Opinion: The Unintended Consequences of Academic Leniency

Opinion: The Unintended Consequences of Academic Leniency

by Darren Lawson

The global pandemic has forced us to rethink many aspects of our lives, including education. In an attempt to accommodate students during the challenging times of lockdowns, remote learning and great uncertainty, many countries eased graduation requirements and made tests easier or even eliminated them altogether. This academic leniency, while well-intentioned, has had some unexpected and unintended consequences.

The impact on academic performance and the widening gap

During the pandemic years, academic performance dropped significantly. This was expected due to the abrupt shift to remote learning and the myriad of challenges it presented. However, what was unexpected was the lack of a bounce-back in performance once students returned to their pre-pandemic schooling routines.

A recent study of Year 9 students in North Carolina, USA, revealed that lowering academic standards may have had a counterproductive effect. The study found that lower-performing or at-risk students’ performance rose or fell in accordance with the expectations placed on them. When faced with easier grading, these students responded by showing less effort at school and had increased absences. They achieved the same grades on a now easier scale, effectively lowering their performance to match the lowered standards.

In contrast, pre-pandemic high performers had no increase in absences and improved their marks on the easier standards. This actually widened the gap between the two groups. In other words, lowering standards had the opposite effect to the one intended. Instead of helping struggling students, it actually exacerbated the disparity between higher achieving and lower achieving students.

The Australian context and what to do about it

In Australia, the timing of NAPLAN testing was adjusted to earlier in the year so educators could use the results to better inform teaching and learning programs. Before 2023, our students typically sat NAPLAN exams in May, whereas they’re now administered in March. This means, however, that NAPLAN data from 2023 and beyond could not be directly compared to previous years. This has further complicated the analysis of the impact of academic leniency.

One response to the drop-off in student performance has been the call to drop any national testing and measuring, and also to drop academic standards. While this may seem like a solution to the problem, the North Carolina study suggests that this could potentially exacerbate the issue.


The unintended consequences of academic leniency serve as a stark reminder that well-intentioned policies can sometimes lead to unexpected outcomes. It underscores the need for careful consideration and ongoing evaluation of educational policies, especially in times of crisis. As we navigate the post-pandemic world, it is crucial that we learn from these experiences and don't forget all the prior research showing the importance of high expectations in education which actually support all students to achieve their potential.

Darren Lawson is the Principal of Australian Christian College Moreton.