A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

[Education Research Report]

What Do Student Grades Mean? Differences Across Schools

January 1994

Recent calls for a voluntary system of assessments tied to national standards have lead to both supporters and detractors of such a system. Supporters see it as a way of improving education, while some detractors see it as a federal intrusion on education, despite the fact that such a system would be developed by state and local education systems and would be voluntary. Others believe that such a system could be unfair to students who live in high poverty areas, because they might be less well prepared for the assessments. We suggest that the current education system is unfair to such students, because they and their parents are not provided with information they need to judge the quality of their education.

A prior Research Report on parental satisfaction with schools and the need for standards (November 1992) showed that, despite clear indications and widespread concern about low achievement, most parents express satisfaction with their children's achievement and schools. Part of the reason for their satisfaction is that parents have to rely primarily on grades to determine how much their children are learning--and according to the grades, their children are doing well.

In this report, we examine more closely what student grades tell us about achievement, using data collected about public school students in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). NELS:88, which was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, includes a wide variety of information on a sample of eighth grade students across the nation. For these analyses, we examined public school students' reports of their grades in English and math and their NELS:88 test scores in these subjects by the poverty level of their schools. The NELS:88 tests, while short--the reading test consisted of 5 short passages followed by 21 comprehension and interpretation questions, and the math test consisted of 40 items--provide comparable information for students across schools.

What Grades Do Students Receive?

Anyone who considers the "gentleman's C" to be an average grade is seriously behind the times: today's "average" grade is a "B" (see figure 1). Eighth-grade students, when asked about their English grades from grade six to the present, reported receiving the following distribution of grades:

They reported receiving similar grades in mathematics, with about two-thirds of students saying that they had received mostly A's and B's.


Figure 1

Eighth grade students' reports of their grades from grade 6 to the present (figure converted to text)

                     English           Math    Mostly A's           31%              32%   Mostly B's           38%              35%   Mostly C's           23%              23%   Mostly D's            6%               7%   Mostly >D's           2%               3% 

Students in high poverty schools (as measured by the percentage of students in the school who receive free or reduced price lunch--a commonly used measure of poverty) are somewhat less likely to get A's, but they also receive good grades (the average grade was still a B). In high poverty schools (those schools where over 75 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch):


Figure 2

Percentage of eighth grade students reporting mostly A's from grade six to the present, by school poverty level* (figure converted to text)

  School poverty level*      English         Math    0  to 10%                    34%            33%   11 to 30%                    30%            32%   31 to 50%                    33%            32%   51 to 75%                    28%            33%   76 to 100%                   23%            28% 
* "School poverty level" is the percentage of students in the school who receive free or reduced price lunch.
Teachers may have very good reasons for giving the grades they do: an honest appraisal of a student's work compared to other students in the class, or perhaps an attempt to motivate students. Given the general trend of grade inflation, however, grades may not provide students and their parents with solid feedback to show them how the students are really doing, and the situation may be especially severe for students in high poverty schools.

Grades and Student Achievement

Within each school poverty category (see table 1), there is a clear relationship between grades and test scores: the students who report receiving the highest grades have the highest test scores. For example, in the most affluent schools--those where no more than 10 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch--the "A" students received an average score on the NELS:88 math test of 57.6, and the "D" students received an average score of 45.0.


Table 1

Mean test scores in reading and math, by student's grades from grade 6 to the present and by the percentage of students in the school receiving free or reduced price lunch

Grades           Percentage of students receiving free or                  reduced price lunch                   0-10    11-30   31-50    51-75   76-100  English grades                   Reading Scores             
 Mostly A's       56.5    55.2    52.7     49.2    46.0                                                 +------- Mostly B's       51.7    50.2    48.7     46.2  | 44.8                                        +--------+ Mostly C's       47.0    46.5    45.3  |  44.1    41.3                  ----------------------+ Mostly D's       45.0    44.9    44.8     41.5    38.2  Mostly >D's      44.5    42.7    41.4     39.6    37.5  Math grades                      Math Scores                  Mostly A's       57.6    55.1    52.7     49.2    45.7                                                 +------- Mostly B's       52.9    51.2    48.7     45.0  | 43.0                                +----------------+ Mostly C's       47.8    46.0  | 44.9     43.0    41.0                        +-------+ Mostly D's       45.0  | 43.4    42.9     42.1    40.0                  ------+ Mostly >D's      43.1    42.1    41.1     39.3    38.9  
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.
When we look across different types of schools, however, we see another picture: "A" students in the high poverty schools received lower scores, on average, than did their counterparts in the more affluent schools.

How well is an "A" student in a high poverty school doing compared to his or her counterpart in a more affluent school? These students are at a serious disadvantage, as measured by the reading and math tests given as part of the NELS:88 data collection:

The "B" students in the schools with the highest poverty concentrations received about the same test scores as the students who received D's and less than D's in the schools with the lowest concentrations of poor students. The "C" students in the poorest schools got about the same test scores as the failing students in the most affluent schools.

One can argue, of course, that the NELS:88 tests are only one small measure of student performance and that it is not fair to make sweeping generalizations about student achievement from this one test. Other studies, however, also have pointed out the problems of low achievement in high poverty schools. All of these sources, not just NELS:88, indicate the need to improve the quality of education in these schools.

One reasonable step to improve the quality of education in high poverty schools may be to provide students and parents with accurate information about how much students are learning and what additional courses they should take to be more competitive with students from more affluent areas. Without such information, students will have no way of knowing how prepared-- or unprepared--they are for further education or the work force. How fair is it for a student who has received A's and B's all through school to arrive at college and find that he or she is unprepared for college level-math courses? Wouldn't it be better to provide these students with an accurate picture of how they are doing early, so that they and their parents will know where improvements need to be made?

Recommendations

Parents should ask their child's teachers and principal how their son's or daughter's grades are determined, and whether the student is receiving an appropriately challenging education. Parents may want to ask the following questions:

If your child's principal or teachers cannot answer these questions, ask them why they don't know the answers. As a parent, you have the right to know the quality of the education your child is receiving.


This Research Report is part of a series published by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement for teachers and parents. If you would like to suggest topics for future Research Reports, please write to: Office of Research, U.S. Department of Education, 555 New Jersey Avenue NW, Room 610e, Washington, DC 20208-5648. To be added to the Research Report mailing list, send your name and address to OERI Research Reports, Outreach Office, 555 New Jersey Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20208-5570. This report is a public document and may be reproduced in part or in its entirety without permission. Please credit OERI.

References

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (November 1992). Parental Satisfaction With Schools and the Need for Standards. Washington, DC.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (March 1990). User's Manual: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Base Year: Student Component Data File User's Manual. Data Series: DR-NELS: 88-88-1.2. Washington, DC.

Notes:

(1) The data in this report are from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 (NELS:88), which was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. NELS:88 includes surveys of eighth-grade students, their parents, and their teachers, and provides information on family characteristics, school characteristics, and student achievement.

(2) Tables of standard errors and numbers of cases are available on request. This report was prepared by Judith Anderson, Office of Research of the U.S. Department of Education.


This Research Report is produced by the Office of Research,Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the U.S. Department of Education.

Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education
Sharon P. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, OERI
Joseph P. Conaty, Acting Director, OR

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