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Why are grades up and test scores down in Washington state? UW study examines grade inflation

caption: Senior Hazel Ostrowski attends her first period AP statistics class at Franklin High School Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Seattle.
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Senior Hazel Ostrowski attends her first period AP statistics class at Franklin High School Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Seattle.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Students in Washington state are getting better grades these days — but that might not be cause for celebration.

A study from the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data and Research released last month reveals that average grades in math, English, and science for middle and high school students improved during the pandemic. At that time, state education officials recommended schools not fail students while schools were closed.

Now, even though schools have returned to normal, the study finds average grades are still up. At the same time, standardized test scores remain far below where they were before the pandemic.

Maia Goodman Young, a co-author of the study, calls grades a “hodgepodge measure” that has many purposes.

“They’re communicating with parents, they’re communicating with other teachers,” Goodman Young said. “They are communicating with students. They’re motivating students. They’re signaling who needs support. They are a signal to the labor market. They’re a signal to colleges. And one letter is doing all that work.”

All of those purposes remain relevant, Goodman Young said, but Covid made educators reevaluate what was most important.

While it’s not clear exactly why the gap between kids’ grades and test scores continues to widen, Goodman Young said parents and educators should be cautious not to use grades as a sole measure of how students are doing academically.

“If grades no longer mean what they meant before the pandemic, I think we need to know that so we can sort of adjust how we target interventions,” she said.

And if grades don’t accurately signal to students how they’re doing academically, Goodman Young said it can decrease their motivation.

“If you make it easier to get a C, and all a student wants to do is get a C, they can do less work,” she said.

The study found the largest gap between grades and test scores in math — specifically Algebra 1. And grades remain elevated in this subject, which Goodman Young said may be cause for concern because that class is often a gateway to higher levels of math, and grade inflation may lead students to move ahead before they’re ready.

Goodman Young said she’s not sure what’s behind that finding. But she and fellow researchers plan to continue investigating Covid’s effect on grade inflation.

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