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Newell: How much talent is America throwing away through lax teaching standards?

Newell Normand
February 10, 2020 - 3:23 pm

A new study is out - it’s called Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement. Authored by Dr. Seth Gershenson from American University, the study asks how much talent and potential is America squandering when its schools and teachers fail to uphold high standards for their students? When educators make exceptions for underperforming students, are they helping or hurting them? To help understand the study and its findings, Newell invited Dr. Gershenson onto the program Monday morning to discuss.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the report, and was very surprised reading this, right out of the box,” Newell said. “You say there has been very little research done on this subject matter?”

“I think the reason is that it’s a hard question to answer,” Gershenson said. “It’s hard to identify which teachers do have high standards, and it's hard to estimate the effects of teacher quality on outcomes, more generally.”

“How were you able to get your target group and get some meaningful outcomes?”

“We defined grading standards by looking at teachers’ past students,” Gershenson continued. “We looked at two things - their past students end-of-course standardized exam scores as well as their course grades from their transcripts. We compare those to see how their course grades align with their test scores, and we see that alignment varies quite a bit across teachers. For example, let’s suppose we only look at students who received a B grade, and then look at their test scores. Some teachers’ students, they might have a B and a test score of 100. Other teachers’ students will have a test score of 90. What does that tell us? Some of those B students learned more than others. From there, we identify systematic patterns and identify the teachers whose students learned more than their peers.”

“There were a number of findings in here, finding one says ‘students learn more from teachers who have higher grading standards. Higher grading standards are predominantly objective, but somewhat subjective as well, right?”

“That’s exactly it,” Gershenson agreed. “The test scores are very objective, and there’s a little bit more subjectivity in the grades. We’re able to rank teachers in terms of their grading standards, and then we compare the students’ outcomes with teachers who are in the top 25% with the toughest standards with the kids with teachers who have lower standards.”

“Is this an indication that we’ve become more standardized-test-outcome oriented? That everyone is judged by how we do on these tests?” Newell asked. “Obviously some do well, some not so well. Is there an alternative way to test students' proficiency? I know students with ADD or ADHD that when tested orally, their scores go up 20%.”

“To be clear, when we say grades have more subjectivity, we don’t mean that grades are bad. Grades are very important and they should be different from exam scores because they’re measuring different things. Course grades factor in a lot of other aspects of a student's academic behavior, attention to detail, attendance… but those scores and grades should be different in similar ways across all classrooms, and what we’re finding is that they are not.”

“One of the comments in the report says ‘One thing we know for sure is that teacher expectations make a difference. Those who recognize and believe in their students' potential and hold high expectations for them significantly increase the odds that those kids will go on to complete high school and college,” Newell said.

“Anecdotally, that’s true of a lot of us,” Gershenson said. “I can remember the teachers that held me accountable and clearly verbalized that they thought I was capable and could do great things. I did some previous research that shows when a teacher believes a student can complete college, the student is significantly more likely to do it. And that research was pretty convincing in showing that cause and effect.”

Later in the program, a caller named Larry said as a public school student, he had educational experiences with teachers who did not have high expectations, and as a result he did not excel in school in ways that would set him up for future success.

“I was a very good student,” Larry said. “I didn’t give the teachers any problems, I wanted to learn, all of that. But I know that I did not always deserve to advance to the next grade or the next. I graduated with good grades, but was not able to read at a certain level and it really harmed me in my adult life  and I have struggled to get good jobs.” Larry explained that fear and shame became obstacles in his pursuit of a meaningful career because he was afraid of taking and failing a test and getting stuck in a job he’d rather not have.

“It sounds like you feel like you were cheated,” Newell said. “I think a lot of people underestimate the difficulty that people find themselves in when the experience they had in school hasn’t done enough for their self-esteem. It seems to me you looked at yourself critically in the mirror and understood there may be some deficiencies there. I think you’re a lot smarter than you give yourself credit for. But the fact is that you have struggled with that realization, and students coming out of our schools shouldn’t have to do that.”

Hear Newell’s interview with Dr. Gershenson as well as his conversation with Larry in the audio player below.

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