Grade Inflation

In part because I am away from my kitchen for six weeks, I will be returning to one of my favorite rant subjects: education.

One of the “hot topics” in academics (particularly at the college-level) is grade inflation. Many recent articles have appeared, asking the questions “Why does this practice persist?” “How can this practice be stopped?” “Who is to blame for this practice?” More and more colleges–including Ivy-Leaguers like Princeton–are “cracking down” on grade inflation by developing rules like “only 35% of grades given to freshmen and sophomores can be A’s.” Even in the pre-college level, grade inflation has become a hot topic, with teachers in public schools being fired for changing answers on state-tests to make the students and the school look more impressive.

As I would like to become a member of academia, I do not believe I am at the stage in my career where I truly can state my opinions on this matter; however, I do believe I can outline some of the arguments for and against grade inflation. My hope is that the following encourages readers to discuss the topic, think about the topic, and form opinions about the topic.

Arguments Supporting Grade Inflation

  1. Perhaps grades aren’t really inflated that much from the start. Some subjects (such as philosophy) are graded subjectively; other subjects (like physics) are not. So perhaps the appearance of grade inflation–at least in comparing departments–comes from an innate difference in the fields and the assessments used.
  2. Even if there’s grade inflation, there are still ways to distinguish students. There are honors programs at most colleges. There are “cum”, “magna” and “summa.” There are “valedictorians” and “salutatorians.” This is no big deal.
  3. A student who consistently earns poor grades will lose confidence in their academic abilities and may give up altogether. Some level of grade inflation is needed for morale boosting–the lower-achieveing students need something to encourage them to “stay with it.”
  4. More and more companies are looking at the transcripts of applicants. If two applicants appear–one with a 3.35 GPA and the other with a 2.97 GPA, which is the company more likely to hire? Without grade inflation students will not be able successfully to manage the market upon graduation.

Arguments Against Grade Inflation:

  1. If grade inflation continues, it will be impossible to pick out the brightest and the best. And there are always brightest and best to be picked out. Maintaining the argument that there are still “valedictorians” is pointless–a valedictorian is one person in a class of hundreds or thousands. Maintaining the argument that there are “graduations with honors” is also increasingly moot;  according to recent statistics, the average college GPA has moved to 3.1 (in public schools ) and 3.3 (in private schools), as opposed to a 1950s average of 2.52 across the board. If cum laude is a 3.5 cut-off (as it is at most schools), this really isn’t saying much.
  2. While one can argue that never receiving a high mark discourages students, having perfectionists earn a less-than-perfect grade is also a psychological and emotional nightmare. If students expect to be at the top, regardless of how much work they put into the class or regardless of how much of the information they retain, when/if they finally get a grade indicating they were not “the best,” how do you think they will react?

Why Stopping Grade Inflation Will Not Be Easy:

  1. Especially for pre-college schools, grades are closely connected to money earned. The government awards public schools with “high” standardized test scores (a grade for the school as a whole, if you will) with more money. Schools that have “low” standardized test scores are denied funding. It is an inevitable consequence that while this practice continues, teachers and administrators will be more likely to (i) inflate grades and (ii) change answers on tests.
  2. Also in pre-college is the idea of the measure of the teacher. Making sure teachers are “effective” (a buzz-word in the field of education that is NEVER DEFINED, like “critical thinking”) is another hot-topic; how else to measure the effectiveness of a teacher but with the performance of her students in classes and exams?
  3. Let’s move on to college. There have been studies showing a correlation between professors who are deemed “easy” by students and professors who are “well-liked” by students. Student evaluations are documents carefully read during tenure nominations. I think you can finish this train of thought…
  4. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, colleges are run increasingly like businesses. Therefore there is a (mostly) tacit acknowledgement that–as the customer–the student (or really their parents) must be happy. If you are shelling out $14507 a year (the average cost of room and board at public in-state four year and public out-of-state four year) for your child to get an education, and then your child doesn’t receive the grades you think they should, are you going to continue paying that expensive bill? Without the meager scholarships your kids have, will they be able to pay the full amount of tuition or will they have to drop out? Hint: colleges know the answers to these questions.

Recent Articles on Grade Inflation:

  1. The Chronicle:
  2. The N.Y. Times:
  3.  CBS News:

Resources and Academic Papers: