How do we keep our ‘snowflake’ students stress-free? Eschew tests and inflate grades

I don’t consider myself a “tiger mom” and, while I haven’t taken a poll, my kids would probably agree that I’m a soft touch. Yet a column this week in the Wall Street Journal called “Here’s Why Tests Matter” brought me up short as it described a “predictable outcry” by parents against the new SAT — “why do we have to have this test at all?” — because it is more closely aligned with the Common Core’s emphasis on critical thinking skills and is more challenging to students.

Yet, irony of ironies, as this “outcry” grows, standardized test scores are actually growing in importance to employers and graduate schools because K-12 schools and colleges inflate grades to make everyone look good. Which makes me wonder: Could the opt-out movement’s driver — a kind of Lake Wobegon-induced mindset that all students and teachers are above average, data be damned — have the unintended consequence of actually elevating the importance of standardized tests?

James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley, the authors of the Journal column, describe how grade inflation pervades schools, rendering report cards and transcripts meaningless.  In colleges, grade inflation is so rampant, they report,  that a Harvard professor “gave in” by “assigning his students two grades, an official inflated grade for their transcripts and an unofficial grade reflecting what they actually deserved.”

Last year a northern California school district created a new grading system: Everyone who scores above an 80% gets an “A” and only students who score below 20% get a “F.”

These are trends, not aberrations, and graduate schools and employers are responding logically. From the column:

For her book “Inside Graduate Admissions,” Julie R. Posselt watched six highly ranked departments conduct reviews of grad-school applicants. She writes that although administrators said they were taking a holistic approach to admissions, they all placed significant emphasis on applicants’ GRE scores. Some eliminated two-thirds of the candidates based on those numbers.

“Grades are increasingly a lousy signal,” a sociologist explained, “especially at those elite places that just hand out the A’s.” Standardized tests, for all their faults, are the only thing left to judge students by.”

We all want our kids to receive good grades in school and we all want to avoid unnecessary stress. But at what price?

Again, I’m no tiger mom — nor a perfect one  — but I believe that good parenting includes letting children fail when they need to try harder and teaching them not to “opt out” of challenges.  Yet purveyors of the opt-out movement would have us eschew accurate measurements of student learning as gleaned from standardized tests to preserve the pretense that all our kids are strong, good-looking, and above average. A natural corollary of that sentiment is motivation to eschew accurate grading on report cards, even when good grades are unearned.

Could this predilection towards grade inflation lead to an elevation of the importance of student outcomes on standardized testing? As the public gradually accepts the unreliability of report cards, will objective assessments rise in importance? I don’t have a crystal ball, but clearly that’s an unintended consequence the opt-outers aren’t banking on.

What do you think?
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Laura Waters
Laura was weaned on education and equity issues because her mom was a social worker and her dad was a social studies teacher in New York City public schools. She can no more get this passion out of her blood than she can her New York accent, even though she has lived in Central Jersey now for over 20 years. She and her husband have four children, and her youngest has multiple disabilities. Laura has been on her local school board for 12 years. She keeps education leaders on their toes at NJ Left Behind.

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