Set the bar high!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

There’s an undeniable trend to lower the bar in education. Arguments like ‘Grades are demotivating’, ‘Participating and trying are just as important – if not more important – than performance and must be rewarded’, ‘Having specific knowledge is less important than soft skills (as we can Google most things)’, ‘Standardisation is horrible as we’re all different and want/need to learn different things’, and so forth, are abundant. They show that we’re slowly muddying the waters – throwing all kinds of things into the education mix – moving away from setting high standards for our children.

We also see, looking at the final exams (e.g., in the Netherlands) of the past period, that what children now need to know and do nowadays is sometimes only a glimmer of what used to be needed. For example, if you look at the PISA results versus final grades in education, you can see that while the final grades of students remain the same over the years, their math and language levels decrease. But this is not only the case in the Netherlands. Seth Gershenson (2020) writes in Education Next:

Grade inflation is pervasive in American high schools. Over the past 20 years, grade point averages have soared while SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen.

And this is also the case for colleges and universities as Forbes Magazine reports that a:

new National Bureau of Economic Research study (2021) showing that data suggesting there has been improved academic performance by American college students is illusionary: schools are simply lowering their standards. A primary culprit? Grade inflation.

Finally, the Irish Times reports:

Grade inflation – an improvement in examination grades over time without an accompanying improvement in learning or academic achievement – has been a worrying feature of third-level education for over 30 years. President [of Ireland]  Michael D Higgins recently described grade inflation as “an ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure to report the achievement of continually higher ‘outputs’”.

Adding insult to injury, with this decrease we also see a trend to set the to-be pursued goals at the ‘level’ of the student (differentiation) so that they experience less effort and stress. Perhaps because we’re also living in an era where we’re encouraged to pursue happiness and that we can! Imagine that our children have to work hard, struggle, or… fail (oh, the horror!).

As a teacher or instructor you can also opt to stay away from differentiation and go for a different approach. You can choose to set the bar high in terms of setting goals and in terms of assessing whether the goals you set have been achieved by your students. That is what this blog is about.

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Seth Gershenson (American University), looked at US teachers’ math (algebra) grades for 2nd and 3rd graders and their final exam scores for the period 2006 to 2016. Based on this, he compared students of teachers who set high grading standards for their students with students of teachers who set lower standards. Teachers with high grading standards gave their students lower grades than you would expect given their final exam results (strict teachers) while teachers with low standards gave their students higher grades than you would expect based on their final exam results (easy-going teachers).

Gershenson found that students with strict teachers achieved final exam scores that were significantly higher than students with easy-going teachers. Even students of teachers who were rated midway between strict and easy-going saw their students outperforming students of teachers with the lowest standards.

Specifically, he found that:

  • Students learn more from teachers with higher rating standards.
  • Students with strict teachers also performed significantly better in geometry a year later and in Algebra II two years later.
  • Students with strict teachers performed significantly better, regardless of their ethnic origin (white, black, Latino).
  • Students with strict teachers performed significantly better in all types of schools (middle schools, ordinary secondary education) and regardless of socio-economic origin (poor, rich).
  • Teachers who had attended ‘better’ universities, had a master’s degree or had more experience generally have higher standards of assessment.
  • Gender also made a difference: men held lower standards than women!

We should point out that Gershonson also made two comments about what he found, namely:

  1. Setting higher standards isn’t always easy and isn’t always accepted. Gershonson and his team interviewed various teachers[1] and they often indicated that they felt pressure from administrators, parents, or students themselves to give higher grades.
  2. It wouldn’t be fair to blame teachers for having lower standards of assessment because many of them don’t know where to set the bar in the first place. Usually, this topic isn’t addressed in either teacher training or their ongoing professional development.

Of course, this isn’t about being strict! It’s about teachers’ expectations. We know, also from research elsewhere, that these expectations make a difference! Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) were possibly the first to suggest that teacher expectations, even when based on erroneous information, can influence the academic performance of children. They found positive expectations influence performance positively and they described this phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect. In opposition, the counterpart to the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect (Babad, Inbar, & Rosenthal, 1985), where low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. Rosenthal and Babad (1985) note: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.” 

Teachers who see the potential of their students, acknowledge their potential, and also believe in it (meaning that they will also have high expectations for all their students!), increase the chance that those children do better in school and continue their studies successfully.

Last but not least, Gershenson states that setting a low bar, in the short term, makes life easier but in the long run hurts students. A low bar gives them a false sense of security and makes them perform less in the long run. A teacher’s attitude that “everyone gets a gold star” seems to do more damage than it does well. Schools, school boards, and teachers should throw that vision overboard and strive to set the bar high.


Babad, E. Y., Inbar, J., & Rosenthal, R. (1982). Pygmalion, Galatea, and the Golem: Investigations of biased and unbiased teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology. 74(4), 459–474. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.74.4.459

Gershenson, S. (2020). Great expectations: The impact of rigorous grading practices on student achievement. Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Gershenson, S. (2020). End the “Easy A” – Tougher grading standards set more students up for success. Education Next, 20(2), 18-24.

Reville, W. (2021, November 4). Grade inflation: lowering standards in higher education. Irish Times.

[1] The report doesn’t mention how many interviews were conducted. It only states that “The interviewed teachers were located in several regions of the country and included both women and men who taught English, math, and history in middle and high schools” (p17).