Teachers walk a fine line, says Jordan Catapano, an assistant principal al James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
On one hand, he says, educators don't want to frustrate students by setting standards so high an "A" is unattainable. But they also don't want to bore students and leave them thinking the quality of their work doesn't matter. The hope, he says, is students will "rise to the occasion."
“The term 'tough teacher' can have a negative connotation,” he says. “Ideally, a tough teacher is someone with high expectations about what students can accomplish, but is also well-versed to guide and support students along the way.”
These tough-grading teachers also seem to be on the right track, according to a recent study by American University’s Seth Gershenson, who analyzed grading standards of 8th- and 9th-grade Algebra I teachers in North Carolina over a 10-year period and then looked at their students’ long-term outcomes. He found students gained more knowledge from teachers with rigorous grading standards than those with lower expectations.
The study weighed the effect of grading standards on students’ end-of-course exam results, how the grading standards impacted students’ performance in subsequent math courses, and how the impact varied by students, schools and teachers. Gershenson also examined the characteristics of schools and teachers that affect grading standards.
Higher standards yield better results
The research, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a follow-up to Gershenson's 2018 study about grade inflation, in which he found while many students get good grades in Algebra I, far fewer earn top marks on end-of-course tests.
This newest study shows students whose teachers had the highest grading standards scored 16.9% of a standard deviation over those with low-expectation teachers. Tougher grading practices also translated into higher achievement in the subsequent Geometry and Algebra II courses. In Geometry, students whose teachers had high grading standards in Algebra I scored 7.3% of the standard deviation. In Algebra II, that group scored 8.6% of SD.
The results were consistent across all student subgroups including white, black and Hispanic students. They were also consistent across all types of schools, with the greatest impact seen in middle schools and among high-poverty schools.
Teachers with more experience also tend to have higher grading expectations, and their students achieve at higher levels. The report found students with teachers who had four or fewer years of experience had expectations significantly lower than average, but expectations ticked up the longer teachers stayed in the profession. Those with more than 21 years of experience had the highest expectations.
The undergraduate program a teacher attends also makes a difference, according to the study. Teachers who graduated from selective colleges and universities typically had higher standards, as did teachers with graduate degrees.
Expectations highest at middle, suburban schools
Gershenson found grading standards were highest in suburban schools, middle schools and schools serving more affluent students. But it's also important to note middle school students that take Algebra I tend to be higher academic performers.
In the executive summary, the Fordham Institute Senior Vice President for Research Amber M. Northern and President Michael J. Petrilli assert instruction and grading practices should be improved. They say teachers can't be blamed for low grading expectations if they aren’t sure where to set the bar.
Voices from teachers in the report also point to the variety of ways grading is approached. One said, “[That teacher]’s more like, ‘They look like they were working all day. I’ll just give them a checkmark.’ And I’m like, ‘You only scored 15 out of 20 on this assignment. Either you need to fix these five or take your 15 out of 20.’ So each of us have our own personalities and the way we run our classroom, so those are different for sure.”
Northern and Petrilli also point out external factors put pressure on teachers to go easier on the grades, especially in high school when every grade counts toward the student’s final grade-point average. They mention, for example, an incident in which a coach asked for a bump up in a student athlete's grade so he could play in a football game.
With more colleges and universities looking beyond admission test results for indicators of students' college readiness, those GPAs are becoming even more important. As of January 2018, there were 1,000 ACT/SAT test optional colleges and universities.
"Grade-point averages will now matter even more," they write, "so it is key that they be accurate representations of a student’s academic performance."
Gershenson recommends school, district and state leaders monitor grading practices to ensure teachers are not giving "easy A's," that they address the "damaging consequences" of low grading standards, and that they use grading practices as one aspect of strengthening the teacher workforce.
"It will take time," he writes, "but we must learn how to make high expectations and high grading standards a part of the teaching culture through hands-on teaching, optimized incentives and stronger professional development."