The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Montgomery County’s grade inflation should be a wake-up call


“I’VE WORKED as hard as any . . . student to get good grades, and it’s unfair that anyone can now get those same grades without the same amount of effort.” That’s what an editor for the school newspaper at Walt Whitman High School wrote two years ago about Montgomery County’s decision to switch to a grading system that made it easier for students to get A’s. The warning about grade inflation went unheeded. Unfortunately, it has now been proven to be prescient.

New data shows that thousands more Montgomery County students are getting A’s in key high school subjects. The percentage of A’s across core math courses, The Post’s Donna St. George reported, nearly doubled from the first semester of 2014-2015 to last school year, while the number of C’s, D’s and E’s dipped. Similar surges in A’s were noted for students taking English, science and Advanced Placement courses.

It is no coincidence that the improved grades came after the system made controversial changes in how teachers evaluate students. Not only was the grading policy changed to an averaging system that allowed final grades to be rounded up, but also the practice of giving final exams in high school courses (which many students failed) was ended. Other indicators of student achievement — such as SAT or state test scores — don’t show the major gains reflected in the new grades. “I’d love to think we’re twice as good and students are learning twice as much,” said Leah Wilson, English department chair at Richard Montgomery High School. “But when I look at those numbers, I see the policy at work.”

The inflated grades have raised concerns about how colleges will treat transcripts of Montgomery students. The more important concern is the one raised two years ago by the Whitman student in the school newspaper about the consequences to students. It is not fair to give grades that haven’t been earned, and the people who end up being cheated are the students themselves. They think they have mastered a subject, only to learn the hard way that they haven’t been properly prepared.

Softening of standards is sadly not unique to Montgomery County. Controversy about No Child Left Behind and a national backlash against testing have led to a retreat from accountability. Witness Maryland’s adoption of a school-accountability system that restricts the use of student achievement data and its plans to jettison (along with much of the country) the rigorous Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) for some yet-to-be-devised new test. The grade inflation in Montgomery County should be a wake-up call about the need for meaningful measures of student learning as schools promise to prepare children to succeed in today’s competitive world.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Montgomery schools need permission to free themselves from a tyrannical calendar

Editorial Board: The Post’s endorsements for Montgomery County’s council and school board

Jay Mathews: How you rate your school becomes important under new law

Arne Duncan: People are saying education reform hasn’t worked. Don’t believe them.

The Post’s View: Arming teachers with federal education money? Are they even thinking?