Tough Love: Study Shows Kids Benefit from Teachers With High Grading Standards
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Despite their potential reluctance, it is indeed true: research indicates that students who are assigned to teachers with more stringent grading policies benefit in the long term.
A paper published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform in the past year revealed that eighth and ninth-grade students who were taught by math teachers with higher performance standards achieved better scores in Algebra I. Furthermore, these students continued to see improvements in their subsequent years of math education. Contrary to concerns that high expectations might lead to resistance or discouragement, they were also less likely to miss classes compared to similar students assigned to teachers with more lenient grading policies.
Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University and one of the co-authors of the paper, emphasized that the wide-ranging and enduring positive outcomes were not simply the result of testing quirks. Instead, he argued that high standards "transform the way students engage with school." Gershenson added, "You don’t have to be excessively strict; even a slight increase in standards provides a boost."
These findings build upon previous research by Gershenson, which highlighted the prevalence of grade inflation in K-12 settings, particularly in schools that serve higher percentages of affluent students. They are also significant in the current post-COVID academic landscape, where many teachers have relaxed their grading policies either voluntarily or in response to district mandates.
This study draws upon grading and testing records of a substantial number of North Carolina students who took Algebra I in either the eighth or ninth grade. The sample included over 365,000 students across nearly 27,000 classrooms and 4,415 teachers, allowing for meaningful comparisons between thousands of similar students assigned to different Algebra teachers over a decade.
To evaluate the impact of different standards, Gershenson and his colleagues utilized various measures of grading severity, relying on the correlation between course grades (over which teachers have some discretion) and performance on end-of-year exams. For example, a teacher who consistently awards higher course grades than warranted by exam scores is considered an "easier" grader, while the reverse applies to a "tougher" grader.
The researchers then divided the teacher sample into four comparison groups, ranging from the most lenient to the most stringent, and analyzed the progress of their respective students before and after taking Algebra I. The teachers grouped in the "toughest" quarter were disproportionately more likely to be white, female, and experienced compared to the overall sample. Additionally, they tended to achieve more success in the classroom.
Across different measures of academic achievement, students exposed to higher grading standards outperformed their peers. Those assigned to stricter graders demonstrated greater improvement in test scores compared to students who had previously shown similar levels of math performance. Notably, these effects were substantial and followed a linear pattern, meaning that the stricter the grading practices, the larger the improvement in test scores.
Furthermore, students of tougher graders maintained their scoring advantage in the subsequent classes of North Carolina’s math curriculum, namely geometry and Algebra II. Interestingly, the effects were even more pronounced in Algebra II compared to geometry. The authors of the paper highlighted this nuance, theorizing that due to the overlap in content between the two levels of algebra, students previously held to higher standards performed exceptionally well in the later class, despite the passage of time.
Gershenson explained, "This suggests that it wasn’t solely a result of students cramming for the test to achieve better grades. Instead, it indicates that genuine learning took place and was retained."
‘Beneficial for All’
While the aim of the study is to assess the advantages of more rigorous grading policies, the research aligns somewhat with studies examining the opposite trend of grade inflation. The High School Transcript Study, a comprehensive analysis of student grades conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, reveals that the average high school GPA increased from 3.00 in 2009 to 3.11 in 2019. However, performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, remained stagnant during the same period.
This federal assessment gained attention when it was released last spring, although it only covered the years preceding the pandemic. Another report, published by the testing group ACT, discovered evidence of significant grade inflation in 2020 and 2021, with self-reported student GPAs rising even as ACT scores remained unchanged.
Not all experts in education policy are alarmed by these findings. Zachary Bleemer, an economics professor at the Yale School of Management, argues that some grade inflation, whether at the university or K-12 levels, can rectify inequalities in the pursuit of intellectually challenging subjects among different student groups. Furthermore, caution should be exercised when considering ACT’s hypothesis, as the organization may have an interest in portraying high school grades as less reliable than scores on college admissions tests.
However, this perspective is also widely echoed by teachers themselves, who have openly discussed their leniency in grading as a response to the disruption caused by COVID on in-person learning. In major districts such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Clark County, Nevada (home to Las Vegas), new standards have placed less emphasis on deadlines and classroom conduct, giving students more time and opportunities to complete graded assignments.
Education authorities justify these changes as equitable strategies to keep students engaged, preventing potential frustration and falling behind in their studies. However, Gershenson and his co-authors found no evidence to suggest that students in North Carolina who had stricter graders became disconnected from school. In fact, these students were slightly less likely than their peers to have unexcused absences.
Moreover, whether assessed through attendance or test scores, the results of higher standards proved to be generally similar for various student groups. While high-performing math students experienced slightly greater improvements compared to their lower-performing classmates, the effects were ultimately beneficial across 20 different student categories, taking into account factors such as race, gender, class rank, and previous math achievement.
Gershenson, who considers grade inflation a significant issue that distorts the interpretation of academic performance, states that the consistent findings of his team strongly indicate that higher standards are "beneficial for everyone."
"In none of these outcomes is the impact negative. Admittedly, the effects may be smaller for certain groups or certain measures. However, students are not being harmed in any aspect by stricter grading standards."
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