Are grading, homework and graduation shortcuts making kids dumb? Maybe not.

Perspective by Jay Mathews Washington Post
January 1, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST

Many teachers complain that inflated grades, reduced homework and quick-and-easy credit recovery courses are leaving holes in students’ educations. I was convinced that the only reason superintendents and school boards embrace such devices is to inflate graduation rates and make their districts look good.

The debate and research about this are far from over. But I recently have found evidence that making it easier to get that credential has neither diminished learning, at least on average, nor reduced the value of graduating from high school. Even a diploma won cheaply can have a good effect on a student’s future education and job prospects.

There is no question the U.S. high school graduation rate has been increasing. Tulane economist Douglas N. Harris said the portion of students getting high school certification, after hovering around 85 percent for several years, has had “the fastest rise since the early 1900s.”

“Between 2001 and 2016, the percentage of 18-24 year-olds with a credential increased to 93% — an 8-percentage-point increase,” Harris said in a report published in 2020 by the Brookings Institution. The rise coincided with the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which forced states to set specific graduation rate targets.

The study found evidence that the law at least partially caused the graduation rate increase. “States with more districts below the statewide NCLB-induced graduation thresholds saw larger increases in graduation,” he said. “Moreover, districts that were below the threshold saw the greatest graduation increases, within their respective states.”

A follow-up study by Harris and other collaborators reported that the graduation rate remained high in 2021 despite the pandemic, possibly because students close to getting diplomas kept attending school, online or otherwise, with encouragement from family, friends and teachers. Harris told me that a widespread easing of graduation requirements because of the health crisis also had an effect.

Harris’s 2020 study looked closely at online credit-recovery courses, which can satisfy some graduation requirements in a few weeks. He found that the increased use of those shortcuts was “too small to explain the overall increase in high school graduation.”

He acknowledged that the bare-bones courses don’t demand much. “Credit-recovery programs operate increasingly online, with the extent of instruction limited and difficult to track,” he said. “They are also ‘competency-based’ in that students only have to pass a test in order to pass the course, and some principals told us that students can often access the internet while testing — and repeat the test until they pass.”

Harris’s examination of credit-recovery student-level data in Louisiana confirmed that the number of shortcut courses had increased, and were more common in schools threatened by state sanctions because of low graduation rates. But credit-recovery growth was not nearly enough, he said, to explain Louisiana’s big graduation rate increase from 64 percent in 2005-2006 to 81 percent in 2017-2018.

“Even if we are wrong, or credit recovery increased more in states other than Louisiana, it would still not necessarily mean that the increase in high school graduation is a mirage,” Harris wrote. “While students seem to learn less in credit-recovery courses than regular, in-person courses, students are probably still learning something in credit-recovery courses. And the availability of credit recovery could lead students to stay in school longer and participate in more regular courses.”

Other experts on graduation had similar views. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz said: “Given the high cost of dropping out of high school to both the individual and society, it would be worth it if we had to loosen standards or requirements a bit. There is almost no work available which can support a family for a high school dropout.”

“Over the past 20 years,” he said, “the percent of high school graduates taking more challenging courses has increased substantially” because of the spread of Advanced Placement courses, dual-credit local college courses given in high school, and advanced science and math courses in general.

Russell Rumberger, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said he believed that the national high school graduation rate “has been going up largely by efforts of individual students and schools/districts/states to get students to earn a regular diploma.”

Perhaps ubiquitous slogans such as “Be Cool, Stay in School” had more effect than skeptics such as me imagined.

Some teachers push back against 50-percent minimum grading policy

Available research indicates minimum grading policies that guarantee students no less than 50 percent on any assignment do little harm. Analysis of data from one large urban district by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell found no sign of significant grade inflation or social promotion because of the policy. Students who received the benefits of minimum grades did significantly better on state exams than would be expected from their grade point averages.

I have yet to find a study of what many teachers consider the worst of recent classroom reforms — removing any penalties for submitting homework late or not at all.

My own reporting on high school use of college-level Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge courses indicates that those programs have quickly recovered from downturns during the pandemic. There has been a long-term increase in the portion of high schools where at least half of 11th- and 12th-graders took those courses and their long, demanding, independently graded exams. Only 1 percent of schools had reached that participation level in 1997, but by 2019, that number was up to 12 percent.

Such challenges have been embraced by students and parents throughout the country as a gold standard for high school learning. The college-level courses have not been very affected so far by efforts to make high school easier. But we will have to wait for further research to see how much American teenagers are learning — or not learning — these days.

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