A new report from the Fordham Institute about “Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016)” relates to topics like “Hollow Diplomas” that we have been concerned about at the Bluegrass Institute for some time (see here and here for some examples).
The new study, which looks at results for North Carolina, contains some interesting findings, including:
Finding 1: While many students are awarded good grades, few earn top marks on the statewide end-of-course exams for those classes.
Finding 2: Algebra 1 end-of-course exam scores predict math ACT scores much better than do course grades.
Finding 3: From 2005 to 2016, more grade inflation occurred in schools attended by more affluent youngsters than in those attended by the less affluent.
One of the most interesting comments in the report involves how parents view grades versus test scores:
“When there’s a big difference between what the two measures communicate, parents are apt to take the test scores less seriously—especially if the scores are low. “My child doesn’t test well,” goes the refrain. In our view, this is a form of confirmation bias that’s leading to greater complacency not only on the part of students, but parents too.”
The report adds:
“Why should mothers work to help their children catch up if grades don’t signal that they’re behind?”
Unfortunately, Fordham’s report only examines data from North Carolina. Protectors of the education status quo in Kentucky will be quick to claim that the results don’t necessarily apply here.
But, the report got me wondering if any data on grade point averages (GPA) was available in Kentucky. I hit pay dirt with a new Excel file from the Kentucky Center for Statistics titled the “2018 High School Feedback Workbook.” What I found raises real concerns about the apparent absence of grading standardization in Kentucky.
By the way, inaccurate GPAs impose financial impacts on Kentucky’s KEES college scholarship awards. So, the material discussed below has implications for the fairness of those scholarship awards.
There are also implications for the state’s attempts to tighten up high school diploma quality.
Want to see which Kentucky districts probably grade too easy – or even too hard? Just click the “Read more” link.
Among other things, the Kentucky Center for Statistics’ 2018 High School Feedback Workbook file lists the average GPA for high school graduates of 2015-16 for each school district that has at least one high school. The file also contains average ACT Composite scores for the same group of graduates for each district.
I realized that if I separately ranked the districts for both their GPA and for their ACT results, the difference in those rankings would provide a figure of merit for how well those GPAs related to the ACT results. A large difference in ranking, whether positive or negative, would point to the grading in the district being outside of the norm.
I assembled the results in an Excel spreadsheet covering all 169 Kentucky school districts with at least one high school, which you can access here. This spreadsheet shows the Grade Point Average (GPA) for Kentucky 2015-16 high school graduates reported by the Kentucky Center for Statistics.
The Excel also shows the average ACT Composite Scores for each district as reported by the Kentucky Center for Statistics. The ACT scores are from the 11th grade testing conducted one year earlier in the 2014-15 school term, so the scores are for the same group of students who graduated one year later.
The spreadsheet additionally shows the rankings for each district for the GPA and a separate ranking for each district’s ACT Composite Score. The spreadsheet then shows the computed magnitude of the difference between those two rankings.
Basically, if the rankings for GPA and the ACT are about equal, the grading in the district would likely be in line with the state average for grading. If there are major differences in the GPA and ACT rankings, then the district probably grades too easily or too strictly.
Figure 1, which is an extract from the full Excel spreadsheet, shows the top and bottom districts. Districts where grading seems more in line with the ranking of ACT results are shown at the bottom of Figure 1, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people in those districts should be happy, as we will shortly see.
Let’s examine some specific examples from Figure 1. As you look at this, keep in mind the Kentucky School Report Card for the state shows that the state average Grade 11 ACT Composite Score was 19.4 in the 2014-15 school term, the year when the Class of 2015-16 was in that grade.
The first district listed, Magoffin County, has a very large difference between its ranking for its average GPA of 3.380 (fourth from the highest GPA in the state) and its rank for the ACT Composite (158), a difference of 154 places. Note that the ACT score for this school is very low, just 17.6, far below the statewide average for this 36-point test. This implies that grading at Magoffin is too easy. Kids get high grades, but not a high amount of education, at least using the ACT as a metric to compare to other districts.
Next, look at Ludlow Independent’s results. Ludlow ranks quite low for its average high school GPA but it ranks rather well for its ACT Composite Score of 20.1, which is notably above state average. So, it looks like grading in this district is too tight. Kids might be losing out as a result, both in college competitiveness and in scholarships. For one example, the amount of the KEES scholarship is determined in part by a student’s GPA.
Due to the tight grading, parents in Ludlow might not realize how well their children actually do perform.
Flipping to the other side of this KEES coin, Magoffin’s graduates might be getting more KEES money than they really deserve.
Next, let’s look at the bottom of Figure 1, where the school districts that seem to have the most representative grading compared to their ACT score rankings are found.
At the very bottom of the list, Lyon County ranks quite high, in 22nd place, for both its GPA and its well-above-average ACT Composite Score. In general, it looks like parents and students get solid information from the grades handed out in Lyon County.
However, you have to be careful about making too many assumptions just because a school district is located near the bottom of the spreadsheet.
Look at the Covington Independent School District’s results. It’s rankings for both GPA and ACT are about equal, and really low. But do note that this district’s ACT Composite Score is indeed VERY low. Data in the complete Excel spreadsheet show students in only three other districts in Kentucky scored lower in 2014-15 on this college entrance test that all Kentucky 11th graders take. Furthermore, Covington’s 2.517 GPA is the lowest in the state.
That brings up another point. As the Fordham Report indicates, many parents might not understand that Covington’s “passing” average GPA of 2.517 (somewhere around a C+ or B- average) signals an education that isn’t really going to do much for their child later on.
In fact, most of the school districts listed at the bottom of Figure 1 are turning in some pretty low performances even though their grading standards seem somewhat in line with the norm for other districts. Among the bottom 10 districts in the listing, only Cumberland County, Whitley County and Lyon County seem to be doing a solid job with both grading and ACT performance.
One takeaway from this analysis is that grading standards across Kentucky seems to vary rather widely. So, there is plenty of opportunity, depending upon the school district, for inflated grading to make parents think all is well when their child is actually in trouble. There are also examples where districts are grading much harder than the norm, and that isn’t really good for kids, either.
This discussion bears as well on the current effort to improve Kentucky’s high school diploma quality. With so much variation in grading standards from district to district, it seems clear that just relying on school districts to maintain grading quality doesn’t work for Kentucky. Given that, is it reasonable to assume that diploma quality control is likely to be any better? Thus, those increased diploma standards are warranted.
Technical Note: Expanded information about the 2018 High School Feedback Report Workbook is available here.