Lake Wobegone is the fictitious place where "all children are above average" in Garrison Keillor's radio narratives. Educators now speak of the "Lake Wobegone Effect" as a combination of grade inflation and content deflation that drives down the value of a high school diploma or a college degree.
However, that academic erosion is picking up fast. I am fortunate in having a network of K-12 teachers who regularly feed me information on their classroom situation. Many were my student teachers -- there are more than 250 now -- and they rely on me not divulging their identities. While some still can practice as professionals, the news from others is alarming.
One solid science teacher (with a track record of teaching students who succeed in college and often entered science fields) described her situation. She assigns homework and expects students to come prepared for classwork and labs. But one student never did his homework. Her school uses an online grade report system accessible to administrators. When it was evident this student was failing, this student was pulled from class the last week of the semester, put on a programmed learning computer and progressed through the question sets over and over until he had a high score. Thus, an F-student who might not graduate high school became a "good" student ready to go to college.
How widespread is this? Such "end runs" have been happening in a variety of ways across Kansas. Not all schools nor even a majority of schools. But some are now overriding teachers' grades. And such practices appear to be growing.
Now switch to our higher education institutions where you would expect no one would dare lean on faculty to inflate grades or deflate requirements. Unfortunately, public universities across the country now operate under pressure to increase enrollment, retention and graduation. Their budgets are now tuition-driven.
Similar to the K-12 system, every college student is expected to succeed. If this does not happen, it is now the professor's fault -- NCLB has finally arrived at college. The directive to increase retention and graduation rates comes straight from state capitols across America. A university president's job depends on growth at all costs. At more than one campus, chairpersons are directed to target courses with higher rates of D-W-F grades -- and "do something about it." To prevent any appearance of violating academic freedom, the caveat is added: "But don't let standards drop." For the growing number of adjunct faculty hires, there is no need to mention this. They know if they give many D/F grades, they will not be hired back.
Adding more tutoring is perhaps a legitimate way to try to improve retention. But universities are now reducing the credit hours required to graduate. Some advise students into easy courses first, holding off rigorous courses until later -- a tactic that can cost students another year of school. Others reduce their general education by reducing the more rigorous subjects (usually math and sciences).
Why do administrators feel empowered to coerce teachers into grade inflation and believe having a school where everyone graduates is now a legitimate goal? Look at our political scene. Our president is calling for a dramatic increase in college graduation rates (tech credentials included). Our governor raises this goal to 85 percent (military included). That has given legitimacy for some K-18 system administrators to place student "success"-at-any-cost ahead of actual academic performance.
But ACT and SAT scores show less than one-third of high school seniors are college-ready. That is half the number our colleges are being ordered to turn out.
When people say today's college degree does what yesterday's high school diploma used to do, they formerly meant access to a good job. That might soon come to mean the amount being learned. And with erosion of the K-12 grading, that high school diploma will mean even less tomorrow.
K-12 teachers and college faculty have a responsibility to our good students to resist pressure to water down the curriculum and drop our grading scales. Good students want a degree that means something. Faculty must fight to preserve the value of diplomas and degrees. A student who excelled in genuine coursework should walk across the stage at commencement without being followed by students who receive the same degree but did little to earn it.
John Richard Schrock is a professor
in the Department of Biological Sciences
at Emporia State University.