Grading standards do impact student achievement

During my time as a teacher, grading assignments seemed like a never-ending task. The softy in me was tempted to give my lower-performing students a positive mark and move on, but I knew maintaining high expectations for all my students would help them in the long run.

A recent report published by the Fordham Institute confirms what my teacher colleagues and I knew to be true: grading standards affect student success.

Authored by American University’s Seth Gershenson, “Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement” investigates how the grading standards of an Algebra I teacher affect content mastery—as measured by student performance—and students’ longer-term performance in subsequent math courses.

Gershenson analyzed administrative data from 2006-2016 for all 8th and 9th grade Algebra I students attending North Carolina’s public schools (roughly 350,000 students). His analysis yielded six findings.

Finding 1: Students learn more from teachers who have higher grading standards.

One thing we know for sure, however, is that teacher expectations make a difference. Those who recognize and believe in their students’ potential—and hold high expectations for all their students—significantly increase the odds that those children will go on to complete high school and college.

Accordingly, low grading standards pose a grave threat to the performance and evaluation of U.S. public schools that ultimately jeopardizes the competency of high school and college graduates who are entering the workforce. Assigning good grades for mediocre work signals to students that excellent work is beyond their reach. This is the “soft bigotry of low expectations” of which President George W. Bush warned: When students who have not mastered the material receive passing marks anyway, they can become complacent and fail to reach their full potential. Lax grading is a pernicious practice that provides students and parents with a false sense of security and accomplishment that might prevent them from trying harder, learning more, and maximizing their own future prospects in the “real world.”

Finding 2: Teachers with higher grading standards improve their students’ performance in subsequent math classes up to two years later.

…[R]elative to the teachers with the lowest grading standards, students of teachers with the highest grading standards performed significantly better a year later in Geometry (7.3 percent of a standard deviation) and two years later in Algebra II (8.6 percent of a standard deviation).

It is intuitive that the persistent effects of Algebra I teachers’ grading standards are larger in Algebra II than in Geometry, as the course content is more closely aligned. This lends additional support to a causal interpretation of the main result: Higher grading standards improve student learning.

Finding 3: Teachers with higher grading standards significantly improve the learning outcomes of all student subgroups.

The effect of having a teacher in the upper three quartiles is strongly statistically significant, and similar in size, for each subgroup: It ranges from about 8 to 10 percent of a test-score standard deviation. Some subtle differences emerge, but they are not statistically significant. In other words, all of the student groups analyzed benefit from exposure to higher grading standards. Once again, this finding is largely consistent with the Florida study and alleviates the concern that some students—for example, low performers—could be harmed by higher grading standards.

Finding 4: Teachers with higher grading standards significantly improve student learning in all types of schools.

The impact of grading standards might vary by school type for several reasons. For example, school climate might influence how students respond to standards.

We see that the effects of high standards are all positive and similar in size in all school types, suggesting that high grading standards are universally beneficial.

Finding 5: Teachers who attended selective undergraduate institutions, hold graduate degrees, and have more experience tend to have higher grading standards.

The first characteristic is the selectivity of the teacher’s undergraduate college or university, with selectivity defined using ratings from Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.35 Teachers who attended selective schools have higher grading standards than those who did not. This difference represents about nine percent of a standard deviation in grading standards, although it is not statistically significant.

We see a somewhat larger difference when comparing teachers with graduate degrees to those without. The former have grading standards that are about 19 percent of a standard deviation stricter than the latter. These results suggest that one’s own experience in more challenging academic environments or with higher-quality postsecondary instructors may promote higher standards in grading practices.

Finding 6: Grading standards tend to be higher in suburban schools, middle schools, and schools serving more advantaged students.

The first comparison is between middle and high schools. Recall that students in the sample took Algebra I in either the eighth or ninth grade, and school cultures likely vary between middle and high schools; moreover, students who take Algebra I in middle school are generally stronger math performers than those who take the course later.

The difference between less and more affluent schools is even more dramatic, with significantly lower standards in the less affluent schools.

Finally, we see…that grading standards are highest in suburban and urban schools and lowest in schools in small towns and rural areas.

There is pressure placed on teachers, either from school administration, parents, or students, to award higher grades or pass students, making maintaining high expectations for students more difficult than it should be. But the damaging consequences of low grading standards and their contribution to educational achievement gaps should cause education leaders and policymakers to push for greater expectations that bolster student success and help students reach their full potential.