I’m a bit of a softy. Thus, when it comes to passing out awards for the best behaved or the most exemplary performance in the weekly preschool class I teach, it’s hard to say no to the many eyes which plead with me for a sticker. It’s easy to set the bar low in my desire to reward them all.
Unfortunately, the soft spot in my heart may not be the best thing for my students’ learning. As a new study explains, teachers who give out the “Easy A” may be setting their students up for failure more than success.
Studying 350,000 Algebra I students and their teachers, Seth Gershenson set out to discover if tough grading standards really benefit students.
They do. Overwhelmingly so.
Students were divided into four groups, with the first quartile being students having teachers with the lowest grading standards. As the chart below shows, “Teachers with the highest standards increase student test scores by a whopping 17 percent of a standard deviation compared to their counterparts in the bottom quartile….”
Tough grading standards translate into huge learning gains, relates Gershenson:
To put this difference in perspective, consider that it amounts to a little more than six months of learning. It is also larger than the impact of a dozen student absences or replacing an average teacher with a teacher whose students consistently outperform expectations.
Gershenson also suggests that tough grading standards may be a helpful equalizer, as their benefits transcend racial, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds. He notes:
The fact that all student subgroups benefit from exposure to higher grading standards should alleviate any concern that some students, especially low performers, may be harmed by strict standards.
Perhaps such news shouldn’t surprise us. Personal experience teaches us a similar lesson. Who hasn’t had a class that was pure torture? A class in which the teacher piled on assignments and used trick questions on tests to see if we really knew the material? If you’re like me, you probably moaned your way through the course. At the end though, I always ended up feeling invigorated, and I’m able to look back on such classes as my best learning experiences.
Gershenson’s discovery should give those of us dealing with the “gold star generation” pause. We laugh at Participation Trophies, but we’ve liberally distributed them to millions of students in recent years, not wanting to discourage them or create some sort complex. We want to make sure everything is fair and equal, so we lower the bar, making sure everyone can “achieve.” In the words of C. S. Lewis, we are abolishing true education and advancing the spirit of “I’m as good as you.”
“‘I’m as good as you,’” Lewis wrote, “is a useful means for the destruction of democratic societies.”
Can we reverse the destruction that is taking place in our education system and society at large? Would we take a small step forward in that reversal if more teachers, parents, and adults were willing to challenge students and encourage them to strive for mastery, instead of dumbing everything down?
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Annie Holmquist is the editor of Intellectual Takeout. When not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, gardening, and time with family and friends.