DOUGLAS COUNTY, Ga. - Two parents and a former high school teacher claim the grades awarded by a metro area school district are consistently far too generous.
They told investigative reporter Richard Belcher students get high grades in courses when they've learned too little of the subject matter. They said some students can't even pass the end-of-course exam.
It's called grade inflation: when students get A's and B's when they should be getting C's, D's or worse.
Educators say evidence of it can be found in many districts.
But a teacher turned whistleblower steered Belcher’s attention to Douglas County, where some parents are also concerned.
"We had to help them get through the system by letting them pass, giving them good grades, regardless of what they were learning," former Douglas County teacher Jeremy Noonan said.
"The grades that they have are given, that they are awarded at the end of the year, don’t seem to reflect their grasp of the topic," parent Allen Bearden said.
"It was only three weeks in and she had all A’s in the STEM program. High A’s, like hundreds," parent Andrea Soyland said.
The only problem: Soyland said her daughter had no homework.
Both parents had a child in a Douglas County high school when they began to suspect that good grades were too easy.
Learning, they concluded, was secondary.
After six weeks in the STEM program at Lithia Springs High School, Soyland moved her daughter to another district.
“She was being given grades she hadn’t really earned?” Belcher asked.
“Well I think she earned it based on the standard,” Soyland said.
Bearden's daughter is a senior at Alexander High School, taking three advanced placement courses.
He's worried by what he sees in those classes, which are aimed at high achievers.
“These kids are taking these courses, they’re getting A’s and then they’re not passing the exams,” Bearden said.
Noonan taught high school for nine years, five for Douglas County. He said he quickly got the message about grades.
“I began to realize how my students weren’t really learning chemistry because they weren’t really expected to -- because they knew they would get this curve,” Noonan said.
“And what happens if a teacher is perceived to be too tough on grades?” Belcher asked the former teacher.
“Well, the message you start to get is it reflects poorly on you,” Noonan said.
Here's why Bearden is worried even about A.P. courses:
- Last year, 62% of Douglas County students got an A in A.P. calculus. But 69% got the lowest possible score on the A.P. final test.
- 60% got an A in A.P. physics. 88% got the lowest possible score on the physics final.
“That should tell you that there's work to do,” said Pam Nail, chief academic officer for the Douglas County school system.
She said the gap between good grades and what students have actually learned is a nationwide problem that her district acknowledges and is addressing.
But she said an A.P. exam or end of course test is not the only measure of a student's performance and grades.
“Is it too simple to say that if you get an A, you really should know the subject matter very well?” Belcher asked.
“I think you should, you should know some of the subject matter very well,” Nail said. “But as a whole, that grade should be reflective of learning.”
“Of excellence? If it's an A, it should be excellent, shouldn't it?” Belcher said.
“If it's going to be a high level A, yes,” Nail said.
Belcher hears about anecdotal complaints regularly, usually about keeping students from failing. But the Douglas County numbers suggest inflated grades for advanced placement students.
Grade inflation has been going on for years in high schools and colleges.
One study Belcher spotted found that the average high school GPA went up 12% over 20 years.
Noonan sent Belcher the following statement and graphs:
"We compared distributions of course grades with EOC exam scores for all 5 Douglas County high schools in the subjects Geometry, Physical Science, and American Literature. These graphs summarize our findings. Notice that in Geometry and Physical Science, twice as many students or more make good course grades than score 'proficient' on state exams. This matters because a 'proficient' score indicates the student is on track to be 'college-ready' in that subject. Yet as much as half the students who make an A or B are not, even though these grades are good enough to merit the HOPE scholarship!
"Also notice that very few students fail these courses in spite a third of more scoring 'Beginning Learner' on exams. A 'beginning learner' means what you would think - someone who knows as much about the subject as a person who has only just begun to study it. Yet in spite of mastering virtually none of the curriculum, students are getting credits for the course.
"This systemic misrepresentation of what students are learning in their classes robs students of a quality education and leaves even hard working, responsible students ill-prepared for the future. It also undermines the integrity of the school system, as its communication with stakeholders about student achievement becomes untrustworthy."
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