Over the past decade, high school graduation rates and student grade-point averages (GPAs) have risen, but student achievement as measured by standardized testing has not. The combination of trends suggests that academic standards have declined over time in U.S. high schools. Does easing academic standards help students by allowing more of them to earn a high school diploma, or hurt them by reducing their motivation to excel in school?
To answer this question, researchers A. Brooks Bowden and Zach Weingarten of the University of Pennsylvania and Vivian Rodriguez of the University of Texas at San Antonio examined the impact of a statewide change to the high-school grading scale in North Carolina.
In 2014, North Carolina required all public high schools to switch from a 7-point grading scale to a 10-point grading scale. The relaxed grading standard made 90-100 an A (compared to 93-100 previously) and lowered the bar for passing scores for tests, assignments, and courses from 70 to 60. Using administrative data for North Carolina public school students to compare students’ standardized tests, GPAs, and absences under the old and new grading scales, the researchers found that students who were already performing well saw gains in their GPAs under the new standards, but lower-performing students saw no improvement in their grades and began missing more school. These differences between higher- and lower-performing students worsened over three years, increasing their gap in ACT scores.
The study suggests that more lenient standards could distort incentives for low-achieving high school students, undermining their motivation to succeed and widening achievement gaps on tests like the ACT. Lowering standards, that is, hurts rather than helps already struggling students.
Charter school students and students with disabilities were excluded from the analysis because they may take courses with markedly different content from those in traditional public schools geared to general education students.