Student Achievement

Students’ Grades May Not Signal Actual Achievement, Study Cautions

By Evie Blad — November 10, 2023 4 min read
Vector illustration of a woman filling out an online form with letter grades
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Schools in Washington state saw a pandemic-era spike in students’ grades that did not line up with how students did on year-end tests, particularly in math, a new analysis finds.

The findings provide fuel for concerns that the pandemic led to grade inflation, which misleads parents about just how much their kids have learned. Such concerns come as districts around the country offer tutoring to students—often on a voluntary basis—to help recover from interrupted learning. Parents may not see the need to pursue those interventions if their students’ grades don’t accurately reflect their stalled academic performance, said authors of the analysis.

“I don’t think that parents are necessarily aware that the A or B that their student is bringing home in 2023 is different than the A or B their student would have brought home before the pandemic,” said researcher Maia Goodman Young, who coauthored the report for the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research.

The findings rely on an analysis of test scores and grades from students in the state from 2011 to 2022. They echo work by other researchers who have raised concerns about shifts in grading and accountability in recent years.

A separate analysis of data from two school districts from the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years, for example, found that four times as many students were chronically absent and testing below grade level after the pandemic. Of those students, 40 percent still got a B average or better in core subjects in 2021-22—nearly double the percentage of similarly situated students who got high grades in 2018-19.

“These are the students who deserve urgent attention and support,” said the report by Learning Heroes, EdNavigator, and TNTP. “Yet too many are earning As and Bs, grades that signal to families that they’re doing fine.”

Anecdotal data supports the assertion that families may not recognize the urgency of their children’s learning needs. Districts have reported concerns about low uptake in summer learning and after-school tutoring programs. And surveys have identified gaps between parents’ assumptions about their own children’s performance and the reality that a minority of students in their districts scored at proficient levels on state tests.

Spikes in high grades

The CALDER report’s authors found that Washington state middle and high school students’ grades in math, English, and science increased gradually in the decade before the pandemic, correlating with increases in state test scores.

But in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 sparked school closures nationwide, the percentage of Washington students with A grades in those courses spiked. Average grades in math, for example, increased from 2.36 on a 4.0 scale in 2018-19 to 2.70 in 2020-21.

At the same time, A’s and B’s in those subject areas correlated with scoring in a lower percentile on state tests, meaning they were less predictive of student achievement, the authors concluded. That pattern has continued, particularly in math, even as the rate of high grades started to decline in the 2021-22 school year.

Changes in English grades were less dramatic. After spiking from a 2.6 average in 2018-19 to a high of 3.3 in the spring of 2020, grades returned to their previous levels the following year. And shifts in predicted test performance were also far less severe in English than they were in math.

Debates about grading policies

The sudden jumps in grades followed guidance from Washington’s state education department in April 2020 that instructed districts not to assign grades of “fail” and “no credit” to students in high school credit-bearing classes, the CALDER report said. Like many states, Washington wanted to give students grace during a rocky transition to remote learning.

After the state eased that directive the next year, many districts returned to previous grading policies. But some retained changes, like “non-zero” grading policies—which don’t allow grades below 50 percent on a given assignment, Goodman Young said.

More research is required to identify the factors that contributed to persistent shifts in math grades, whether those shifts affected students in various demographic groups equally, and how grading policies vary by school and district, she said.

Debates about consistency and rigor in grading policies long predate the pandemic. Grades can be affected by everything from variations in whether individual teachers accept late homework to broader district policies. Some researchers want to use current concerns about student performance as a way of advancing those discussions.

For school and district leaders, work to improve grading might start with conversations with parents and educators about what grades mean and how they are used, Goodman Young said.

“Grades are a really important signal about who needs that help,” she said. “And if grades are telling us less about where students are at, that’s worrisome.”

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