The most effective solution to this problem is to inject more content into the elementary curriculum—history, science, the arts—and to educate teachers at all grade levels about the importance of storing information in long-term memory. Fortunately, more and more schools are adopting knowledge-building curricula beginning in kindergarten.
High school transcripts look more impressive than ever, but they often don’t reflect actual learning. One big reason that is generally overlooked: the elementary and middle school curriculum fails to equip kids with the knowledge they need to do high school level work.
A recently released federal study analyzed high school transcripts from a representative sample of high school graduates in the class of 2019. As compared to their peers ten years before, this group took tougher courses, earned more credits overall, and had higher GPAs—all of which sounds like real progress.
But when researchers linked grades in math and science courses to scores on standardized tests in those subjects given as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, they found something disturbing. Science scores were flat and math scores actually declined, even for students taking more rigorous courses.
Researchers chose to focus on math and science because it’s easier to distinguish between basic and advanced courses in those areas, according to Linda Hamilton, a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And because the content of those fields is relatively standardized, it can also be easier to measure actual achievement. But, as has been documented in other studies, the disconnect between grades and learning isn’t confined to math and science.
The obvious explanation is grade inflation—and mislabeled courses. “Algebra 1 is not Algebra 1 just because it’s labeled Algebra 1,” a federal official said when announcing the results of the high school transcript study. It’s easier to make a situation look good than to engineer actual improvement.
Concerns about equity may also be a factor. Some school districts, seeing a lack of minority representation in honors classes, have tried to solve the problem by declaring all classes “honors” or labeling nearly all students “gifted.” Teachers may feel that students who lack access to Wi Fi or tutors shouldn’t be penalized by getting lower grades.
In fact, some observers don’t see the discrepancy between grades and test scores as a problem. They argue that grades reflect factors tests can’t measure, like behavior and perseverance. Or they say grade inflation is actually a good thing, because it boosts students’ self-confidence.
But while “soft skills” like perseverance are important, they’re not a substitute for learning; students need both. And it’s great to boost students’ confidence, but only if you’re also giving them a solid basis for that confidence. Otherwise, they’re likely to discover at some point—in college, or on the job—that they lack the knowledge or skills that are expected, and their confidence will crumble.
This Potemkin village of “rigor” isn’t necessarily the fault of teachers or students. Fundamentally, it’s the result of a defective system. And it’s affecting students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
The specific causes of students’ difficulties doing high school-level work vary with the subject. In math, students may not have an understanding of math concepts, or they may not have achieved automaticity with basics like multiplication tables—or both. With reading, they may never have learned to sound out words fluently, or they may lack the knowledge and vocabulary assumed by the texts in the curriculum—or both.