North Carolina high school students may not be doing as well academically as they think — especially if they’re attending affluent schools where a new study says grade inflation is more likely to be taking place.
A report released last week from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute studied more than a decade of North Carolina high school transcripts and test results and found that a significant number of students who received high grades did poorly on state exams. The study also found that grade inflation — when grades may be higher than they should be — is happening more at affluent high schools and as a result is putting students at less affluent schools at an academic disadvantage.
Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University and the report’s author, says the findings are significant because grade inflation can produce a false sense of complacency about how well students are actually doing.
“Traditionally, parents and students put a lot of focus on what the report cards say, and if grades are saying you’re doing fine but the exams say you’re not proficient, you’re going to have an overinflated sense of how you’re doing,” Gershenson said in an interview.
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Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools, says he doesn’t doubt the data. But Poston said he trusts that teachers have a better sense of how their students are doing than the results of a single test.
“Are some students getting grades higher than they deserve?” Poston said. “Probably. But I’m not sure you can completely draw a line that we have grade inflation because these tests prove it.”
For the study, Gershenson examined the Algebra 1 report card grades and state end-of-course Algebra I results for more than 1 million North Carolina public high school students between 2005 and 2016. The state test counts for at least 20 percent of a student’s final grade.
Gershenson found that on average, students who scored higher on the Algebra 1 EOC also earned higher grades in their Algebra I class. But at the other end, he found that many students who receive good grades didn’t score at the highest level of the EOC exam or even pass the test.
Of the students who received an A, only 21 percent scored at the top range of the exam and 8 percent didn’t score as proficient to pass. Of the students who got a B, 57 percent didn’t meet the test standard of being college and career ready and 36 percent didn’t score as being proficient.
“Considering that a B is generally considered to be a good grade, these findings do suggest inflated grades,” Gershenson writes in the report.
Kelsey Woods, 16, a junior at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, said she isn’t seeing the kind of grade inflation that the study says exists. Instead, she said that students at her school are stepping up to do the work to produce higher grades.
“I think kids are pressured more by their parents and people around them to achieve more so they are,” Woods said.
The report also found that performance on the EOC test was a better predictor for how students would do on the state-mandated ACT math exam than their grades.
Gershenson also found that grade point averages had increased more from 2005 to 2016 in the affluent schools than in the less affluent ones. He attributes it to grade inflation, because the increase in Algebra I grades outpaced increases in EOC scores at the affluent schools.
“It’s gotten easier to get good grades in more affluent schools, but not in less affluent ones,” Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute write in the report’s introduction. “Thus, the ‘GPA Gap’ has widened.”
Poston said the GPA Gap is consistent with how academic achievement in North Carolina schools is very closely aligned to the poverty level of the students. He said the study raises questions whether students in less affluent schools have an opportunity gap and whether teachers at affluent schools are more likely to give their students the benefit of the doubt when issuing grades.
The reason for the grade inflation at affluent schools, Gershenson speculated, is from parental pressure.
“I completely believe well-educated parents in a place like Chapel Hill might put a lot of pressure on the school and teachers to recognize the performance of the students and give high grades,” Gershenson said. “This parental pressure could drive this. But the perceived threat of that pressure could lead to higher grading.”
Although the study only looked at North Carolina schools, Gershenson said the findings are consistent with what other researchers have found about grade inflation happening elsewhere in the nation.
“This is a national phenomenon,” Gershenson said. “North Carolina is not unique in this sense.”
T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui