OPINION: Schools get an ‘A’ for mediocrity: Where everyone is special

Some school districts would grade the state Department of Education an “F” for failing to get Milestones test scores back in time to allow retests of students who scored low. (AJC File Photo)

Some school districts would grade the state Department of Education an “F” for failing to get Milestones test scores back in time to allow retests of students who scored low. (AJC File Photo)

The good news: Georgia’s high school graduation rate this year increased (ever so slightly) to 84.4%. That’s a “historic” high and marks a consistent increase from 2011 when the rate was 67%.

The not-so-good news: Those graduation rates paper over the fact that many of those “grads” have not absorbed classroom material.

My AJC colleague, education columnist Maureen Downey, tossed a little ice water on the graduation party with a story headlined, “Let’s pause before cheering Georgia’s high school graduation rate.” She noted that the rates are accompanied by chronic absenteeism, flagging test scores and grade inflation.

She wrote that teachers are passing out A’s and B’s like Halloween candy but standardized test scores do not mirror any such improvement. And teachers increasingly must give students second, third or however many chances they need to boost dismal grades.

Last week, Fox 5 aired a story saying Atlanta Public Schools issued a memo telling teachers not to give students a zero for missing an assignment. Nope, they should be afforded a score of 50.

No student left behind — even if they’re not trying.

August 22, 2016 Atlanta: Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers union speaks during a rally against a ballot initiative that would allow the state to take over failing schools. Union members from the Communications Workers of America, the Georgia Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers joined local politicians outside the state Capitol Tuesday August 22, 2016 to rally against the initiative. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

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Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers and a former Atlanta school teacher, told me such a policy affects all students, not just the laggards.

“It discourages top students; they get lazy, too. They can say, ‘I’ll just let this one fly,’ “she said. Later, she added, “We are dumbing down our society. We have to escalate and elevate our conversations.”

“Academic rigor should exist; I don’t want a surgeon who got a C, or a pilot,” Turner said. “We start celebrating children early. We celebrate mediocrity.”

For a generation, kids have been taught that everyone is special.

But if everyone is special, then no one is.

An APS spokesman told me the directive has been around since around 2015. He said getting a zero “makes it almost impossible to come back from” and pass a class. “This at least gives them some chance for success.”

We all know that COVID hollowed out at least a year of learning, putting many students at a marked disadvantage. And now they’ve moved up to a higher grade, or year of college, but are lagging in the skills they should have at that level.

A veteran elementary teacher I know said holding back students, as has been suggested, is no panacea. That leads to other conundrums, she said, like junior high students who can drive to school or a 5th grader who must go to the principal’s office to breast feed.

It has long been documented that students from poor families, or who are African American, score lower on standardized tests. It’s an achingly difficult problem tied up in systemic forces, whether they be social, economic, racial, cultural or political.

A couple decades ago, Atlanta schools had a quick fix — change test answers to boost the scores. Well, that didn’t work out well. So now the education system has another strategy: Pump up the grades.

American students have long been bad at math. No problem. “In a 12-year time frame, the average adjusted math GPA increased from 3.02 to 3.32, a 0.30 grade point change,” according to the authors of a new report released by ACT, the college testing organization.

Moreso, the authors noted, “The rate of grade inflation tended to be higher for math, followed by science, then English, and finally social studies. In all subjects, Black students saw the greatest grade inflation when compared to other racial/ethnic groups.”

And, “This study showed that grade inflation has accelerated for all students; however, average ACT Composite scores have continued to decline, reaching the lowest average score of the past decade in 2021.”

Increasingly, colleges are not factoring in ACT or SAT scores for admission and are instead leaning more on grade point averages. You know, the grades that are often fluffed up.

I spoke with a longtime college professor who teaches science at a Georgia institution. I’m not using his name because I’d like him to continue being a college professor.

The prof stressed a couple times that the intelligence of students has not waned. It’s just their brains are fighting the constant shiny objects thrown at them by tech.

Over the decades, he has witnessed a slow-motion deterioration in students’ effort and attention span. This slide accelerated with the use of iPhones and social media and then plummeted with COVID.

“I have freshmen and sophomores who missed a lot of socialization and the basic work” because of the pandemic, the prof told me. “They’re like eighth graders in college. I quit giving out writing assignments because the quality of writing was so appalling. I threw my hands up, I just couldn’t grade them.”

And don’t get him started on math skills.

Absenteeism has become a problem ranging from kindergarten to college. “Students just don’t show up,” he said. “They get a zero on the test and then ask, ‘Can I just make it up?’ I tell them, ‘No.’ "

Ouch! Tough love is just so Last Century.