Why Straight A’s Hurt Today’s Students

The report is in for last year’s grade point averages of American students. After reviewing it—I’d say it’s good news and bad news.

The good news is, more high school students are getting A’s on their report card. The bad news is, students may not really be learning something.

Why would I say that?

According to a cover article in USA Today, “Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average…has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.” Yes, you read that correctly. When students take an SAT test and discover what they’ve really memorized compared to past students who’ve taken it, scores are declining.

Consider this: In 1998, 38.9 percent of students graduated with an A average. Today it is 47 percent, or almost half of all students. That’s right—nearly half of the 2016 graduates are A students. In the mean time, SAT scores dropped. Researchers, Michael Hurwitz (from the College Board, who bring us the SAT tests) and Jason Lee (from the University of Georgia’s Institute for Higher Education) say these results are “really stunning.”

Studies also show that the problem can be seen in colleges too, where the most popular grade nationwide is an A. That means most students are not only above average—they are excellent. Can this be true? Are we living in Lake Wobegon, the fictional town created by comedian Garrison Keillor “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average?”

Five Reasons Why This Is a Problem

Now don’t get me wrong. I love kids getting straight A’s…if they’re really earned. But grade inflation has been a topic among educators for decades now. When half of our students are making straight A’s, one would think we have an amazing reality on our hands. Our problem is, we give A’s far too easy, compared to forty years ago. Back then an A really meant excellent. You had excelled when compared to your classmates. The average grade in the 1960s was a C…meaning average. Eventually, we will be forced to ask ourselves: does an A really mean we are excelling…or are we average? Below are five reasons why “gifting” students an “A” is not helpful:

1. Student grades will mean less than in the past.

The average GPA at four-year colleges and universities rose from 2.52 in the 1950s to 3.11 in 2006. And according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor and founder of GradeInflation.com, GPAs just keep rising. The problem is: it’s all about scarcity. If most of us get an A, it means less because it’s so common. Whenever we exaggerate, things begin to go awry—especially for our young.

2. Students will question the honesty of adults.

Already, I have met savvy students who believe parents and teachers have not been genuinely honest with them. They enjoy negotiating with teachers and manipulating the system. They stopped expecting adults to be forthright—and for good reason. Why? Because as children, we gave them trophies just for showing up; we passed out 11th place ribbons in contests and told them they were special just for being here.

3. Students will experience a rude awakening in their early careers.

For many, an employer who actually requires excellent work may be the first adult who’ll give them honest feedback about their performance. When they are required to sell a product or a service, no one will be grading on a curve. I’ve spoken to employers who say young staff are crying at work, grumbling on Twitter or asking when “spring break” is because they expected work to be just like school. I believe school should be a practical preparation for their future career. I don’t think I am alone in that belief.

4. Students don’t get to experience authentic excellence.

It doesn’t take kids very long to discover what it takes to impress a teacher. When an “excellent” grade is given out to half the kids who perform just “OK,” they soon pull back the reigns and do as little as necessary to get the A. Forget actually being excellent and setting a new standard. When my children were growing up, I told them my love for them was unconditional, but their achievement brought deep satisfaction because it was earned, not given away as a gift. Big difference.

5. Students’ grit will decrease which could paralyze them.

Far too often, I’ve watched students score low on an SAT test, and become paralyzed emotionally. Their grades indicated one reality, but the standardized test told them something different. Suddenly, they feel outcomes are out of their control and they lose drive. A recent study by Harvard Graduate School of Education reveals that 56 percent of college students complete a 4-year degree in 6 years. For students at 2-year colleges, it’s worse. Just 29 percent earn a degree in 3 years. Half don’t finish.

In the end, teachers and parents must demonstrate authentic care for our young, by giving the grade they truly earned. This means faculty must have hard conversations with parents who don’t get it. I say—the price is worth it.

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Why Straight A’s Hurt Today’s Students