What happens when grades do not equal intelligence?

We would all like to believe that grades reflect a student’s ability to learn and grow intellectually.  How do we “square that circle” when the data reveals that the opposite may be true.  That those students who comply get better grades than those who are not so obedient to the system.  That if you please the teacher you get better grades regardless of how smart you are or your ability?  Do we not believe that grades equal intelligence?  Is that not what we are led to believe as parents and educators?  What do we do when that lens is shattered into a million pieces with data that suggest that grades are not based on intelligence at all?

I took a random High School in the geographic area and did a scatter plot which you see the picture above.  I suspect, regardless of which high school I choose the results would be similar.  I looked at GPA versus Ohio Graduation Test (OGT)  results.  The horizontal axis is the score on the OGT with the vertical axis GPA.  I then took one additional step and looked at Male versus Female and whether or not they had a discipline file.  This yielded some compelling results. A scatter plot such as this — created 4 quadrants.  Kids that passed the OGT and had a solid GPA.  Those students who had a low GPA and did not pass the OGT.

Those two areas we expect.  If kids are excelling in school we expect the OGT results to reflect that success.  It is also expected that those who are doing poorly in school struggled to pass the OGT.  What I was interested in was the other two possibilities.

We have kids who are doing poorly, failing the majority of there classes yet passed the OGT?  And even worse, we have a larger group of kids in this particular high school that are passing all classes some of them with a 4.0 GPA but have scored alarmingly low on the OGT.  That is all A’s and failing the OGT.  Just for those that are wondering.  I removed the special education population.  So these are not kids with special classes —  these are run of the mill kids who are achieving all A’s in school but have failed the OGT. That essentially means they are not on track to graduate since you need to pass the OGT to achieve a diploma in Ohio.

Why is that so frightening?  The OGT is a very LOW bar.  We know you only need to get 35% correct on the OGT to pass…..that makes our 4.0 students in the scatter plot a huge concern.  This group of students who are achieving in classes are the ones who are compliant.  They do all the work required of them.  They are nice, not a discipline issue, they do extra-credit.  These are kids flying under the radar and have a false sense of what it takes to move beyond high school and into higher education.  These are the kids that go off to college and flunk out and we scratch our heads because they did so well in high school?  It is truly an injustice that the grade is not about performance.  That is one reason colleges and universities like to use the SAT and  ACT for admissions and put little or no stock into grades.  They know that often the grade is not a reflection of performance, ability or intelligence.

In this particular high school, we see predominately girls getting all A’s.  The majority of those girls are not “knocking it out of the park” on the OGT.  A clear indication that in this high school what is really measured is compliance not performance.  We keep talking about Ohio’s New Learning Standards that are much more rigorous and demanding than the old standards.  The new standards will expect performance levels that far exceed what is required to pass the OGT.  This scatter plot suggest that without some systemic changes in grades and grading many more kids will be unable to pass the new test but will continue to have high grades.

I would not want to have to explain that to mom and dad how their son or daughter could be getting A’s and B’s but unable to pass the new end of course exams Ohio is implementing.  We owe it to our kids to be honest about individual performance and stop confusing the ability to turn in homework as an indication of understanding and learning of the course content.

This scatter plot hints, that in this high school with all the 4.0 students,  the emphasis on how well I am doing completely overshadows what I am doing.  In a culture that focuses on the how well I am doing compared to my peers completely overshadows learning.  I certainly cannot tell from a simple scatter plot if this is the case at this high school.  However it does suggest that kids may be more interested in grades than the learning.  If as a parent your son or daughter comes home and yacks about the A or B they received, instead of the content they are studying, it should raise a red flag that how well is more important than the content.

How well” obsessions in students breeds a fear of failure.  A “how well” student will avoid taking challenging courses as to not risk a low grade.  Worse yet this obsession diminishes motivation for learning because learning is not the goal.  The goal is is the grade.

In the other scenario, the grade is simply a part of the process and what is the most important aspect is the content and learning.  It may seem like a minor distinction but if kids are only concerned about the grade the learning takes the back seat.

So, let’s talk about those kids who are not passing courses, not getting any credits toward graduation yet pass the OGT?  Some of them do have discipline issues.  But as I have stated in a previous blog we do a poor job in schools separating behavior and grades so the fact they have discipline issues only raises more questions.

My concern is really around some of the kids in this scatter plot that have no discipline issues and easily passed the OGT.  I wonder what we are not doing in that high school that have perfectly capable students who for whatever reason choose to fail courses?  It is a choice.  Why are they disengaged?  What about school fails to motivate them?   Have we asked them?

One nice aspect about a scatter plot is that each dot represents one kid.  I would love to talk with the student in this scatter plot that outscored 95% of his peers on the OGT —  but is below a 1.5 GPA! Wonder what he has to say about the culture and expectations of this high school?  He is certainly smart enough to have an opinion!

I encourage all that read this blog to request similar data from your school system.  It should be used to prompt a discussion around grades, performance, fairness and what is truly measured in your school.  It is a starting point not the ending point around this issue.  Only with data like this can we have honest conversations with teachers, parents and administrators.  This challenges a particular lens we cling to in schools.  We believe grades reflect intelligence.  We believe grades reflect ability.  We believe grades are a true accurate measurement of course content.

Data like this questions the validity of those belief statements.  Kids deserve accurate measurement of there performance.  They deserve a system that rewards not the compliance to the system but performance in that system.  As a classroom teacher, I would often tell my students that I have given failing grades to a number of kids I really really liked and have given A’s to some that I literally could not stomach.  It was not about whether or not I liked you — but about how well you performed in class and that is what a grade should be about.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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