Eliminating educational standards only ensures failure

An article published this week in Quillette (which, along with Substack, is one of the best sources of thoughtful, intelligent journalism in America today) argues persuasively that grade inflation is destroying education in the United States.

Author Shane Trotter describes a system where grades are no longer tied to actual achievement, where high school standards have been lowered so much that a college degree — and absurd levels of debt — now takes the place of a high school diploma, where self-esteem is more important than achievement and where the performance of American students relative to the rest of the world keeps dropping.

As an educator of 30 years, I’ve seen what Trotter describes and then some. We are a society whose political and cultural leaders — including educators — are abandoning truth and facts in favor of other, nicer-sounding objectives, like “equity.”

A perfect example is Virginia’s recent decision to abandon advanced math classes for high-achieving students. There is no thought given to the high-achieving students this decision will hurt. But the existence of those classes embarrasses those who pitch the pretty lie that no one is smarter or works harder than anyone else — or, let’s face it, just enjoys more natural ability in some areas.

Advanced classes also embarrass those who sell the inflammatory headlines that often accompany those prettier lies — for example, that the only reason some children achieve and others don’t is because of “systemic racism” or “white supremacy.” So those classes, and every other measure of “inequality,” have to go.

That’s the same impulse behind the practice of grade inflation Trotter wrote about. It is the impulse behind the practice of passing students from grade year to grade year, despite the fact that they did not successfully complete the work associated with the grade they’d just “passed.” Or the grade before that. Or the grade before that.

There was a recent article about a Baltimore public high school senior with a 0.13 grade-point average. Despite having failed his freshman-year courses, he was moved on to the sophomore-level courses. Ditto for his junior year. Now, as a senior, he is being sent back to freshman year to start over. Understandably, he and his mother feel betrayed.

Worse, that young man is in the middle of his class, which means that half the rising seniors at that school have cumulative grade-point averages below 0.13.

Sadly, this is not unique to Baltimore or the state of Maryland. A 2019 report showed that fully 60% of Wisconsin students could not read or write at grade level, and the number of students with grade-level proficiency is dropping annually. A recent ranking of public-school performance places Nevada’s at the bottom of the list, but if Democrats get their way and Washington, D.C., is made a state, it will likely take Nevada’s place at the bottom; only 23% of D.C.’s eighth-grade students are proficient at grade level — the lowest in the nation (this despite spending more than $30,000 per student per year, the highest per-student spending in the country and more than double the annual per-student spending of 35 states.)

Why is this happening? Here’s a hint: It is not because these kids cannot learn. Nor is it likely because their teachers can’t teach. It is because they are entangled in a system that forbids telling the truth or confronting problems head on. Instead, we’re speaking in platitudes — and getting rid of the metrics and assessments that reveal the falsehoods behind those platitudes.

We keep pushing these kids along. And as soon as their inability to perform runs smack up against some traditional method of assessment, instead of asking hard questions about why they’re not performing well, we scrap the assessments as “racist,” “sexist,” antiquated vestiges of “cultural imperialism” or some other socio-babble.

Can’t read? Scrap the reading tests. Can’t do math? Scrap the math classes. Can’t pass the grade year? Change the grading structure and pass them anyway. Can’t do well on the college admission tests? Scrap the college admission tests. And on and on.

Whatever assessment stands in the way of your objective, attack it and then get rid of it.

But some truths cannot be lied away. An engineer who does not understand materials science, physics or structures cannot build a bridge that will support the weight of the vehicles crossing it. An architect who does not understand geometry cannot build a skyscraper that will stand. A pilot who does not understand aerodynamics cannot fly a plane. An anesthesiologist who does not understand chemistry or math or human anatomy will make fatal mistakes in the operating room.

None of this is to deny that many children in the United States are dealing with structural impediments to achievement, or that these children deserve to have the same opportunities as those who are not facing those same difficulties. They are, and they do.

However, if we are serious about making their circumstances better, we have to be willing to get to the root of their difficulties and do the much-more-difficult work of giving them the skills to achieve — not abolishing the metrics and assessments that reveal their lack of achievement.

A society that refuses to honestly define success will only guarantee widespread failure.


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