Grade Inflation: Should Day Schools Answer to a Higher Authority?

Rabbi Allen Saks

Day schools today face tremendous financial uncertainty, especially in today’s struggling economic climate. Since the majority of a day school’s budget comes from tuition dollars, heads of schools feel pressure to attract new students in addition to maintaining the ones already enrolled. For school administrators, one tempting method for preserving and boosting enrollment is to make sure the school gives the parents what they want.

If one asks parents what they really want from a school, they will say that there are really only two needs: the child’s happiness and sense of success. A trend today among many schools seeking to accomplish these two goals is to inflate grades, especially in Judaic subjects. Parents will often comment to a principal that they don’t want a Chumash or Talmud grade keeping their child from a Harvard education. Consequently, many school heads are encouraging teachers to be lenient when grading students. In some cases, schools will actually change the grades that a teacher has given to insure that parents stay happy and their children remain in the school. According to one principal, “When test scores are all that matter, some educators feel pressured to get the scores they need by hook or by crook. The higher the stakes, the greater the incentive to manipulate, to cheat.”

Many principals will justify this action by saying, “It is only a Navi or Chumash or Hebrew and it is not as important as math or science.” There are many Jewish studies teachers who feel that it is essential for the student to feel good about being Jewish than being honest in giving an accurate grade. Other Jewish studies teachers believe that in order for the students to benefit from Jewish studies, the teacher needs to be loved. One method of accomplishing this is to inflate grades.

One can pose two kinds of questions about the practice of grade inflation. First, are we really helping the student or the school by giving grades to students who don’t deserve them? Or does grade inflation wind up hurting the reputation of a school that uses this practice, and by extension the reputation of its students? Second, is this truly ethical? Day schools profess to emphasize to parents that middot, character training, is a crucial part of their day school education. By inflating grades, are schools really adhering to their mission statements?

There are several colleges and universities that do not accept Jewish studies grades from day schools because of existent reputations of grade inflation. In addition, along with grade inflation comes the issue of academic integrity. Most schools have very strict guidelines surrounding the issues of cheating and plagiarism. Wouldn’t grade inflation be considered academic dishonesty?

Leviticus 19:14 states, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind [lifnei iver], but you shall fear your G-d, I am the L-rd.” Our Sages interpreted this verse in a very broad fashion. The Sifra (an early midrash collection) says, “‘You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind’—before someone who is blind in that particular matter. Don’t say to your neighbor ‘sell your field and buy a donkey,’ when your whole purpose is to deceive him and buy his field. And if you claim, ‘But I gave him good advice!’ [remember,] this is something which is hidden in the heart, [and therefore] the end of the verse says: ‘but you shall fear your G-d, I am the L-rd.’”

Many halakhic principles are derived from this principle of lifnei iver, the oral Torah expanding its ramifications beyond a purely literal interpretation. In classical rabbinical literature, lifnei iver is seen as a figuratively expressed prohibition against misleading people; the Sifra above argues that since the recipient of advice would be metaphorically blind in regard to its accuracy, they would metaphorically stumble if the advice was damaging or otherwise bad.

To apply this principle to our situation, grade inflation would be a type of lifnei iver, putting up a stumbling block. To mislead a student into believing that he has actually performed work on that inflated grade level would make the student believe that wherever he or she moves on after that school, all that needs to be done to achieve that grade is to put forth that same effort. When another institution grades on a more honest level, the student will now feel that he has been cheated. Naturally, no school or individual purposely intends to mislead students, but grade inflation does just that.

There are solutions to help prevent the escalation of grade inflation in our day school system. The first would be to offer a different grading system for Jewish studies. For example, all Jewish studies courses could be graded on a pass-fail system. This would permit a teacher to have much more flexibility in grading a student and would ultimately allow what each school really wants; that is, for students to come out from their Jewish studies programs more knowledgeable in Jewish text as well as individuals who will apply what they have learned from their Jewish studies classes to their everyday lives.

A second possible solution would have teachers, if not in the entire school, then at least in the Jewish studies department, grade students with anecdotals in place of traditional grades. Obviously, this would be more successful in lower and middle school than in high school, where it would require some modification. This system would force a teacher to truly put the time and effort into getting to know the whole of a student, not just how well one can perform on tests. As a parent, I am always thrilled when I read the comments teachers write about my children as opposed to just the grades they have been given. It is the comments that tell a parent how much a teacher really knows their child. There are more colleges now that, before accepting a student, want to understand how that student truly performs and what makes him or her tick. Anecdotals can give us the opportunity to transmit this information, much more so than grades.

Thirdly, if we continue to use the traditional grading system, then schools should encourage teachers to be more creative in testing their students. Teachers should not limit their testing to just multiple choice or true and false but can have students be more reflective in their answers by using essays, art projects, reports, etc. This would allow schools to be more consistent across the board with how grades are assigned. Schools must treat both general studies and Jewish studies equally. If students are expected to maintain academic integrity, then schools must, as well. The bottom line is that if parents know that all subjects in school are treated equally, with no exceptions, then they will respect the school more than if it inflates grades primarily in the Jewish studies department.

Lastly, for any of these suggestions to succeed, there must be a respectable working partnership with parents, teachers, principals, and boards. Only if there is a solid relationship between these different constituents can schools eliminate the practice of grade inflation and then truly declare that we are practicing a Jewish ethical life in our day school system.

Rabbi Allen Saks has served as an educator holding various teaching and administrative positions in day schools for over 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011