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.