With the ongoing grade-changing scandal still in the news, parents of students in Montgomery Public Schools have reason to ask whether the apparent emphasis on advancing students has spilled over into the grades their children receive.
Considering that more than half of the graduates of the four MPS traditional high schools who attend an Alabama public college have to take at least one remedial course, it appears that grade inflation is alive and well in Montgomery Public Schools.
The state superintendent of education recently charged that an "institutional mindset" exists at MPS in which "it appears that properly educating students has become subservient to merely advancing them."
Despite a denial by MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson, that is a scathing indictment, especially coming from the state's top educator. It should raise this question in the minds of parents: "If this alleged mindset is causing some administrators and teachers to improperly change the grades of failing students after the fact, is it also causing some teachers to give students grades they do not deserve to keep them from failing in the first place?"
Of course, grade inflation is not something on which MPS has a monopoly. It is an issue that plagues public and private schools -- and even colleges -- throughout the nation.
Grade inflation is generally defined as an increase in student grades without a corresponding increase in their academic achievement. When officials at ACT Inc. compared the performances of college students nationwide on the ACT college entrance exam to actual grade point averages of the high school students taking the tests, they found that high school grades effectively inflated more than 12 percent over a 12-year span with no real increase in achievement.
While the disconnect between grades and actual academic achievement is a national problem, an indicator closer to home of that disconnect might be found in the high percentage of Alabama public school graduates who have to take remedial math and English courses at state public colleges, even though their grades allow them to get into the colleges.
Statewide, about 36 percent of the graduates of Alabama public high schools who attended an Alabama public college in 2012 had to take either remedial math, remedial English, or both.
Overall, Montgomery Public School graduates who attended a state public college were almost exactly at the state average -- 36 percent -- for remedial courses.
But that includes not only the four traditional high schools, but also the county's three highly touted magnet high schools. If you take the magnet schools out of the equation, 52.5 percent of the graduates of the county's four traditional high schools who attended a state public college had to take at least one remedial course.
That ranged from almost 42 percent at Lee High School to 61 percent at Jefferson Davis High School.
Two of the magnet programs had significant numbers of students taking remedial courses as well. At Booker T. Washington Magnet High, more than 15 percent had to take a remedial course, and at Brewbaker Technology Magnet High, more than 14 percent did so.
Only at Loveless Academic Magnet High did not a single graduate have to take a remedial course at a state public college. (See below for a more detailed breakdown by high school.)
Again, this isn't just an issue for Montgomery Public Schools. At Prattville High, 24.5 percent of graduates attending a state public college had to take at least one remedial course. The percentage for Stanhope-Elmore High in Millbrook was 32.4 percent, and for Wetumpka High it was 31.5 percent.
Nor is grade inflation just occurring in high schools. Several studies suggest that public and private universities have seen grades inflate significantly over time.
But the accusations of a mindset at MPS of promoting students regardless of academic achievement makes the issue of grade inflation particularly pointed for Montgomery schools.
While there is no excuse for school officials who violate state guidelines to change a grade to one a student hasn't earned, some parents have themselves to blame in part for the situation.
If over the years I've heard teachers complain once about being bullied by parents to change grades, I've heard it dozens of times. One teacher wrote me just this week to say, "Teachers, elementary in particular, are bullied and harassed by domineering and abusive parents who refuse to admit that their little darlings truly did fail a test or course and, rather than accept the evidence the teacher provides, they intimidate the teacher with threats of lawsuits."
I do not pass that comment along as an excuse for giving students grades they haven't earned, and especially for violating state standards in improperly changing grades after the fact -- there is no excuse for that.
But it does suggest that the issues involved in the grade-changing scandal and in grade inflation have their roots far back in elementary schools. If public education is going to address the growing disconnect between the grades students receive and their actual academic achievement, they need to start long before those students are in high school.
Here is a snapshot of each of Montgomery's public high schools:
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources for the above data include Alabama Department of Education and Alabama Commission on Higher Education.
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