Are Students Achieving Their Greatest Potential?

Are Students Achieving Their Greatest Potential?
Many teachers have grave doubts that students’ potential is in fact being consistently achieved. Photo courtesy of The Commons

On the marquee in front of a Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) elementary school, there stands a bold and spirited message: “Achieving our greatest potential.”

It would be wonderful if that were always true—if the district were indeed supporting students as they gain the skills and knowledge to make sense out of their lives and enter the adult world of work and responsibility with confidence.

Many teachers, though, have grave doubts that students’ potential is in fact being consistently achieved.

Instead, they’ve argued, some trends in education actually undermine students’ chances of getting the most out of what formal public education could, and should, offer them.

In a November 2022 Community Alliance article, we addressed how “diploma downsizing” has become part and parcel of the FUSD’s procedures. One element of such downsizing is so-called credit recovery, which allows students who would otherwise fail courses to “earn” credits toward graduation by taking quickie “classes” in front of a computer screen.

We also reported on AB 104, which has allowed many students to receive high school diplomas even though they hadn’t earned the number of credits that are typically required to earn diplomas.

Perhaps the most important element of diploma downsizing, though, is simple grade inflation.

It’s nothing especially new.

In his book A Slap in the Face, philosopher William B. Irvine considers the self-esteem movement that got under way in the United States in the late 1980s, one that sought to improve the quality of individuals’ lives and society at large by bolstering people’s sense of themselves. Achieving this goal came to involve praising students—and downplaying negative feedback that could undermine their self-esteem.

And so the devaluation of grades became commonplace. Irvine notes that between 1968 and 2004 “the percentage of students receiving As in high school went from 17.6 percent to 47.5 percent.”

Supposedly standardized measurements of academic prowess were hardly immune from this trend. In 1994, SAT scores were altered so that students earning a 500 in that year would have earned only a 424 earlier.

Even in the early 2010s, he reports, some high school graduating classes sported 40 or more valedictorians, something that would have been unheard of before.

Nowadays, the equity-in-grading movement is another way assessment of student work is watered down. Proponents of this approach argue that students who get a zero on an exam should still receive 50%; doing otherwise would be “unfair” and discourage them from making progress in the future.

“We have to give the students hope” is the way that one high school principal in the FUSD justifies this philosophy.

And so turning a blind eye to gaps in student learning becomes interpreted as a way of supporting young people, of building their self-esteem.

Going hand in hand with this perspective is the complaint that low grades “punish” students. It’s often leveled at teachers whose class rosters show many students with Ds and Fs—that they’re grading “harshly.” Objective assessment of student work becomes vilified as something damaging students.

All of this becomes especially problematic and dangerous in a time of Covid-induced learning loss. 

What would help students in the long run, one could argue, would be objective, straightforward assessments of their needs in, say, math or English courses. Instead, the ongoing march of grade inflation conceals students’ true learning needs. Because many report cards now look impressive, it appears as if learning loss hasn’t been that bad after all and that the students have indeed made real progress.

But the accoutrements of success don’t always reflect actual success.

Prodded by her administrators, one instructor experimented with the equity-in-grading methods in her classes, entering 50% for students who had actually earned zero points on an assignment or exam.

She found that lower-achieving students tended to like the system—after all, they were abruptly getting better grades—but that others felt slighted and complained that their efforts weren’t being properly rewarded.

Just like diplomas, grades in school aren’t what they used to be. They can’t always be counted on to accurately reflect the abilities and accomplishments of students.

But has a grade issued recently in an FUSD course ever been outright bogus and fraudulent?

Unfortunately, yes. One instructor shared a situation that happened to him a few years ago. He was teaching high school seniors that year, and one of his students had completed, literally, no work at all.

Three days before the end of the second semester the student came to him and asked if there was something that he could do to earn a passing grade. The instructor—who’d offered him, along with all other students, opportunities to make up tests and extra credit earlier on—let him know that no, it was too late to turn a zero into something worth more than an F.

The next day, the boy’s counselor dropped by the classroom. He asked if there really wasn’t anything that could be done so that the boy could earn a passing grade and thus get his diploma.

“The mom’s breathing down my neck,” the counselor let him know.

The boy’s parents were litigious. They’d sued the district before and were prepared to do so again.

Going to summer school to retake the course and pass it would have been an option, but the parents wanted their son to graduate and go on to college without any delay.

The teacher stuck to his guns.

He felt the rising pressure from a vice principal and then from his principal, and he pondered what he should do. Soon he’d have to formally declare this individual’s grade, and it seemed fraudulent to make up some percentage that the student had ostensibly earned—say 60%.

He landed on a solution that, for him, was satisfactory. When entering his official grades, he gave this individual an A+ along with zero percentage points. (A percentage isn’t required for the grade but is a part of the Atlas computerized grading system that the FUSD uses.) Nobody in the administration commented on this decision, and the boy was able to graduate.

The district has recently been sharing equity-in-grading materials with teachers. Clearly, elements of the district leadership find much to like in this approach.

Irvine, as might be expected, would see things differently. He draws a distinction between self-esteem—feeling good about yourself—and a “secure self-image,” something that’s based on a fairly accurate sense of one’s actual strengths and weaknesses.

As he writes, “Negative feedback about a student’s classroom performance is painful, but it can motivate her to study harder. In the absence of such feedback, a student can take it easy.

“She knows, after all, that despite not opening her books, she will get good grades, will be promoted to the next grade level [and] will ultimately graduate.”

One Fresno teacher put it this way: “Don’t [administrators] see that by holding students to a higher standard we are setting them up for success? If we expect them to learn, they will learn. I don’t have the mentality…of giving something for nothing. That makes zero sense; we are setting our kids up for failure in my mind.”

Not to mention not helping students to actually achieve their potential.


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