Solving the Education-Destroying Deception of Grade Inflation

Grade inflation has turned transcripts into Monopoly money.

                                                                                    --Tom Lindsay, Forbes, Mar. 30, 2019

“Grade inflation” (grading leniency) is the increase of higher grades given to students without corresponding improvement in student achievement, e.g., a student in 2023 might receive an “A” for work that would have entitled them to a “C” in 1983. 

Jonathan Turley reports that 79% of the grades awarded at Harvard in 2020-21 were in the “A’s” range. The rate at Yale is almost identical with 78.9% in the “A’s” range.  

The rates are higher in certain departments. Some 82.1% of the students in African-American Studies at Yale received an “A” grade and 92.6% of the students in Gender Studies at Yale received an “A” grade, meaning that only 7% of the Yale students in Gender Studies did not receive an A!   The problem is not confined to “elite” schools but is a serious problem throughout U.S. universities and high schools.  Further, “The problem is not confined to U.S. institutions but has gone global, from “Ireland to India.” 

More important, grade inflation is not, so to speak, a victimless crime.  The increases in grade inflation parallels the decreases in student performance in reading, writing and math. 

The value of the grading system itself is undermined. Both teachers and students become less motivated to achieve success. Grade inflation makes it harder for teachers and administrators to know the actual state of educational performance, making improvement difficult or impossible.  Employers can no longer distinguish between those who are best qualified to perform a certain job, resulting in unqualified or less qualified people being hired over more qualified people.  No one wants the less qualified pilot flying the plane on one’s flight, the less qualified surgeon performing one’s heart operation but that is precisely what grade inflation guarantees.  As a result, systemic grade inflation is likely to do serious damage to a country’s international competitiveness and the economy as a whole.  Grade inflation will eventually hurt everybody and the entire nation.

Although the ever-increasing number of students who get an “A” for work that would have earned them a “C” several decades ago will resist the return to grading integrity, even they will eventually be injured by unchecked grade inflation.  If virtually everybody now gets an “A,” then grad schools and employers will find it increasingly difficult to separate the class genius from the average uninspired student. 

But that means they will find it increasingly difficult to separate the person who will eventually discover a cure for cancer or a practical way to slow global warming or create an entirely new form of art and so on from the average student who is incapable of doing such things. 

To illustrate, the average student who is thrilled that s/he got an “A” for mediocre work might eventually die of a cancer that the unrecognized genius sitting beside him/her might have discovered how to cure if s/he (the true genius) had not been lost in the throng of mediocre grade-inflated “A’s.”  Grade inflation, in keeping with the anti-equality “equity” movement, is unjust to the most gifted and industrious students.

Few can deny that grade inflation is a serious problem.  An article in the Harvard Crimson argues that the grades that have inappropriately gone up over the decades “must come down.”  However, despite the fact that almost everybody agrees that a return to grading integrity would be desirable, it turns out to be very difficult to get this done.  Grade inflation has only gotten worse since a 2016 National Association of Scholars article suggested that the era of grade inflation might be “in sight.”

First, the ever-increasing number of students who get an “A” for work that would have earned them a “C” several decades ago will resist the return to grading integrity.  In addition, college administrators and professors will find it easier to keep students and parents happy by continuing to hand out “A’s” like pacifying lollipops.  Should some brave university institute a mandatory limit on the number of higher grades awarded in any class, e.g., no more than 15% “A’s,” 25% B’s, and so on, students will simply start going to elsewhere where they can continue to get “A’s” for lesser quality work.  It is very difficult to be the first professor or institution to institute a rigorous grade scale that rewards excellence.

If this problem is to be solved, therefore, a way must be found to take the pressure off professors and administrators nationwide in order to de-incentivize the natural parent and student demand for inflated grades. 

And, in fact, a there is a simple modification to the way grades are reported that would do precisely that.   

Whereas it is now common to give a student an “A”, “B” or “C” and so on, grades    should henceforth be stated as a fraction where the numerator represents the student's grade in the course and the denominator represents the average grade in that class.  That is, the reason little Johnny wants to receive an “A” in his math course is that this distinguishes him from the other students in the course.  If, however, he does receive an “A”, but the class average is “A,” then little Johnny’s grade will be recorded as “A/A”, thereby making clear that little Johnny’s performance is undistinguished.  If this system were adopted the entire psychology would be changed because there would no longer be an incentive for parents and students to support grade inflation.  Quite the contrary, if little Johnny and his parents really want him to distinguish himself, it would now become in their interest to support grading integrity. 

One might apply a similar system to the way students' Quality Point Average (QPA) is reported.  Let us assume a 4 point scale where an “A” is worth 4 points, an “A-” 3.7 points, a B+, 3.3 points, a B, 3 points, a B-, 2.7 points, a C+, 2.3 points and so on.   Naturally, in order to advance their career to a higher level a student wants their QPA to fall somewhere near the top of the scale.  For example, little Johnny might want his QPA to finish at 3.5 or above.  Suppose, in fact, he succeeds and his final undergraduate QPA is 3.5.  However, if the class average at his institution is 3.8, then his QPA will be reported as 3.5/3.8, displaying the fact that little Johnny is below average in his class.

There can be no rational objection to this new fraction-system for reporting grades because it merely involves giving the prospective grad school admissions officer or possible employer more information about how students actually stack up against their peers.

That does not mean that some people will not oppose it.  It means that those who oppose it will do so on irrational grounds, i.e., because they do not want prospective admissions officers or possible employers to have more accurate information on which to base their decisions (most likely for political motivations, e.g., to create fake “experts” for future political campaigns). 

But the whole point of a grading system is to give admissions officers or possible employers the most accurate possible information about the student’s performance, isn’t it?

Image: Sage Ross, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

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