When Teachers Are Tough Graders, Students Learn More, Study Says

By Madeline Will — February 04, 2020 5 min read
Girl holding test with C- letter grade.
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A new study finds that students perform better on end-of-year standardized tests when their teachers are tough graders—and argues that the “mindset that says ‘everybody gets a gold star’ does more damage than good.”

The report, published today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on school choice and high expectations for students, found that this effect holds true for students across racial and ethnic groups, gender, socioeconomic makeup, and previous academic background. The study also found evidence of longer-term learning gains for students.

Author Seth Gershenson, an associate professor at American University, studied a decade of 8th and 9th grade Algebra 1 course grades and end-of-course test scores in North Carolina public schools (the data was from 2006 to 2016). He compared students of teachers with higher grading standards—meaning they assign lower grades than expected, given students’ scores on standardized tests—to their peers who have teachers with lower grading standards, meaning they assign good grades to students who perform relatively poorly on the end-of-course test.

He found that teachers with the highest grading standards increase their students’ end-of-course scores on standardized tests by 16.9 percent of a standard deviation over teachers with the lowest grading standards. Even teachers who are in the middle with their grading standards are more effective than those with the lowest standards, the study found.

And the students of teachers with the highest grading standards performed significantly better a year later in geometry (by 7.3 percent of a standard deviation) and two years later in Algebra II (by 8.6 percent of a standard deviation).

Fordham staff also interviewed middle and high school teachers across the country about their views on grading, and found that many teachers said they felt pressure from administrators, parents, or the students themselves to award higher grades.

“In the short run, that makes people’s lives easier,” Gershenson said. “In the long run, that really hurts students. It gives them a false sense of security; it sets them up for failure or at least lower performance down the road.”

Rethinking Traditional Letter Grades

Gershenson said this study is focused on the A-C range of grades, and “the erosion of what it means to have an A.” In interviews with teachers, some said that “a B is almost like the new average,” and that an A “means that [students] probably turned everything in.”

In recent years, many educators have been rethinking how they assign grades. Some have shifted to standards-based grading, in which the teacher gives detailed feedback for each assignment and students’ performance is measured against specific course standards for mastery of the content. There’s also competency-based learning, which allows students to progress at different rates based on how well they’ve mastered a set of standards or competencies.

Some schools have “no zero” policies that say the lowest score a student can receive on an assignment is a 50, at times even when a student fails to turn anything in. (The idea there is that a zero can tank a student’s chances of passing the course.) And some teachers have even ditched the gradebook altogether, in favor of giving students detailed feedback on their performance throughout the year and working with students to jointly assign a final report card grade, when the school requires it.

Many of these educators say that the traditional A-F system doesn’t inspire students to learn for the sake of learning, and that letter grades are too heavily based on nonacademic factors, like punctuality and compliance. They say that grades can stress students out and cause others—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds—to give up.

Even so, Gershenson said his study found “zero evidence” that high grading standards hurt students. There is no effect on high school graduation, although this might be because students who are taking Algebra 1 in 8th or 9th grade are already unlikely to drop out. The study also found some evidence that having a teacher with higher grading standards can slightly increase students’ intent to attend a four-year college or university, although this result is only marginally statistically significant.

“That contradicts the concern that kids are going to get discouraged by having a realistic grade,” Gershenson said.

And his study did not find any significant differences between students’ backgrounds: “No matter how you slice it, everybody benefits” from high grading standards, he said.

He also found that grading standards tend to be higher in suburban schools and schools serving more affluent students. In the study, Gershenson wrote that this points to what President George W. Bush once called “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

“Assigning good grades for mediocre work signals to students that excellent work is beyond their reach,” he wrote. “When students who have not mastered the material receive passing marks anyway, they can become complacent and fail to reach their full potential.”

Recommendation for More Training

The study found that teachers who attended selective colleges, hold graduate degrees, and have more experience tend to have higher grading standards. Teachers with graduate degrees have grading standards that are about 19 percent of a standard deviation stricter than teachers without higher degrees—possibly because they experienced a more challenging academic environment.

Also, new teachers have grading standards that are 29 percent of a standard deviation lower than average, while veteran teachers are tougher than average.

Gershenson said these findings indicate that there’s an opportunity for teacher-preparation programs and district-led professional development trainings to focus on grade assignment. That’s typically an area that’s overlooked, he said—yet teachers need support.

He also recommends that school leaders share with teachers how their grading standards compare to the standards of their peers teaching the same subjects and at the same grade level. The transparency, he said, might encourage educators to aim higher.

“I think school leaders can certainly look and see how much variation in grading standards there is, and if there’s a lot of variation, that suggests that some teachers are doing it right, and some teachers are doing it wrong,” he said. “Are there kids whose grades would essentially change from an A to a B depending on who their teacher is? That’s the kind of thing we want to eliminate.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.