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Grade inflation

From Academic Kids

In education, grade inflation occurs where a certain grade comes to represent a lower level of student performance than is indicated by the grade, in situations where student performance is determined by some fixed, non-grade form of assessment.

Contents

Does it occur?

Claims of grade inflation have a long history. In 1894, a Harvard University report concluded "Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily...insincere students gain passable grades by sham work" ("Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard"). The issue has steadily reappeared since.

Note that the meaning of any particular letter grade is entirely subjective and highly dependent on historical context. Indeed, Alfie Kohn notes "Decades of research have found that there is often wide variation in the grade assigned to a single piece of work submitted at two different times--even to the same instructor." As such, it would be at least somewhat misleading to say that grade inflation reflects teachers' misunderstanding of or disregard for the "true meanings" of each letter grade, since no objective way of determining a grade's "true meaning" exists (or could).

It is widely claimed that more good grades are being given out, at least in the United States. But even these moderate claims are difficult to substantiate, often based on the self-reporting of a self-selected segment of the population. Some more thorough investigations have shown the opposite Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed official transcripts and found "grades actually declined slightly in the last two decades." [1] (http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/nytimes/115860887.html?did=115860887&FMT=ABS)

But even where grades are increasing, the work they are given for must be compared against a grade-independent standard. Such comparisons are hard to come by; national decreases in average SAT are uninformative since more students now take the SAT than before. Most institutional averages (e.g. the average SAT scores of Harvard entrants over time) show an increase, a likely cause of increased grades.

Is it a problem?

But even if grades are going up against the standard, this is only meaningful to the extent that grades and the standard are. If one does not believe the SAT reliably measures educational talent, then the fact that grade inflation has occurred with respect to it is of no consequence. (For example, if, as a number of studies have shown, the SAT primarily measures the environment a child grew up in, then one might not be too concerned that less privileged children are doing better than before.)

Similarly, if one believes the purpose of a school is to gain a better oneself and gain an understanding of the subjects, then they might not care too much if people are getting better grades than before. Indeed, it could be a positive development since it might lessen the effects some argue that grades have. (See, e.g. Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn.)

Furthermore, those who use grades in determining life-outcomes for a student must act as if grade inflation had not occurred, taking the grades at their old, pre-inflated values. (Otherwise they could simply adjust and grade inflation would not be a serious issue.) This could happen either due to neglect, or due to constraints of the grading system itself. For example, if the grading system stipulates an absolute maximum grade, then the problem of picking out the "cream of the crop", discussed below, naturally comes into play.

Several reasons have been provided for being concerned about grade inflation, including:

  • Grade inflation may indicate a decline in academic standards.
    • However, studies have only shown that stringent grading is effective at boosting short-term retention; the long-term effects have found to be negligible. (Except for minority students, where studies have found the long-term effects are negative.)
  • Grade inflation makes it more difficult to identify the truly exceptional students, as more students come to get the highest possible grade. This is a problem to the extent that it's important to pick out the "cream of the crop".
    • However, others argue it is not a school's job to sort students and furthermore, to the degree sorting has harmful effects, this is a benefit.
  • Grade inflation is not uniform between schools or between departments. Both Stanford University and Harvard University, for example, are notorious for the way their grade inflation is more extreme than their peers'. To see how things play out between departments, consider Harvard. Although its grades have been inflating overall, its science and mathematics departments have largely been able to resist grade inflation. If someone evaluates a Harvard math or science student in light of the overall grade inflation at Harvard, this may place the student at an unfair disadvantage.
    • However, this problem is somewhat intrinsic to the subjective notion of grades. How is one supposed to determine the English equivalent of an A's worth of work in Physics? The claim that inflation is driving grades out of alignment assumes that there was ever a point when grades were in alignment.


What causes it?

An often-cited cause for this is pressure upon the teacher: Educators are pressured by parents, students, and schools to give higher grades. This is especially true since, if other schools are inflating grades, any school that takes a "hold out" stance will place its students at a disadvantage.

Many schools exhibit increases in grades that may not be related to a decrease in academic standards. Alternative theories regarding the increase in student grades over the years:

  • More schools offer pass/fail options. As well, a large number of schools offer late-drop, which has rendered the "F" practically extinct.
  • Students are more focused upon career-preparation today, which means they are more likely to take classes which match their talents, and will be more-focused students.

Possible Solutions

Ranked Grading provides a constant distribution of marks over a given range, since a student is only evaluated next to their peers. However, since each student is not marked on individual merit, those receiving migh marks in a poorly performing class may well be less qualified than those receiving poor marks in a highly achieving class, and thus poorly reflects on the student's outcomes.


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