The Grift Behind Grades and Growth

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s public school officials rely upon a wide array of metrics to determine if schools are doing a good job of educating their students. Trusting in the integrity of the statistics, our political leaders use them to guide education policy and decision-making — as recently highlighted by the data-heavy critique of Virginia’s schools published by the Youngkin administration last week.

I have written about Fletcher Norwood (not his real name), a high school teacher at a high-poverty school in Virginia, and his travails in teaching kids who are unmotivated, ill disciplined and addicted to cellphones. The system he describes is reminiscent of that of Chinese provincial functionaries concocting economic-performance numbers to make themselves look good, passing them up the line, and leaving higher-ups in Beijing with a distorted view of reality. Metrics malpractice at Norwood’s school is particularly evident in the handing out of grades and the measurement of student “growth.”

Consider, for example, enrollment in the two “honors” classes that Norwood teaches. Collegevine says that most schools give honors classes an additional 0.5 grade kicker on a 1.0 to 4.0 scale in acknowledgment of the more demanding curricula. Some schools are motivated to place kids in honors classes because the weight-boosted average makes the school look better. But at his school, Norwood says, there is no discernible logic for admitting students to the honors classes he teaches.

“When I first started with honors classes, I asked [students], what’s the difference between a regular class and an honors class? At least a quarter of them would say, ‘I don’t know why I’m honors, I got a D last year,” Norwood says.

Today, the situation is worse. Middle schools are pushing kids through the system into high school “like a meat grinder,” and the school administration assigns kids to Norwood’s class for reasons that elude him. In his two classes, he would say ten students are capable of honors-level work. If he taught at a true “honors” level, most would flunk. But the administration frequently prods him into passing kids who are doing “F” and “D” level work. The pressure to give students a pass has increased since the COVID pandemic and the resulting collapse in student performance.

Roughly a fifth of the kids in his school are classified as chronic absentees. Some of them are in his honors classes. “If you miss a certain number of school days, they’ll remove you from the roster,” Norwood says. “But if you show back up, they’ll put you back on the roster and give you work to make up” — which rarely gets done. “I’ve got one girl who has missed a total of 280 separate classes.”

Many of his students have been socially promoted; they have no idea why they’re there, and they aren’t prepared to do the work. Making his job harder, every kid has a cellphone, and it’s a constant battle to keep them from paying more attention to their phones than to the class. If he assigns a book to read at home, most will not read it. “Maybe five of my honors kids read at home,” he says. To cover the material in his honors class, he resorts to having students read it in class. That leaves less time for discussion.

A “B” in his honors class is not remotely comparable to a “B” in an honors class at a school where the students actually do the reading, cellphones are banned, and teachers are not coping with classroom disruptions, Norwood says.

If the kids in his classes enrolled in a comparable honors class at a school in an affluent neighborhood, “they would be completely out of their element.” The misclassification is tragic, he says, because many kids have a wildly inflated sense of their academic abilities. He worries that a large percentage of such students go to college, end up failing, and get saddled with large student debts.

In a parallel travesty, 70% of students must achieve “proficient” scores in their Standards of Learning tests for a Virginia school to gain accreditation. So many schools were failing to meet that standard that the state created a fallback standard. Now 70% of students have to pass their SOLs or demonstrate “growth” in their understanding of the subject.

Norwood’s county has contracted with an outside vendor to provide four mini-tests during the year to measure reading and mathematical progress. Here’s the problem: The student-growth materials are not tied to the Virginia SOL curricula or to any content teachers are reviewing in class. “We don’t use the [student-growth] platform for anything but the growth measure. We don’t use any of their literacy materials,” says Norwood. “It’s like I teach you how to drive an automatic, but I’ll test you on driving stick.”

Making matters worse, his county changed vendors and platforms last year, Norwood says. The county can’t even measure progress from one year to the next in a meaningful way.

Kids don’t take these computer-automated assessments seriously. “A lot of kids will click through” the exercises, he says. They know that the measure doesn’t affect them personally, so they don’t care. But school administrators care because the results affect accreditation. Some students have told Norwood that in middle school their teachers told them they don’t have to do so well the first few tests but they have to do well in the last one — all the better to show “growth.”

As far as Norwood is concerned, the growth assessments are worthless as a measure of progress. Likewise, grades, especially those on the lower end of the scale, are increasingly subject to administrative manipulation and thus are increasingly meaningless. As a teacher, Norwood finds the sham to be profoundly demoralizing.

Update: I have updated this column to delete an assertion that the county uses the personal-growth mini-tests for purposes of accreditation.

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14 responses to “The Grift Behind Grades and Growth”

  1. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    That is an op-ed in this morning’s RTD, a horrifying piece from a student coming out of W&M’s School of Education. I disagree with it. My wife, the super teacher, disagrees with it. But it perfectly illustrates what we are up against.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      “According to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), the 2020-21 SOL pass rates were only 69% for reading, 54% for mathematics and 59% for science. Despite these figures, there has been hardly any discussion of remodeling SOLs to better support Virginia students.”

      “The drop in passing scores was most significant for the math SOL, with a whopping 28% decrease among Virginia students. It is apparent that an adjustment in standardized testing is necessary to coincide with recent changes in education.”

      If the kids aren’t passing the tests (and the pass rates are declining) then change the test?

      The student who wrote this Op-Ed will have a bright future as a union leader in the new Virginia educational system.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Portfolios are really formative assessment tools for teachers to use. If used for accountability, they will be misused. The portfolios for students with disabilities in lieu of state SOL assessments were abandoned for this reason. People cheat. For example, in one Tidewater city around 2004-2006, there was a front page article about a principal who allowed a teacher of students with disabilities to let students copy the examples for the portfolie from the board.

    3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Spencer Alderson will quickly discover the pitfalls of grading portfolio based assessments. Sounds good but not practical for an overall student assessment that produces data to measure the performance of schools. She is young. She can’t be more than 20 or 21. If she is still a teacher in ten years I bet her thinking will be different.

    4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The major fallacy in the op-ed is an assumption that a declining passing rate means that the tests “have become less and less effective in measuring student success.”

      Before one can make that judgment, one needs to determine if the tests are properly designed. Even if their design leaves something to be desired, they have been used for many years. The fact that overall passing rates are declining is a result, not of the tests, but of many other factors affecting our schools.

    5. Lefty665 Avatar

      The idea that test scores are falling so the tests must be changed is horrifying. If implemented it makes testing worthless as a measure of how students and schools are doing. Oh, wait, Virginia has reduced the SOL cut scores and is otherwise screwing with testing…

  2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Formative vs Summative assessment. Formative assessment should include what is explained above as growth assessments — and they should not be used for accountability. They should be used by teachers to determine what might need to be retaught or maybe highlighted a few more times. Formative assessments are really student by student driven so that teachers can help each student individually. Summative assessments are for accountability purposes. The sum up what was learned over the course of a year. They should be used to tell where there might be gaps in what is supposed to be taught and what was actually taught overall, for the group of not individual, students assessed.

    Apples and oranges.

    In my opinion, growth assessments are for teachers to design and use, not political entities like the VDOE. If a student does poorly on a formative assessment, it gives the teacher a way of knowing that the student needs help immediately, not at the end of the year (summative).

    Formative assessments could be a simple quiz or question the teacher directs to a student. Formative assessment should happen during the teaching cycle….. not after the teaching cycle.

    The state would do better to spend money on training teachers how to formative assess, not creating growth assessments for them to use.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      The more you post, the more we know your view and it’s an informative one.

  3. Any data over the years of how many students flunk each grade and are held back for a second or third try?

  4. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Norwood: My advice – and I learned this after working in a high poverty district for 25 years – match your beliefs in education with those beliefs of who employs you. It is not going to get better until the structure and system change. Go to a private school or a different district. If you like serving kids in poverty, try a rural school district in the southwest part of the state. Just go. You have been abused by a system that only cares for themselves and not kids. Go fast.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Good advice. That is exactly what I did and it served me and my efforts in the classroom well. The problem I ran into was the education world has become a very small place for teachers committed to true excellence.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar


  5. Matt Hurt Avatar
    Matt Hurt

    Jim, the only option for the growth to be calculated into the accreditation rating is via SOL tests, and that’s only with reading and math grades 3-8. No other assessments can be used for this purpose. You’ll find more information about that here.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    A Georgia teacher of the year just called it quits. Complained about all of the same problems as Norwood. Math teacher and wrestling coach could not take it anymore.

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