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Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Collapse of Academic Standards Is the Real Education Scandal

While the education system is to blame, the victims are the students.

Image Credit: Flickr-CollegeDegrees360 | CC BY 2.0 (

In March of this year, the higher education world was rocked by revelations of a widespread college admissions bribery scandal. The scandal was such a big story it has its own page on the LA Times website that now boasts almost 100 different articles covering the issue.

Cheating to get into school is nothing new.

The evolution of the story gripped the nation as more and more names and schools were brought forth each day. In all, over 33 parents have been targeted with fraud-related activities, and 11 universities that took part in the scandal have been identified.

Those who follow college sports were not shocked by this story. Almost six months before the admissions scandal broke, the FBI was investigating University of Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller over a “pay-for-play” recruiting scandal. Cheating to get into school is nothing new.

High School Credentials

However, this news is certainly upsetting to those who have worked extremely hard in school and attempted to get into the college of their dreams only to be rejected. All the while, there are students with lesser credentials who have paid their way into school. It callouses those who identify nepotism and privilege among those who get what they want—and how can we blame them?

While the bribery scandal garnered a lot of press due to the involvement of big names and the number of schools and people involved, there is another aspect of this story that went unaddressed: the credentials of high school graduates.

More importantly—and more scandalously—are they meeting the standards to graduate, or are they being “pushed through”?

I want to be clear that this is not an attack on students’ work ethic or a rant against lazy millennials. This is an attempt to create a dialogue about what is happening within the machine of public education. This year an estimated 3.6 million students will graduate from high schools across the country. Clearly, the accomplishments, achievements, and aptitudes of these students fall on a very wide spectrum.

Setting aside the qualifications for earning admission into post-secondary school, we must ask a vital question: What skills are our students leaving school with? More importantly—and more scandalously—are they meeting the standards to graduate, or are they being “pushed through”?

In my 10 years of working in education, I have seen an alarming rate of students who are being pushed through the system. There are a number of ways this is occurring.

Credit Recovery and Skewed GPAs

Students are increasingly needing to take more and more credit recovery courses. According to the Department of Education, an estimated 15 percent of high school students took a credit recovery class as of the 2015-2016 school year.

The issue with this is the lack of applicable skills students attain in taking these online classes. Again, the findings of the Department of Education tell the story, noting that

students in the online Algebra I course scored lower on an end-of-course assessment and received lower grades in Algebra I than students assigned to an in-person course.

In addition to the increasing number of students participating in credit recovery, students are missing an increasing amount of school. In a report conducted by the Department of Education, it was estimated that over seven million students missed 15 or more days of school—the number the department uses to designate “chronic absenteeism.” I can personally attest to students who have missed 15 or more days in a single trimester (13 weeks)! GPA’s have almost become a joke in high school amid weighted and dual credit classes.This is important to highlight because many teachers will simply “exempt” students from in-class work they miss, and the student must move on upon returning to school, missing any content from the previous day(s).

Another troubling aspect that emerges when examining our high school graduates is the grading scale and subsequent grade point average students earn. GPAs have almost become a joke in high school amid weighted and dual credit classes. Some schools will have students graduate with a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale. What does this even mean? In theory, it should tell colleges—and more importantly, the student—that they have attained a certain level of accomplishment in their work. Let’s examine.

Are Students Being “Pushed Through” School?

The level of work (typically achieved by higher level thinking, thoroughness, and completion) has been suffering. I recently spoke with a co-worker who said he simply grades on completion at this point. This omits grading for accuracy and attaining the level of work desired in the assignment. Again, this highlights the issue at hand: What does it mean to earn a grade on an assignment or an overall course grade? How accurately is this reflecting what students know or what skills they have achieved in completing a class?

The bottom line is we are pushing students through who are woefully unprepared for either post-secondary school or the workplace. Schools aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they are doing this. NPR ran a fascinating story in 2017 on Ballou High School, located near Washington, DC, that celebrated every student earning admission to college. The problem was that the majority of students did not earn this achievement. It was a hoax, and unfortunately, it is more prevalent than what many in public education would like to admit.

Teachers must remain resolute and not cave to calls to push students through.

Why are schools taking part in doing this? Isn’t the main function of the school to educate and prepare students for the next phase of their lives? In theory, yes. In reality, schools are going to do what they must to obtain funding. Graduation rates are a significant factor in school district funding. Anything that could jeopardize that funding must be squashed.

While the system is to blame for this, the victims are the students. Students are forced through this broken system, and many do not ask for this outcome. It is a scandal that must be addressed and corrected, but how? Students should not have to hold teachers accountable, but that is an option. More pressing, teachers must remain resolute and not cave to calls to push students through.

  • Justin Spears is a high school social studies teacher in Indiana. He has been in education for over a decade but has a background in business. He holds a Bachelors in Marketing from Butler University and a Masters in Secondary Education from Indiana University. He is currently working to co-author a book; Failure: The History and Results of a Broken School System.