Are School Grades Misleading Parents?

School children wearing masks outside at recess. Courtesy of Albemarle County Public Schools

by James C. Sherlock

Virtually all parents pay close attention to their children’s report cards.

That is, however, a fruitless exercise if the grades do not reflect actual learning.

I spoke the other day to a senior school official who related to me his own story. One of his children, a second grader, brought home straight A’s in math.

Yet this parent, with a Ph.D. in Education, and his wife, herself a second grade teacher, knew for a fact that the child did not yet understand math at her second grade level.

Another friend with credentials similar to those parents reminded me today that teachers test what they teach. In her experience, the teacher likely did not mislead on purpose. An alternate explanation is that the teacher was not testing to the state standard, but rather to her own.

Those two parents had the education and professional experience to recognize and address the issue with their child. Many parents do not.

It is time to find out how extensive this problem is in Virginia.

SOL results can give an indication of grade inflation, but they by definition are time-late. They reflect that a kid either is or is not performing at grade level, but are given very late in the school year.

We need to define the extent of the problem of grade inflation before we can address it.

An outlier. Albemarle County Public Schools is experimenting this year with a new grading policy .

Homework will no longer be counted toward students’ final grades, nor will behaviors such as attendance.

One school official said:

As we continue to roll this out, as we continue to make this work, it’s ultimately going to make for a less stressful environment for our students.

Interesting. And aggressively positive this early in an “experiment/”

But by definition that policy puts parents in the dark about their children’s progress:

…until they’re ready for those summative moments in that test or that project where they’re showing what they know.

“Summative moments” sounds suspiciously like “high stakes testing” against which the left rails.  The self-proclaimed “most antiracist school district in Virginia” should pick a side on that issue and stick with it.

Perhaps the Virginia Department of Education can assist Albemarle County by evaluating the results of that experiment.

But let’s move on.

Parental rights to information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Code of Virginia give parents the right to inspect and review the student’s education records maintained by the school. That includes SOLs.

While at least one school division, Fairfax County Public Schools, is proactive about providing SOL results to parents, it is not clear how many others do that. And, as I wrote above, SOLs are time-late.

A recommendation. I recommend that the new Secretary of Public Instruction commission a survey of the grades awarded to students versus SOL results:

  • in Albemarle County this year; and
  • in the worst-performing schools in Virginia over the last three years before COVID.

Drill down to a level of granularity sufficient to determine if parents of a significant number of those children were misled into a false understanding of their child’s progress. Take whatever action is indicated by the results.

All Virginians support parental responsibility for assisting with their children’s education. Their ability to carry out that obligation, however, depends upon giving them accurate information.

We owe them that.

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23 responses to “Are School Grades Misleading Parents?”

  1. /sarcasm on/

    Grade inflation.

    A solid backup plan for ‘educrats’ in case lowered expectations and an obsession with “equity” do not quite push our public education systems completely over the cliff.

    /sarcasm off/

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      It would be funny…

      “Professor XXXX is very hard. It is difficult for the average student to get an “A” in his class.”

      It was on one of my Uniform Student Evaluation write-in comments.

      1. Now THAT is funny.

  2. Becky Crowe Avatar
    Becky Crowe

    As you’ve reported and as most of your followers will attest, we have a major problem with our educational system in Virginia. I personally blame the VDOE. Over the past 8+ years, they have kindly taken a blind eye to our failing schools and allowed them to run amuck with no accountability. The VDOE is scared of BIG ED–Henrico, Fairfax, Chesterfield. Henrico County sued the VDOE when they wanted to withhold federal funds. VDOE has allowed these big school districts to do whatever they want to do because they are scared of litigation. Your kid can’t read–it’s OK, your kid can’t do math–it’s OK. THEY DO NOT CARE. THEY JUST WANT TO GET THEM OUT OF THEIR SCHOOL SYSTEM. IT’S CALLED THE SCHOOL TO PRISON PIPELINE FOR A REASON. I can only give facts from my experience with Henrico County Public Schools, but the schools are definitely inflating grades. My daughter was given six participation grades, each a 100. They typically only receive 10 grades per quarter. She was failing, but because of the participation grades, she made a C on her progress report. This was at the same time that HCPS was telling me she wasn’t participating. In other efforts to ensure she passed, they would give her the same test one, two or three times. Hoping she would improve her grade. I’m sorry, but this is just WRONG. My daughter is dyslexic and very intelligent. She couldn’t read the instructions or the questions. I saw it firsthand during the pandemic. The school system didn’t know what to do with her, so they continued to find ways to just pass her through the system. It didn’t matter to them that she couldn’t read, they just wanted to get her out of elementary school, so they wouldn’t be bothered by her anymore. We tried to get her help, but our efforts were useless. Both of my kids have been in private school and I had no idea how bad our schools were until my youngest went to public in second grade. We pulled her out after two years. We had to mortgage our house to send her to private school, but I wanted her to learn to read. She’s doing great in her current school.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Thank you very much.

      We all rely on parents like you to tell your stories. I apologize for all of us to you and your daughter for your experiences in Virginia public schools. We must do better.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I, too, am sorry to hear about your experience. I am surprised that it happened in Henrico. I live in the county and it is supposed to have a good school system. By state and federal law, the school system was supposed to provide special help for your dyslexic daughter. I hope that you have lodged a complaint with the school board member of your district. Also, you may have some legal recourse against the school system.

  3. VaNavVet Avatar

    Grades are also supposed to have a motivating effect by rewarding a student’s effort. It is hard to strike the right balance with grading as a couple of zero’s will torpedo the grade for the marking period. Teachers are evaluated based upon portfolios and perhaps students should be done likewise.

    1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Portfolios should be used but they are too time consuming. If we move away from grade to performance mastery, then they will just have to be too time consuming. What might happen inadvertently is that the teacher writes on the board what the student must then copy onto paper and everyone’s portfolio looks identical when it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, this was done many times as part of the alternative SOL assessment for students with disabilities. The program was finally changed.

    2. Matt Hurt Avatar

      The kids who most need motivating are rarely motivated by grades.

      1. VaNavVet Avatar

        If a middle or high school student badly fails the first couple of tests or quizzes they have pretty much failed for the marking period. They need to see a way that they can still salvage at least a “D” in order to keep trying.

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar

          If a kid who is motivated by grades (at least enough to eke by with barely passing)understands they don’t have to do what’s expected to get a passing score, they won’t. Again, many of these kids are not motivated by grades, in middle and high school they’re just waiting until they turn 18 so they can quit.

          The motivating factors for these kids tend to be a caring teacher who develops a positive relationship with them. At that point, the kid doesn’t want to disappoint the teacher.

  4. tmtfairfax Avatar

    I ran across some old report cards a while ago. In the early grades, most kids got a C, most especially for the first grading period, unless they actually were superb or totally knowing nothing.

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Grade inflation is an age-old problem and I don’t know what the answer is. Many years ago, I was teaching as an adjunct at the University of Richmond. When I handed back some written assignment, a student complained that she had never gotten a C (or B, I can’t remember which) in her life. I just shrugged.

    I can’t complain too much about grade inflation, however. In college, the standard “C” range was 70-80. However, Dr. Guy, who taught Chemistry 101, extended the “C” range in that class to 65-80. If it hadn’t been for that extended range, lab test scores, and partial credit for answers on the regular tests, I surely would have gotten a “D”, at best, and not received the credits I needed to get for my required science course.

  6. Grade inflation has long been a problem in public schools, as in private schools, colleges and universities. It’s an outgrowth of the self-esteem movement. We don’t want children to feel bad about themselves. We want to give them positive encouragement. Every kid gets a trophy. Every kid gets an A or a B.

    Add to that broad social trend the ideological attack on grades as racist. If Asian and White kids get better grades than Black kids and Hispanics, it can’t have anything to do with expectations set by parents, or the fact that kids growing up in professional-class families are exposed to much wider vocabularies than kids in poor/working class families, no, it’s because of racial/culture bias. The onus is on teachers to engage in culturally responsive learning, not on the kid to buckle down and study harder.

    COVID made everything worse. So many kids fell so far behind that it would have been a disaster not to promote them. Teachers were instructed to cut them slack in so many ways. Never turned in that class project? No one gets a zero. Teachers can’t give you a score lower than 50. Did you show any sign of learning anything in class? A smidgeon? Aha, that means you showed “progress,” even if you can’t read, write, add or subtract at grade level. We’ll pass you.

    Grades have fallen victim to the culture wars and become a total farce. Standards are collapsing across the board.

    If he wants to raise those standards, Glenn Youngkin has his work cut out for him.

    1. VaNavVet Avatar

      You make it sound so simple, but how many days or weeks have you spent in a classroom? That would be 20 years for me.

  7. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Albemarle’s grading policy will fail. Loudoun has been doing the same thing for a number of years now. My way of dealing with it went like this. A true “A” was an A plus 98% and above. A true B was an A on the LCPS scale 90% to 97%. A “B” became the new C. D’s and F’s. Almost impossible to get one of those unless you just never attended class. I remember the lowest F I could give out on a 9 weeks report card was a 50%. They called it a floor. Whatever. Who is responsible for this? Why your local school board and educrats. Maybe in 2023 new school boards state wide will be willing to inject rigor back into the way students are graded. Until then the participation trophy business will continue to be good.

    1. VaNavVet Avatar

      We also could basically not use zeros but a 50% had the same effect.

    2. Many years ago, when I attended public schools in Virginia Beach the grading scale for Junior High and High School was among the most ‘aggressive’ in the state:

      95-100 = A; 88-94 = B; 81-87 = C; 75-80 = D; <75 = E (fail)

      (For some reason they use 'E' instead of 'F' for a failing grade. I've always suspected it had something to do with the programming in the primitive main frame computer they used to compute grades and print report cards).

      I remember being concerned that the grading scale might make me less competitive when applying for college when compared to students whose schools used a less rigorous grading scale. However, the colleges I applied to assured me they took grading scale into account when assessing each applicant's GPA. So, in my experience, at that time, grade inflation via 'easier' grading scales did not really help students when applying for colleges. I suspect things may have changed in the ensuing decades, though.

      1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
        Baconator with extra cheese

        I grew up with a very similar grading scale. It was brutal.

      2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        The old VB grading scale was common in Virginia in many districts. Starting in the mid 1990s a gradual erosion of rigorous grading began. That slope turned into a cliff in the past 10 years.

  8. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    If I am a parent who can’t read or write well enough to understand the SOL assessment or growth data (growth is in the FALL), then I have to rely on grades.

    Teacher test what they teach. They try to grade fairly. If the grade and the SOL are not close in proximity, the teacher is more than likely not teaching to the rigor of the SOL.

    Grades at the elementary school are important. If we know a child is behind in grade 3, then a parent should know as well. If the child passes the grade and is reading below, the parent needs to understand that the school has a reasonable expectation that with support in the 4th grade, he/she will catch up.

    I never graded students with disabilities. However, I did send home to the parent each nine weeks a very clear description of how the student was mastering those objectives on his IEP. That way, I wasn’t giving the student a B when he was still reading 2 years below grade level. I was instead telling the parent how he was growing. For example, at the beginning of the year, he/she recognized 50 site words, he now recognized 100 site words.

    Many systems are going to mastery driven reporting and are no longer giving grades. This is very time consuming, but transparent.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Thanks as usual, Kathleen.

    2. I’ll bet you were/are an outstanding teacher.

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