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Lesson 1.5

Wishful thinking:
Grade inflation and cognitive biases

Yeah, but my child will be fine, right?

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Most Americans, when asked, express doubts about the overall quality of public schools. They tend to think more highly of their own schools, though. And their own kids' education? No problem.

Wishful thinking is human nature. Unfortunately, problems are hard to address if you think everything is OK.

And who wants to tell you otherwise? From gentle, ambiguous feedback in parent-teacher conferences to systemic grade inflation, the education system suffers from a lack of candor. It's a huge challenge.

Nationally, people are worried about the quality of education

"I think the system is broken, but…"

Americans are broadly concerned that their education system isn't working very well. Gallup, the polling company, reports that national confidence in public institutions peaked in 1975 and has fallen dramatically since then. Public education is very much part of this trend.

Californians are concerned, too.

California fits this pattern. In a 2023 poll of likely voters, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that just 9% of Californians felt the quality of education in public schools was “not much of a problem”. The rest were evenly divided about whether it was a “big problem” or “somewhat of a problem”.

People have more confidence in their local schools

"…I guess my school's OK, right?"

Beneath this big-picture concern about the overall quality of public education lies a paradox: parents generally tend to think somewhat better of their local schools.

The same PPIC survey asks Californians to give their local schools a letter grade. Nearly half of public school parents give their local schools an A or B.

Parents believe their kids will succeed in college

"Anyway, my kid's doing well enough"

When it comes to their own kids' prospects, parents tend to be blinded by optimism. It's a natural bias. Parents want to believe the best about themselves, after all, including the belief that they are good parents.

Learning Heroes, a non-profit organization, commissioned research that shines light on this harmful cognitive error. Through surveys conducted in multiple years, including parents from different backgrounds, they found that a huge percentage is under the impression that their kids will finish high school, advance directly to college, and graduate.

Most kids don't go to college

These hopes are way out of line with reality. About a tenth of students don't finish high school. Of those who do, only a fraction pass the college-track courses they need to apply for a four-year college. Based on recent trends, about a third of California students will go on to earn a college degree, with huge variation by race/ethnicity and gender. For example, Asian girls are more than five times as likely to become college graduates as Black boys.

Grade inflation is real

In the Ed100 blog
How should students be graded?

Over time, average high school grades have risen for all course types, from electives to advanced academic courses.

The average grade point average in high schoool has floated upward from a C-plus to a B-minus. For non-academic subjects, a grade of B is now average.

Part of this increase can be seen as authentic. Over decades, average scores on statewide standardized tests have improved a bit, which suggests that today's average students are probably learning somewhat more than their predecessors did.

But this certainly isn't the whole story. The bigger issue is that teachers, like most people, would prefer to positive encouragement rather than hard knocks.

Standardized tests keep the system honest

Standardized tests play a crucial role in keeping the education system honest. Without excuses, they deliver straightforward information to parents about kids' learning progress relative to grade-level expectations. These scores are the clearest, most honest way to tell if your student is on track, academically, and they deserve unflinching attention.

Both California and the federal government pay attention to these scores. They use patterns of test score improvement (well, actually the lack of it) to quietly direct resources to the five percent of schools most desperately in need of intervention.

Oddly, parents and teachers often tend to shy away from test scores. It's human nature to hear what you want to hear, and to look at what you want to see. Is it any wonder that parents might prefer to draw conclusions about how their kids are doing from grade-inflated report cards and cordial parent-teacher conferences, rather than from their kids' scores on standardized tests?

Choice-supportive bias

Rightly, parents feel responsible for the decision to enroll their children at the school they attend. Wrongly, this decision leads to a form of wishful thinking known as choice-supportive bias. Communities whose schools have been chronically ineffective nevertheless give their schools passing grades, for example, or resist efforts to make significant changes.

California has tried various approaches to "raise the bar" for learning expectations. For a decade, all students had to pass the California High School Exit Exam (a test of basic skills) to earn their high school diploma. Much too easy for most students, it was scrapped in 2015. In a triumph of wishful thinking, more than half of the students who repeatedly failed the test nevertheless still said in surveys that they expected to go to college. In the movie Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim colorfully points out the huge gap between American students' confidence and their results.

The disconnect between self-perception and reality is human nature. Virtually everyone behind the wheel sees themself as an above-average driver. Teachers and parents rate themselves as above-average, too, and extend their beliefs about themselves to the students in their care, like a nation of Lake Wobegon kids. Unfortunately for kids, in this case, human nature doesn't serve them well.

Standardized test scores deserve your unflinching attention.

Standardized tests based on grade-level standards are the education system's defense mechanism against wishful thinking, including grade inflation. Love them or hate them, these tests deliver straightforward information about your child's actual learning progress. These scores deserve unflinching attention. They are the clearest, most honest way to tell if your student is on track, academically.

Updated May 2018 May 2019
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Justice Landes February 1, 2024 at 3:43 pm
The importance of standardized tests is a tough pill to swallow. But it makes sense. I have to view them as the academic evaluations they are - but it somehow feels like they say the child is unteachable. I don't know how that perception came about, but I felt it when I was in school and I feel it now. I felt guilty getting higher scores than classmates who worked much harder than me; I was praised for having a good work ethic, gifted mind, perseverance. The only variable people acknowledged was how much effort the student put in, not teaching, parenting, marginalized identity, access to resources, time, etc.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 6:43 pm

California confidence in public schools drops according to 2022 polling by UC Berkeley.
user avatar
francisco molina August 12, 2019 at 11:26 pm
Afro-American and Latino students they have a common requirement : school counselor.
Mostly of their problems are hard to resolve inside the classroom, many of them come from families with low education and low salaries and the presence of the counselor make a big difference .
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek May 11, 2019 at 7:20 am
The education disparity for children of color is outlined above but I didn’t see anything about programs for kids who may not go to college. We have nearly abandoned skilled labor and trades for the idea that all kids should go to “college.”
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 20, 2019 at 4:34 pm
Thanks, Brenda -- California has tried in various ways over time to define success in terms of good outcomes including non-college outcomes. Ed100 Lesson 6.11 explains some of the fairly significant investments the state has made in Career Technical Education pathways. (Including on the California School Dashboard, explained further in our blog.)
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek May 10, 2019 at 6:41 pm
I often see students struggling in elementary school and know the challenge they have before them as they continue through secondary. It makes my heart sink. Our system needs redirection and intervention.
user avatar
Namrata Mundhra February 25, 2019 at 8:50 am
I was educated in India (through undergrad) but have kids in the CA public school system. One thing that consistently troubles me - I have a kid in middle school and one in high school is how little each rung of the ladder seems to prepare kids for the next. Kids in elementary school who go into middle school without reading and writing proficiently are going to struggle and that continues through the system until they hit high school and then it is too late to help.
user avatar
Caryn February 25, 2019 at 11:09 am
Hi Namrata, thanks for sharing your comment. You're absolutely correct--kids who aren't at grade level proficiency don't ever just magically catch up as they progress through the system. Your concern about "how little each rung of the ladder seems to prepare kids for the next" is important. That's certainly not how education is supposed to work--solid foundations are set and then built upon each year. Questions about curriculum can often be found on your district website or through some phone calls to your district office. Through personal experience, I've found that parents are woefully unaware of the resources available at the district offices regarding curriculum and other important grade-level information. I'm not saying this is true in your case but am sharing what I believe may be an issue for many parents.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder August 2, 2017 at 8:45 am
In 2017 Learning Heroes updated its national survey on parent expectations for their children. The most jaw-dropping insight is that parents care much more about their kids being happy and "not too stressed" by school than they do about their kids succeeding academically. And yet they overwhelmingly express confidence that their children will go to college and graduate.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm
The Atlantic takes a look at public perceptions of American schools-- Why Americans Think So Poorly of the Country's Schools. "Are public schools generally meeting Americans’ expectations? Or are they teetering on the brink of failure?"

One takeaway: Perception changes depending on how success is measured.
"Current data systems, which consist primarily of standardized-test scores, misrepresent school quality. They say more about family income than they do about schools. And they say very little about the many things that good schools do."

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm
Learning Heroes conducted a major survey to explore the chasm between parents' rosy expectations of their children's prospects for success in school and the actual results. achieved. The most shocking statistic is on page 4.
user avatar
wtgoddess May 31, 2015 at 5:48 am
How our teachers treat their students has a major impact on whether or not they choose to go to collage. My son has a couple of LDs. The teachers don't listen....and often hurt the chances of him going to collage. There needs to be accountability for teachers on this level.
user avatar
wtgoddess April 7, 2015 at 5:57 am
There has been bully issues at my kids school. My son unfortunately is "that kid " who gets bullied from k to now 6th grade. Sending our kids to school knowing this is happening and the law requires that they must go is heartbreaking
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:48 am
We barely make it financially because we sacrifice everything to ensure our kids have what they need. Because we are white and make what CA colleges deem "enough" money, our oldest daughter receives almost no financial aid and is working multiple jobs and will graduate college with over $100k in debt. We still have three others at home and can barely make bills, so we can't even help her with her tuition. Colleges don't care how much your monthly payments are for braces or your own student loans. It's a numbers game and unless your parent died in 9/11 or you are a minority, or you have a ridiculously high GPA, colleges don't consider you as needing assistance. More kids would go to college if they could afford it. But who wants to walk out of college with that much debt burdening you and whoever you choose to marry? Academic achievement has very little to do with what college accepts you or how much you have to pay.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm
Information about college debt is included in Lesson 9.9 on "High Hopes and College Loans."
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 10, 2015 at 10:29 am
Context matters. How parents and students perceive their school varies according to their frame of reference, which can be strongly affected by intentionally-defined school culture. Researcher Martin West shines light on the issue in this examination of schools with a "no excuses" culture.
His net advice: differences in expectations make "attitude" questionnaires a poor tool for comparing schools.
user avatar
celia4pta September 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm
Parents usually like their own schools because they are familiar with the teachers and other employees, and they feel everyone is doing his/her best. In California we have had over 30 years of underfunded schools, so the parents themselves don't even know what a fully equipped, well staffed school looks like.
Twenty years ago my sister in another state was complaining about her daughter's "large" class of 19 when my child was in a class of 35. And it has not exactly gotten better since.
We are trying not to blame our local educators or add to the "Schools Suck Industry" that John Mockler likes to refer to.
It seems like we end up with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. If schools are not doing well, then politicians and a certain segment of the population say, "Why throw money at a failing system." If schools are succeeding, why give more resources? The schools are seen as efficient. (See the Orange County Register for calculations on efficient use of school funds.)
Either way, the answer is the same: no additional resources.
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:25 am
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anamendozasantiago February 5, 2015 at 5:27 pm
Word. I visited a gifted public school recently and it seemed they were in a different universe....They had one or more parent aids for every classroom...children were focused and we didn't see one child with a behavioral problem. Teachers were engaged and actually teaching instead of trying to get the students attention...The students had music, chess, sports, robotics, reading programs, mariachi, drama, choir and other academic competitions and programs from 2nd to 6th grade....At our school we only have sports, and after being without a library we finally got a part time librarian and music teacher this year. We were one of the lucky schools.
This gifted school receives around 400 application of qualified students but they only allow 60 students in. What a waste of wonderful, talented minds.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 5, 2015 at 6:21 pm
Thanks @anamendozasantiago -- you might also be interested in lesson 6.3, which addresses the topic of selectivity in schools.
user avatar
Brandi Galasso February 7, 2015 at 8:06 pm
I definately agree.
user avatar
Caprice Young March 7, 2011 at 12:41 am
Of course parents insist that their children's schools are good-- to do otherwise would be admitting they are bad parents. However, beyond looking for attentive teachers and a clean, safe facility, most parents don't know how to assess their local schools. Websites like can help them compare academic factors and track their school's progress. California schools are required to post report cards that compare their achievement levels to others. The information is available, but you have to know where to look to be able to compare all your educational options.

In some neighborhoods, though, there aren't any good choices. In South Los Angeles, for example, a group of local parents and educators took stock of their local schools and didn't like what they saw. Fifty percent and higher dropout rates for African American students, illiteracy extending into high school, and unsafe school environments, drove them to create the Inner City Education Foundation public schools. ICEF is committed to educating all students to the highest levels, ensure that every one graduates, gets accepted to a top college and is competitive once there. With a 97 percent graduation rate, a 100 percent college going rate, with 90 percent of graduates attending four year colleges and with 90 percent still in school and on track-- ICEF parents are proud of the schools they created.

It may seem extreme to start your own public schools, but if your current choices can't get the job done, parents and educators now have the ability to take matters into their own hands. Getting educated about education as a parent or student is the best way to start holding our schools accountable for ensuring that our kids can compete successfully in the global economy.
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