Grading standards and student effort: Short-run versus long-run effects

Fordham Institute

A simple observation: In the U.S., high school graduation rates have increased while other measures of academic achievement—from college entrance exam scores to high school NAEP scores to college enrollment—have stagnated at best. Taking this observation as the foundation, a new working paper from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at San Antonio argues that this pattern suggests “a decline in academic standards,” and then builds on that foundation to examine the consequences of changes to grading standards upon student behavior, academic effort, and learning.

The paper begins by investigating the theoretical connection between academic standards and student effort using mathematical models. Theirs is not the first attempt to do this. Going back to the 1980s, economists have shown through such formal models that, when academic standards change, students are likely to react. For example, rising standards may make some students expend greater effort to meet the new standard while inducing some lower-performing students to just give up. The present paper develops a model suited to the more nuanced effects of grading policies, and its authors’ model shows that, in theory, lenient grading could have either positive or negative effects on student effort. After all, while a lower bar may put an academic goal, such as passing a course, within reach of students who expend a bit more effort to reach it, other students may decide to take it easy when they are graded more leniently.


SOURCE: A. Brooks Bowden, Viviana Rodriguez, and Zach Weingarten. “The Unintended Consequences of Academic Leniency,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (2023).