The problem with fraudulent grades

A while back I wrote a rant about homework and grades and the impact that the former has on the latter. In that case, I was primarily referring to the many students who fail or get low grades despite reasonable demonstrated ability.

But the flip side of that, particularly in urban schools and majority-minority charters, are the students who get As for little more than working hard. Some of them find out in college, like Darryl Robinson, who got a full ride to Georgetown despite weak academic skills. Some of them find out when they sign up for SAT test prep, like Angela Lopez.

For the past 8 years, I’ve taught a spring ACT prep class to underprivileged kids. Certain clear patterns emerge. Assume that the students in these next paragraphs are Hispanic.

On average, the best-prepared pool of students in my class, year after year, come from the comprehensive high schools, whose demographics are usually 65-35 Hispanic to white. These students are usually in Calculus or Pre-Calc, and in AP or IB programs. Their skills are in line with their transcripts. The weaker comprehensive high school students in my class have transcripts with GPAs below 2.0, and are in Geometry or even Algebra. Their skills are usually stronger than their transcripts.

The students from two charter schools fill out the middle and bottom tiers of my classes—with the occasional rock star as an exception. One charter is a well-regarded chain. The kids’ transcripts aren’t outright lies; most of them are in Geometry or Algebra II as juniors. They’re on the low end of the achievement spectrum, and have abilities equivalent with the low-end students from the comprehensive schools, but with better GPAs.

The other charter, sponsored by the local Super Prestigious University, routinely provides the least-prepared, weakest students in the class, with a shocking disconnect between abilities, transcripts and grades. As a rule, the strongest kids from this school are barely average in my class, while the weakest kids are clearly outclassed by the low-performing comprehensive school students, even though on paper, the charter school students are 2-3 years ahead in math and science.

Yet the kids from the university charter school are just as likely to be accepted to the top universities as the top kids from the comprehensive schools, despite huge gaps in demonstrated ability. Needless to say, they are far more likely to gain access to good schools than the kids from the corporate charter or the lower-ability kids from the comprehensive schools, even though the latter have equivalent or better abilities.

Lying gets the job done. Majority minority schools, either charter or comprehensive, frequently deliver watered-down courses and grade more on effort and “social justice” than ability*. Their students, armed with fraudulent transcripts, get into decent or excellent schools and then are shocked to learn how little they know. That’s what happened to both Darryl and Angela; Angela’s adviser, Pablo, might have made his students feel better, but that reassurance isn’t helping her reading scores.

Some of the students I run into from these schools are like Angela—at worst, mildly discombobulated by the realization that, far from being top students, they’re distressingly close to the bottom. A few minutes with a cheerleader like Pablo is enough to banish all fears. They don’t improve much, but are convinced it won’t matter. They embrace the lie. I worry they are mostly doomed at college.

A few students have known they’ve been lied to, but are willing to accept the lie to improve their prospects. Aware that their transcripts and grades are a scam, they’re secretly terrified at what they will learn when taking the ACT or the SAT, since those tests won’t lie about their abilities. And yet they step up to reality, grit their teeth at the early practice scores and work through their fear to get the best score they can. These kids, I would slit a vein for. Happily, they almost always improve modestly, and their delight at these relatively small bumps is one of the great rewards of the job. While not one of them has ever been a super-star, they were all accepted into state schools with realistic goals and a realistic shot of making it through remedial classes.

But every so often I get a student who didn’t know it was a lie and can’t accept the rationalizations that worked for Angela. These are the ones that give me nightmares. I’d rather Angela’s smug acceptance of her inferior abilities than the despair of a kid who suddenly has to face the fact that his entire self-image as a star student has been a lie. The three students I’ve seen in this category all gave up on trying to improve their scores. All of them went on to college, one of them probably graduated. But emotionally, the discovery of their true abilities just wrecked them and it was painful to watch.

Some people read this story and think that, with a proper education, these kids could have really been ready for college. I disagree. The Super Prestigious University charter has, on one notable occasion, turned out a genuinely high-achiever—an illegal immigrant who had been in this country only 4 years when I met him, who got a 1900 on the SAT and a 27 composite on the ACT. Now, he came to the school with strong record of real achievement, but the school taught him advanced math and improved his reading and writing skills. Why? Because he was a bright kid who could take advantage of the education.

When you read of the Darryls and Angelas, it’s best to assume that their weak skills are a product of cognitive abilities that just aren’t up to more. The problem isn’t that they were capable of more, but that their teachers and schools lied to them. That may not always be the case—If Darryl isn’t exaggerating, then he’s managing calculus and biology at the college level. I’d want to know his SAT scores to be sure. But most of the kids in these cases are of below average intellect, hard workers who were fed a fraud.

But of course, it’s much easier to blame the teachers.

One more thing to chew on: The Angelas and Darryls will often be pulled through school by virtue of a huge, expensive support system, similar to the one that is helping Dasmine Cathay, a mediocre, illiterate football player who will quite possibly graduate from his Tennessee state college. This support system just perpetuates the fraud through college, further devaluing the high school degree.

But if you think the support system that hauls low-level kids to a college degree is the right idea, remember this: the kids from comprehensive high schools that I described above, the ones with stronger skills and better test scores but a terrible GPA, (thanks to teachers who, like the charters, grade on homework but have far less compliance) will probably end up in community college if they’re lucky. They will see little in the way of a support system and few people will call them to make sure they get to class.

I am not convinced that we should be doling out support so unevenly, and I am certain that students should not benefit from greater support simply because their schools were willing and able to lie about their abilities.

*While I’m picking on majority-minority schools here, a similar problem is found in suburban progressive charters, which mouth platitudes about diversity and social justice but are primarily interested in boosting white middle-achiever college prospects by inflated transcripts and grades. The parents of these students are a big part of their donation base.

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