Grade inflation is a way of life in American education, and campaigns to combat it face political pushback and a long, uphill battle to succeed.

Back in 2007, the Fordham Institute published “The Proficiency Illusion" that showed states were calibrating their tests to create “a false impression of success, especially in reading and especially in the early grades.” Further, public polling routinely shows that people think highly of their local schools (and their own children’s academic preparedness), but the data don’t back up such optimism.

There is considerable evidence that our schools aren’t performing as well as we’ve been led to believe: While two-thirds of Ohio’s school districts received a top rating last year of “Excellent” or “Excellent with Distinction” more than 40 percent of the state’s entering college freshmen had to take remedial courses in college. Still, efforts to raise expectations and confront the problem of grade inflation face stiff resistance. There has been tremendous blowback in the Buckeye State against proposed changes to the state’s accountability system that would see the percentage of top rated school districts in the state drop from 63 percent to just four percent. Under the new system, 74 percent of the state’s charter schools would get a D or F grade while 9 percent would get an A or B.

Higher ed appears equally plagued by an achievement illusion. The New York Times Education Life reported this past weekend that “about 75 percent of grades in master’s programs are A’s, 22 percent are B’s and 3 percent are C’s. Less than 1 percent are D’s or F’s.” According to the article, higher education officials and professors are leery of flunking out students because of the risk of lawsuits and consumer rebellion against their institutions that are charging tens of thousands dollars a year for tuition. Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania captured the tension when he told the Times, “Because of the funding and the investment of the institution…from my viewpoint having rigorous standards is all the more important.”

The impact of grade inflation is felt widely across American society. Twenty-two percent of adult Ohioans have completed some college but not earned a degree. This is at a time when the cost of college is vastly outpacing inflation. According to the Dayton Daily News, “In Ohio, average annual tuition and fees increased 84 percent from 1990 to 2009 at public four-year universities.” The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports, “student loan debt has reached about $870 billion, exceeding credit cards and auto loans, and balances are expected to continue climbing.” Young people are going off to college with their high-school diplomas in hand, but ill-prepared for the rigors of the college classroom.

And for many who do graduate from college they are confronting the rude awakening that their degree isn’t worth very much. Recent college graduates with a degree in architecture face an unemployment rate of 13.9 percent while those majoring in the arts face an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent and those in the humanities 9.4 percent.

Meanwhile, 600,000 jobs in American manufacturing go unfilled because there aren’t enough young people with the necessary “STEM” skills to meet demand. In Ohio, Board of Regents Chancellor Jim Petro has been pushing for more young people to get into the STEM fields. He argues, “We don’t have enough people with baccalaureate degrees in Ohio, especially in the STEM disciplines. If you want to guarantee yourself a job, go to college for four years and get a STEM degree. We need you here.” This is surely sound advice, but hard for students to follow when four out of ten need to take basic remedial math courses when they enter college.

It is this addiction to grade inflation that bold efforts like the Common Core are confronting. The first step to improving student achievement is setting rigorous expectations and then reporting honestly on how many students and schools actually meet them. For example, Ohio officials predict that while 61 percent of third graders in Columbus, the state’s largest school district, are considered proficient in reading today, closer to 37 percent will meet that mark under the more rigorous Common Core-aligned assessments. The effort is surely the right thing to do, but the politics around this will certainly entail a long struggle. Americans like feeling good about themselves, their schools, and their futures even when warning bells are ringing all around us.

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