping this newsletter manageable, we’ll talk another time about why few students graduate from college in four years.
So, grade inflation is bad for kids, because they will get nailed for their lack of knowledge and skills in college. Of course, grades don’t matter in the long run, because the real world doesn’t have quizzes and tests, but they do matter to get through college effectively.
Not only do kids need the skill of being a student and knowing stuff, they also have to jump through the testing hoops. If MIT is bringing back the test, then other colleges will, too. Those tests are immune to the kids who smile at the teacher and hand in their assignments on time. I have a weakness for the non-flashy students, who are quietly smart, so I like those tests. Colleges, with their impersonal lecture halls, are also immune to the charms of the professional good students. A student has to know their shit in a college calc class, and the SAT or ACT test forces the high school (and you, with the help of tutors) to prep your child for that special kind of hell. (I never took calculus in college.)
Why does this matter for the world?
Colleges know that the A’s coming out of competitive high schools are different than A’s coming out of other schools. So, grade inflation in poor performing schools doesn’t hurt a student from a competitive high school. However, all parents should be concerned about grade inflation across the country, because it indicates that schools are not properly preparing their students for higher education and a competitive work force.
The best way to fight back against grade inflation is with state standards and standardized tests. All kids should leave high school with the same basic skills for reading and math. All students should be able to perform adequately on the SATs, regardless of their zip code and tax bracket.
Grade inflation is lipstick on the pig. If the schools in certain areas are bad, we should know that and then do everything we can to help them improve.
Grades and SAT scores should be balanced with a healthy dose of skepticism within your family. Remind your kids (and yourself) that achievement in school isn’t the only important goal in life. Teens are under such pressure to achieve greatness right now that our most important job as a parent is to tell them that happiness does not come from a report card of straight A’s. So, take a hike through the woods on a Saturday evening, put down the cellphone, and model a happy life by socializing with friends and family on weekends.
Proof Points, Newsletter, Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay, April 2022
The SAT Isn't What's Unfair - The Atlantic, Kathryn Paige Harden, April 2, 2022
High School Grade Inflation Is A Problem. Getting Rid Of The SAT Would Make It Worse. Frederick Hess, Forbes, March 30, 2022
High school grades are up, but test scores aren’t. Why? Mark Barnum, Chalkbeat, March 16, 2022
We are reinstating our SAT/ACT requirement for future admissions cycles, MIT Admissions, March 28, 2022
Picture: From here