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Valedictorian Flunks Graduation Test

October 1, 2003

School officials in Beaufort County, South Carolina, have institutionalized grade inflation by guaranteeing their high school students a minimum first-semester grade of at least 62 out of 100, so students who start the year badly aren’t prevented from

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School officials in Beaufort County, South Carolina, have institutionalized grade inflation by guaranteeing their high school students a minimum first-semester grade of at least 62 out of 100, so students who start the year badly aren’t prevented from passing a class if they improve in the second semester.

“What we’re trying to do is look at how we can send the message to students that we want them, number one, to be successful,” Deputy Superintendent Edna Crews told the Charleston Post and Courier in August. “We want to give kids some hope.”

Unfortunately, instead of leading to success, grade inflation is more likely to lead to failure, dashed hopes, broken dreams, and public humiliation. Just ask Bridget Green, who in May was looking forward to completing her education at Alcee Fortier Senior High School in New Orleans by graduating as the class valedictorian, delivering the commencement speech, and then enrolling in community college. But despite her superior grades, Green could not pass a math proficiency exam required for graduation; she not only lost her starring role as valedictorian, but was not even allowed to graduate.

Now, instead of being in college classes, Green is in counseling, devastated by embarrassment and shock, according to a recent Associated Press account. Her guardian, Karen Alexander, faults the school for not covering the curriculum that is tested, and she is considering suing the school.

Another parent, Gregory Guth, already has sued the New Orleans district, saying the education it provides is so bad parents are forced to turn to private schools. The suit, filed by Guth and his wife Maria in state court on August 21, seeks reimbursement of the tuition they and other parents paid to private schools over the past 10 years because the state did not live up to its obligation to “provide a free and appropriate education.”


“An Ideal Student”

Green’s story first appeared in The Times-Picayune on August 10, in a long, poignant article by the New Orleans newspaper’s staff writer Aesha Rasheed. According to her teachers and peers, Green was “an ideal student”--studious, athletic, and outgoing. She was on her school’s basketball and track teams but had a college-prep class schedule and earned top grades in those classes.

When she first took the Graduate Exit Exam (GEE) in 10th grade, she passed English but failed math. Significantly, she said the exam questions didn’t look anything like what she learned in class. By spring in her senior year, Green had failed the math exam four times and was making her fifth attempt to pass. By that time, she had taken Algebra I, earning a C, and Algebra II, earning an A. The only warning sign was her score of only 11 on the ACT, which put her behind 99 percent of other high school students who took the test nationally.

A week before graduation, Green found she hadn’t passed again. She couldn’t graduate, she couldn’t be valedictorian, and she had to spend six weeks in summer school studying for a retest. At least 30 other students also had the grades to graduate but couldn’t pass the exit exam.

“We were devastated,” Alexander told The Times-Picayune. As she pointed out, “As and Bs do not indicate failure. How were we to know that anything was wrong, that she wasn’t going to pass this test?”


Testing

Although critics of high-stakes testing pointed to the test as setting a standard the school couldn’t yet meet, the editors of The Times-Picayune didn’t see it that way. They viewed Green’s case as an example of poor instruction, grade inflation, and cruelty.

“How cruel it is to give a student As and Bs and name her valedictorian when she’s that far behind the rest of the nation,” they wrote. “How cruel it is to her classmates with lower grades who’ve been tricked into thinking they’ve received an education, when they, too, have been cheated.”

In most places, the editors pointed out, getting an A in Algebra II indicates mastery in factoring polynomials, solving quadratic equations, and solving complex word problems. Since Green obviously hadn’t mastered those skills, her teachers “failed her by giving her glowing grades.”

“The teachers and administrators at Fortier High have some explaining to do,” concluded the editors. “If the senior with the best grades can’t pass a 10th-grade test, what, if anything, are students being taught?”


George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is clowes@heartland.org.

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Education
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George Clowes is former Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding managing editor of School Reform News between November 1996 and January 2005.

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