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Sunday, June 22, 1997

Thousands of students victims of 'grade inflation'

By Nancy Mitchell
Times-Union staff writer

Jennifer Givens thought she was a great student. After her junior year at Paxon High School, she had the 4.0 grade point average to back it up.

But Givens didn't know how to use the school library. She rarely studied. She had never written a research paper.

So, when expectations were raised at Paxon last year, the senior suddenly found herself struggling to keep up in her classes. Her perfect GPA dropped to a 3.4 by graduation earlier this month.

''I have a lower GPA now, but I feel smarter,'' Givens said. ''Last year, I had classes where I didn't do any work and I'd have A's.''

Givens is among the thousands of Jacksonville high school students who are the victims of ''grade inflation,'' the awarding of grades higher than students deserve, according to a recent study of the Duval County school system.

Experts with SchoolMatch, the Ohio company hired by The Florida Times-Union, found evidence of slight to moderate grade inflation in all 17 Jacksonville high schools. They said the problem is worst in the nine lowest-performing schools, with Paxon, Raines and Baldwin at the bottom of the list.

Grade inflation is often perpetrated by teachers who think they're boosting their students' self-esteem, said SchoolMatch president William Bainbridge. It ultimately hurts students because they're not pushed to achieve.

''Grade inflation establishes the expectation for students that low quality work will suffice when, in reality, that doesn't cut it,'' said Bainbridge, a former superintendent in three school districts.

Some Duval County principals, teachers and students disagreed with SchoolMatch's conclusions. Interim Superintendent Donald Van Fleet said he doesn't dispute the findings but would like more analysis to determine the extent of the problem.

William Fryar, who oversaw research for the school system and is now director of academic programs, said he thinks the findings are accurate.

''It's not a surprise to see grade inflation and the trends that SchoolMatch pointed out are not new,'' Fryar said. ''We have known there is grade inflation.''

Hard to measure

At Baldwin High School, ranked by SchoolMatch as having the worst grade inflation in Duval County, the principal and teachers reacted angrily.

''I'd be cheating myself and I'd be cheating my kids as well,'' said teacher Doug Olafson, Baldwin's social studies department head. ''I won't do it.''

Baldwin sophomore Melissa Rogers, 15, shakes her head when asked about grading at her school. The honors student points to a D in algebra.

''They don't cut you any slack,'' she said. ''If you aren't trying, you don't get the grade.''

Duval County school officials, and national researchers, agree grade inflation is tough to confront because it is tough to measure.

In theory, an A at one Jacksonville high school is supposed to be worth the same as an A at any other high school in the county. All teachers operate under the same grading scale: scoring 94 to 100 on a 100-point test is an A, for example, while 69 and under is an F.

But teachers have broad discretion in grading, and some consider other factors such as student participation, effort and improvement.

''Sometimes when we graded, we weren't necessarily grading to county standards but we were grading for improvement,'' said Sonja Edwards, who taught English at Paxon High School. ''So, if they improved a great deal, then we felt they deserved a higher grade.''

SchoolMatch used a measure favored by researchers in comparing a school's grades and scores on a national assessment test, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). In general, a school with a high GPA is expected to score well on the national measure, if the grades are justified.

Baldwin Principal Jean Blevins protested the use of the SAT scores in the comparison, since not all seniors take the college entrance exam.

But Fryar, the school system researcher, said there may be no better way to measure. Duval County does not administer a national assessment test beyond the ninth grade except for college entrance exams, and the SAT is the most popular.

The school system itself does not formally track grade inflation, nor has it ever attempted to rank schools as SchoolMatch did. Fryar said he thinks grade inflation exists based on the student GPAs and test scores that annually pour through the system's data offices.

Other available indicators give mixed signals about grade inflation in Jacksonville schools.

The oldest data about grades the school system can provide is 10 years old. Between 1986 and 1996, the system's overall average high school GPA has actually decreased, from 2.21 to 2.11.

At the same time, the average SAT score also has gone down slightly.

A question of caring

Few in the Duval County school system were surprised that low-achieving schools show evidence of the worst grade inflation.

Jim Williams, a veteran principal who has headed Ribault, Englewood and Stanton College Prep high schools, said grade inflation is simply one symptom of the culture that pervades such schools.

''Within a culture of low achievement, you have some students performing better than the rest. So those students end up getting high grades because they're well-behaved and outperforming their classmates,'' he said.

''It's like a race. If you're first in a group of students running a six-minute mile, you get an A. But if you're with a group who can run a four-minute mile, you don't.''

For some students, Williams said, teachers must orchestrate a delicate balancing act between grading them fairly and keeping them encouraged enough to stay in school.

At Raines High School, listed by SchoolMatch as having among the worst grade inflation, Principal Milton Threadcraft said it's important not to discourage students.

Threadcraft pointed out Raines already has one of the lowest average GPAs in the school system. Awarding still lower grades might increase the dropout rate, he said.

''We're trying to create a nation of learners,'' Threadcraft said. ''We don't want to turn kids off or stymie their educations.''

That's misguided thinking, said SchoolMatch executive consultant M. Donald Thomas, a former superintendent and educational adviser to three governors.

''The creation of success is not based on falsehood, the creation of success is based on honest evaluation of work,'' Thomas said.

''An individual's motivation is based on an ability to do some thing well and once he does it well, he's motivated to continue to work at higher levels. To receive inflated grades simply produces lower quality work.''

One researcher sees a tie between the desire to boost selfesteem in schools and a national trend in grade inflation.

Linda Sax, with the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, supervises a national survey of about 300,000 college freshmen each year.

In 1969, when the survey began, 13 percent reported receiving an A average in high school and 33 percent reported a C average. By last year, the numbers were almost reversed, with 32 percent claiming an A average and 15 percent a C.

At the same time, student scores on two national college entrance exams, the SAT and the American College Test (ACT), have remained virtually the same. The agencies that administer those tests report similar trends in GPAs reported by test-takers.

Sax said responses to her survey, which asks questions about personal history and school experience, indicate students are much more self-confident today. And that's good, to a point.

''There's definitely been a movement in grades K through 12 to boost self-esteem by giving better grades,'' she said. ''It would seem to indicate students are not working as hard for their grades and when they get out in the real world, that doesn't translate. Students are fine until confidence meets reality.''

Finding a solution

SchoolMatch's Thomas said the solution to grade inflation is twofold. First, make teachers aware of the problem and make them realize it is not helping kids to give them grades they don't deserve.

Second, let teachers develop a framework that spells out what constitutes quality work by grade level, he said. Then stick to it, though it's hard work.

''To grade appropriately is much more difficult work than not to grade appropriately,'' he said, ''because grading appropriately requires a lot more attention to grading papers and making comments on the paper and to evaluating the quality of work.''

Charles Cline, the school system's deputy superintendent of instruction, said officials already are at work developing documents based on state standards that spell out what students must do to complete a course.

Teacher training in assessment also may be necessary, Cline said.

In addition, he said principals are being armed with the technology to discern grade inflation themselves. A new computer program being phased into the high schools allows principals to sift and sort grades and test scores for a variety of analyses.

There also may be pressure from the state.

Florida's deputy education commissioner, Bob Bedford, said there's concern a tougher grading scale enacted by legislators this year could cause a problem.

''We need to establish some baseline data, so we can judge whether or not this is going to result in grade inflation,'' he said.

Meanwhile, changes are already under way at Paxon.

Williams, the former Stanton principal, was given liberal rein when he came to the school last fall and began to transform it into the academic magnet, Paxon School for Advanced Studies.

He has handpicked his teachers, keeping only 10 teachers from the former Paxon staff, including Sonja Edwards. And he has tried to answer the questions of students such as Givens, veteran Paxon students who chose to finish their senior years there.

Givens has applied to Jacksonville University to study engineering in the fall. Despite her GPA drop, she credits her teachers this year with helping her develop better study habits.

She said she now feels ''deprived'' by the education she got her first three years at Paxon. She wonders how much more she might have learned in high school.

''All students should be taught the same way,'' Givens said. ''Were we not worthy of these teachers before? Were we not worthy of having this strict curriculum?''


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