Vallas: ‘Social promotion,’ grade inflation destroying achievement, accountability in schools

Vallas: ‘Social promotion,’ grade inflation destroying achievement, accountability in schools

Higher grades are being awarded for less achievement in our schools, which helps hide our students’ struggles since the pandemic. Combine that with teachers unions pushing for fewer accountability measures, and the needed push for academic excellence withers.

Grade inflation appears to be our U.S. public schools’ answer to increasingly worsening performance, which is especially troubling because recent reports show COVID-19 erased 20 years of academic progress.

Awarding higher grades for less achievement has grown significantly since 2016. It rose sharply during the pandemic, according to a recent report from the ACT. Since 2020, students at the 25th percentile of ACT performance – well below average – received better than a 3.0 grade point average. This means their schools awarded them more A grades than Cs, Ds and Fs combined, even as ACT composite scores declined during the period of the study. While grading standards were found to have declined in schools spanning all socioeconomic communities, the ACT reported there was a notable correlation between lower income and higher levels of grade inflation.

Teachers unions want to abandon responsibility for failing students

The ACT findings provide a sobering counter to the intensifying political assault on standardized tests in states such as Illinois, where the teachers unions and many educators are calling such testing a “racist relic of the past.” What the teachers unions are really driving for is an end to measures of student performance that could force accountability for failing schools and teachers.

This has taken on an added urgency because the teachers unions forced school closings and remote learning, creating disastrous consequences for student achievement as well as their social-emotional and physical health. The sharp decline in traditional public school enrollment and corresponding large increase in private, parochial and charter school enrollment is evidence parents are willing to act and sacrifice to ensure their children receive a quality education.

Worse results: Chicago Public Schools

Perhaps nowhere has the assault on standardizing testing and its consequences been more apparent than in the Chicago Public Schools. Just 20% can read at grade level and 15% can perform math proficiently, according to the most recent scores available for CPS students in third through eighth grades. Chicago students on average are scoring about 10 percentage points below the state average in reading and math.

Among Chicago 11th-grade students, only 21% can read or do math at grade level. On average, they scored 9 percentage points below the state average in reading and 8 percentage points lower in math on the SAT.

Districtwide, there were many schools where no students in some grades could read or perform math at grade level.

State results are also dismal: just 33% of Illinois 11th grade students could read at grade level and 29% could perform math proficiently in 2021.

At the same time, 83.2% of CPS students graduated within four years in 2022. While the CPS graduation rate is four percentage points below the statewide graduation rate, it still indicates the district is graduating vast groups of students who aren’t prepared to read or do math.

Chicago Teachers Union’s response: Push to abandon testing

Chicago Teachers Union leadership, their supporters and their peers nationally are pressing their districts and states to move away from what they like to call “high stakes testing,” even though there are few actual consequences to them for failure. The consequences of failure for their students are a very different matter. Critics of state testing claim exams carry a damaging presumption public school students aren’t proficient. Proficiency testing helps measure the quality of classroom instruction, determines needed academic supports and assesses whether students have met the standards. Removing accountability standards threatens to bring back what was once called the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and not just with respect to students.

CPS is already moving to a “soft” scoring and assessment system for measuring school performance rather than student performance. CPS’ new draft policy for sizing up schools’ performance, in the works since 2019, would expand the metrics used to evaluate schools, placing greater emphasis on how schools promote students’ social and emotional development. While factors such as staffing levels, curriculum and other district investments are important in evaluating school performance, the move to diminish student outcomes in evaluations is the institutional partner to grade inflation for students.

As Chicago student outcomes plummet, teacher ratings soar

CPS is rapidly abandoning teaching standards, which is evident from teacher evaluations. Look how well CPS teachers had been rated in 2021 – despite the dramatic drop in student scores, CTU walkouts and union-forced remote learning. Some students were out of the classroom for nearly two years. How well did CPS teachers do? According to the Illinois Report Card, 100% of CPS teachers in 2021 were “evaluated as excellent or proficient by an administrator or other evaluator trained in performance evaluations.” That’s up from 98% in 2020, 91.4% in pre-COVID 2019 and 85.6% in 2018. There is a disconnect here between teacher evaluation scores and how well their students are testing.

It’s clear teachers unions and their allies want to return schools to a time when inflated grades and social promotion hid the lack of student achievement and covered for failing schools and teachers. For certain union leaders who shout “racism” to advance an agenda that strips schools of any real accountability, a return to social promotion and the diminishing of student outcomes in school evaluations is the real return to the past – specifically, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

As standards slip, public education gets worse

This anti-accountability push should be a message to every parent that the quality of their child’s public school education is deteriorating. It’s an absolute dereliction of duty. Some parents aren’t putting up with it. They are fleeing CPS: it’s too expensive, the teaching is not working and in less than 20 years enrollment has dropped by 116,000 students.

As for the families who lack the ability to move into a better neighborhood or afford private school tuition, their children are virtual hostages to the teachers union bosses. Black and Hispanic students make up nearly 85% of CPS and low-income students almost 80%. They are a huge part of the future of Chicago. Yet both CPS and the CTU are failing them.

Why should the CTU worry

With the systematic destruction of school accountability, the district will continue to graduate students who can barely read or compute – with no consequences to the schools or teachers. As for enrollment loss, there are few financial consequences. The schools will continue to receive well over half of all the property taxes paid by city residents and businesses regardless of enrollment levels because the state-aid formula partially protects districts from enrollment loss.

Chicagoans, especially parents of school-aged children, must take notice of what’s happening. Many are. This failing, shrinking school district continues to raise taxes even as it loses students. As enrollment has collapsed, CPS’ total spending has increased. The 2023-2024 CPS operating budget is $8.5 billion, the largest ever and a $495 million increase over last year.

The battle over high standards and school accountability should strengthen calls to empower the community through their elected Local School Councils to select the school model that best serves the community, whether public charter or traditional. It should empower parents to select the school that best meets their children’s needs, whether public or private.

It should convince state lawmakers that low-income parents need alternatives to academic failure. Their one choice – private-school scholarships through the Invest in Kids program – ends in Illinois at the end of 2023, unless lawmakers act during the fall veto session to save it and the futures of 9,600 students who depend on it.

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