Washington state K-12 students suffered significant grade inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns that learning loss may have had a larger effect in the classroom than previously thought, according to a new study.

Parents have been left reeling from student learning loss since the COVID-19 pandemic as research has found that many students are performing significantly below average in subjects like reading, math and science. Students in Washington state getting As and Bs increased by at least 20% in 2020, but many scored poorly on state tests, indicating a larger learning loss problem, according to a report from the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research.

The report found that A grades for math and English increased from 32.9% to 56.3% and 35.5% to 60.6%, respectively, between the spring and fall semesters in 2020, while science jumped from 32.5% to 59.0%. GPAs also increased by large margins in math, science and English, and while the latter two saw a return to pre-pandemic levels by 2021-2022, math grades continued to climb.

“There is widespread speculation and some evidence that grading standards have changed over the course of the pandemic, making higher grades relatively easier to achieve and less reflective of objective measures of learning,” researchers wrote. “It is possible—even likely—that shifting grading standards give parents, guardians, and students a confusing or inaccurate picture of what students know and can do, especially considering pandemic-related learning losses.”

Students in 2020 did not hit the projected test score levels that previous students had with similar grades, showing a significant discrepancy between the student’s grades and what they have actually learned, according to the report.

“For instance, a student who got an ‘A’ in Algebra 1 was predicted to be in the 73rd percentile of the test distribution in 2015-16, the 68th percentile in 2018-19, and the 58th percentile in 2021-22,” the report reads. “In Algebra 2, a student receiving an ‘A’ was predicted to be in the 64th percentile in 2015-16, the 58th percentile in 2018-19, and the 54th percentile in 2021-22.”

The researchers also noted that part of the reason for the grade inflation is likely due to the state’s education policy in 2020 that it would not be giving any failing grades for 9-12 students to “do no harm,” according to KHC, a local media outlet. Chronic absenteeism is also a likely factor with research finding that some districts in the state saw four times more students being marked as absent despite 40% still getting a B or better grade in core subjects, Education Week reported.

Kate Anderson on November 13, 2023

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