A recent study by a professor of economics found that some high schools in Georgia routinely hand out A's to students who can't pass a standardized "end of course" test, suggesting that these students are not as well prepared for college as their transcripts might indicate.
The results of the study are troubling for college officials, who say 1 in 10 freshmen in the state takes remedial classes. The study also triggered a debate about the pressure that parents and students exert on teachers to award high marks. In Georgia, high school students need at least a B average to be eligible for a state scholarship. Teachers say they don't want to jeopardize the chances of a hardworking student getting to go to college.
Chris Clark, an economics professor at Georgia College and State University, conducted the study for the Georgia Governor's Office of Student Achievement. After analyzing 2007 classroom grades and scores on standardized tests in eight subjects, he found some glaring discrepancies. For example, in economics, nearly 36 percent of students didn't pass the test, but only 6 percent failed the class. In U.S. history, about 29 percent failed the test, while only 9 percent failed the class.
Similar embarrassing disparities may be exposed at many more high schools as more of the nation moves toward end-of-course tests, which are supposed to measure students' knowledge of a subject. Georgia requires high school students to take end-of-course tests in eight subjects, and the tests make up 15 percent of a student's classroom grade. It's therefore likely that the problem of grade inflation is larger than the study reveals.
Atlanta's public high schools, which had the biggest gaps between grades and test scores in the study, defended the district's grading practices. A spokesperson for the district told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that sometimes teachers reward a student's progress with a passing grade even if he or she failed a test. "The alternative is almost unthinkable, and that is failing students who worked hard and made so much progress but did not score high on the [end-of-course test]," the official said.
Other factors besides grade inflation could explain the gap between scores and grades. It's possible that teachers may be grading students fairly but that they are not covering the content that the state expects students to learn. Clay County, Ga., says it is taking steps to address both problems; it is offering more training for teachers to improve grading practices and checking to be sure that courses are rigorous and in line with state standards.