While Grades May Be Meaningful, It’s Still About the Skills: “Resolving” to Recognize that Report Cards are Less Meaningful than Student Mastery

While Grades May Be Meaningful, It’s Still About the Skills:

“Resolving” to Recognize that Report Cards are Less Meaningful than Student Mastery

Dear Colleagues,


   I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

   I’m not opposed to them. It does not bother me that others make them. And, if others are successful in achieving their resolutions, that’s great. . . but it will not motivate me to make a New Year’s resolution next year.

   Critically, in order to make a sound resolution, you need to reflect on what you are able to do, what you are not doing, and what you “resolve” to do or change in the future.

   Personally, I think I do a pretty good job of ongoing self-evaluation.

   While I don’t always “hit the mark,” I know what my “marks” are, I try to analyze why I miss some marks, and then I make a plan to make amends and do better in the future.

   And maybe that’s why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I am in a continual state of growth and self-improvement.

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   Speaking of marks. . .

   A student’s high school grades have always been a strong predictor of college admission and college graduation, respectively (even more so than the SATs or ACTs). At the same time, a recent study—coincidentally, by the research arm of ACT—investigated high school grade inflation and its presence across different academic subject areas.

   The study asked two questions:

1. Is there evidence of grade inflation for high school graduating cohorts from 2010 to 2022 in English, math, social studies, and science courses?

2. Does grade inflation vary by racial/ethnic background, gender, percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at the school (FRL), or percentage of students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups at the school (i.e., Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Pacific Islander)?

   The study answered these questions by analyzing the data from 6,871,894 students attending 3,884 different high schools who took the ACT test between 2010 and 2022.

Analyzing Grade Inflation from 2010 to 2022

   Initially, the study looked at students’ grades from 2010 through 2022 in comparison to their ACT scores.

   They concluded that:

"(G)rade inflation has accelerated for all students; however, average ACT Composite scores have continued to decline, reaching the lowest average score of the past decade in 2021. The number of students receiving B grades has decreased over time, while the number of students receiving A grades has increased. Grade inflation also became especially pronounced in 2020 and 2021, with more grade inflation taking place between 2018 and 2021 than in the preceding eight years."

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   Moving to the two research questions, grade inflation was quantified by using. . .

"hierarchical linear modeling to estimate and adjust high school GPA for students in the sample. These models adjusted estimated high school GPA by accounting for the number of courses taken in a subject, tested year, test type, ACT subject score, race/ethnicity, gender, family income, percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at a school, percentage of students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups at a school, percentage of women at a school, percentage of students taking advanced coursework in a school, and the percentage of ACT-tested students at a school.:

   Using the GPAs of students taking the ACTs in 2010 as a baseline, the study calculated the changes in students’ GPAs from 2011 through 2022 by equating the differences among students across the variables above.

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   The study concluded:

  • This study revealed evidence of grade inflation in English, mathematics, social studies, and science. Grade inflation did not, however, increase at the same rate for all subjects.

The rate of grade inflation tended to be higher for math, followed by science, then English, and finally social studies.

In all subjects, Black students saw the greatest grade inflation when compared to other racial/ethnic groups.

Differences in the rate of grade inflation were also observed when taking into account the number of students at a school eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and when considering a school’s percentage of students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups.

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  • Because the greatest rate of grade inflation was observed in mathematics and science, it is possible that these subject grade point averages (GPAs) may be an overestimation of academic readiness. A similar concern can be expressed for Black students who experienced the highest levels of grade inflation.

This is a particular concern for Black students at schools with lower percentages of students from traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups.

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  • When trying to evaluate whether the grade inflation that has been observed in this and other studies is really a problem, we can look to the findings of this study to help us contextualize this question. The main issue is that grade inflation is not happening at the same rate for all students.

As we saw in this study, inflation differs by key student characteristics. This is particularly important because these are not malleable characteristics that a student can strive to change. This suggests that there are concerns about equity in high school grades for some students. I encourage a robust conversation about the systemic nature of the findings in this report in order to identify why grade inflation is happening.

What Do the Grades on a Report Card Mean?

   For me, one critical take-away from the ACT study is that we need to understand how report card grades are assigned in each school and by each teacher.

   This is critical, because most report cards—that report letter grades or numbers (and not descriptive standards or skills)— do not tell you the criteria behind the numbers. At the middle and high school level, especially, grades often vary from teacher to teacher, or academic discipline to discipline.

   Said another way, many grades are unreliable. . . meaning, psychometrically, that they also may be invalid.

   Specifically, some teachers assign grades “on a curve.” Others include a (usually unreliable and unstable) class participation grade for each student. Still others factor in a homework grade, and may even give students a “Zero” for missing assignments (thus, destroying their average) or a lower grade for late assignments. Finally, some teachers assign a final grade on the final project, and throw out the earlier grades given—on the same project—as the project is being developed.

   Unless we know the criteria behind each grade on a report card, we do not really know what the grade means.

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   I remember working at an elementary school in Arizona, and we were reviewing all of the second quarter grades from a large 3rd grade. After reviewing all of the grades on a cumulative spreadsheet, I said to the Building Principal, “This must be an exceptionally bright 3rd grade.”

   He looked at me quizzically, responding, “No, actually. This is one of our lowest 3rd grades ever. How could you say that?”

   My response: “Then how come all of them have either A’s or B’s in every subject on their report cards?”

   After turning and asking the in-attendance 3rd grade teachers, he was told that the grades reflected the students’ work on class material given at their skill and not their grade level.

   In looking at the report cards, there was no way that a parent (or a principal) would know about their child’s current “grade inflation”. . . and no way that a building-level Multi-Tiered Support (MTSS) in the future would necessarily know about this three or four years later when these same students were failing sixth grade in Middle School.

   Moreover, think about the parents’ confusion (or anger) at the end of 3rd grade when told that their child needs to be retained, and they are thinking, “But she got all A’s in reading this entire year!”

When Grades Do Teachers a Disservice

   I truly don’t believe that teachers are consciously irresponsible or insubordinate when grading their students.

   At the same time, when their grades do not accurately reflect a student’s current functional skill level, and their mastery of the skills embedded in the course’s syllabus or the grade level’s scope and sequence, there is a potential impact on the “next” teacher.

   Indeed, if the next teacher assumes that the previous year’s grades are reliable and valid, she or he may assume that certain students have the prerequisite skills to be successful—in the next course or level—when they do not. This assumption, when inaccurate, often results in the “not-ready-for-prime-time” students (a) underperforming in the next course (or even failing it); or (b) taking longer to learn or master the new material.

   While this should occur anyways, teachers should always be aware of the prerequisite content and skills that students should have mastered as they begin a new course, unit, or lesson. Moreover, they should be assessing (e.g., through pre-tests or student work samples) all of their students to objectively validate their mastery of these prerequisites before beginning the unit.

   When “behind,” some students will need their teachers to embed the missing prerequisites in the new instruction. Other students will need some skill-based remediation before beginning the unit. Still others will need short-term tutoring.

   And finally, some students may have such comprehensive prerequisite skill gaps that they need to (re)take an “earlier” course to close the gaps, and/or they may need some diagnostic assessments to determine if more strategic or specialized interventions are indicated.

When Grades Do Students a Disservice

   Too many students are still more focused on their grades than on their mastery of content, understanding, and skills.

   While there absolutely needs to be a balance, when some students are simply memorizing to “get the grade,” they sometimes are sacrificing their deeper understanding of the material and how to apply it to real-world problems.

   Grades (and, especially, one’s GPA in high school, and the designation of valedictorians and salutatorians) also often foster competitions between students, instead of individual “competitions” for self-understanding, academic growth, and skill mastery.

   And finally, when grades are inflated and inaccurate, they give some students as false sense of accomplishment, achievement, and readiness to go to the next course, post-high school level of education, or post-graduate level of employment.

   While some of this is social and cultural, educators and parents can help students to understand the grade versus mastery balance—perhaps reminding them, that employers hire people for their skills and ability to get along with others.

   It is the rare employer who asks for a high school or college transcript, making their primary hiring decisions based on those.

When Grades Do the System a Disservice

   From a systems perspective, the focus on grades (and not skill mastery) results in a dangerous mindset that sometimes is not in the best interests of student.

   The mindset is: “Let’s get the student to pass.”

   While I could provide many examples, let’s consider two.

   First, I have seen too many times, over a 40+ year career, when significantly struggling or unmotivated students. . . or students with disabilities. . . have been given a D- (D-minus) report card grade in a high school junior or senior level course.

   Sometimes, the grade is given to “reward” the student for his or her legitimate effort, knowing that (a) she or he may never master the material in the course, and (b) the school really doesn’t have the people or resources to help the student beyond what has already occurred.

   Sometimes (let’s be honest), the grade is given because teachers or administrators in the school are just “tired of dealing with the student” (especially the troublesome or unmotivated student), and this relieves them “of their misery.”

   Sometimes, for students with a disability, the school knows that—once a student has graduated from high school—the student no longer qualifies for special education services through their 21st birthday.

   All of these situations are unprofessional, a disservice to the school, staff, and students, and antithetical to having educational systems that mold themselves to their students, rather than forcing their students into pre-set molds.

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   The second implication of the D- grade, is—once again—the mindset that “The student has passed the course. . . there is nothing more that is needed.”

   When students receive very low grades that validly reflect that they have not learned and mastered essential course content and skills, teachers and other educators in a school must consider the student’s potential need for multi-tiered services.

   When student concerns involve their academic proficiency, one of the first things needed—early on in the multi-tiered system of supports process—is an individual assessment of a student’s current functional skill and academic mastery levels. This should not be done only through a computer-based assessment as these assessments often are not accurate.

   The assessment needs to be completed—paper-and-pencil, and face-to-face—with an educator using a psychometrically-valid diagnostic- and mastery-focused academic assessment test.

   Without knowing the current functional skill level of the student, the root causes of the academic gaps cannot be determined. Without a valid root cause analysis, the right instructional or intervention strategies cannot be discerned.

   While this may start with the D- grade, the grade is largely irrelevant to this process of determining what skills a student has mastered and how.

Summary: It’s Still About the Skills and Skill Mastery

   The “bottom line” throughout this Blog is that grades do not necessarily predict future grades, college acceptance, college graduation, or job success.

   A student’s mastery of the content and skills in a specific academic area are much more predictive of success in the next course, the next level of education, or his or her performance on a job site.

   If a report card grade accurately reflects the content and skills mastered by the student in a course, unit, or lesson. . . then, we are OK.

   But this is not often the case, and educators need to independently and objectively validate what content and skills students have truly mastered and the degree that they can apply them. . . in the next course, at the next level, and/or to real-world problems.

   The ACT grade inflation study that we began this Blog with stated (once again):

"This (study) suggests that there are concerns about equity in high school grades for some students. I encourage a robust conversation about the systemic nature of the findings in this report in order to identify why grade inflation is happening."

   Given the continual “in’s and out’s” of new faculty in our schools, this conversation needs to occur periodically in every school in this country—from preschool through high school.

   As we begin this new calendar year, let us “resolve’ to recognize that report cards are less meaningful than student mastery. While grades may be meaningful, it’s still about the skills.

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   Our calendars have firmly turned to 2024. And most of us have refocused our attention on our students and their learning.

   We hope that this Blog helps this focus, and that it initiates some important discussions with your colleagues.

   If there is anything I can do to assist, drop me an e-mail or give me a call. We are all in this together!