A is for Average (or even Awful)

November 29, 2016

By David Casalaspi


It’s the time of year when holiday cards start appearing in mailboxes and distant friends and relatives take the opportunity to fill us in on the exciting new details of their lives. New jobs, new cities, new houses, new partners, and of course, new children. In fact, after the requisite work-a-day updates, these letters inevitably turn into essays about how wonderful the sender’s children are. A typical letter might go something like this:

Johnny is having a fabulous senior year of high school. He is taking two AP courses this year. He was the starting tight end on the football team and came in second in the voting for Homecoming King. (The winner was a kid in a wheelchair, so it’s hard to feel bitter about Johnny’s performance in the vote). On top of all this, he is getting mostly A’s and B’s, and he made the Honor Roll for the 7th straight semester. We’re very proud of him.

But before bragging about your child’s Honor Roll and buying a celebratory bumper sticker, consider this: To qualify for Honor Roll in most school districts, a student must have at least a B average (or approximately a 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale). Yet, according to national surveys, the average high school GPA in America is 3.0, and 81% of high school students receive mostly A’s and B’s in their classes. In other words, Honor Roll now denotes average performance, and Johnny’s report card is no better than the report cards of 81% of students nationwide.

Not exactly holiday card material! But does this mean that Johnny isn’t as smart we thought? Not necessarily. What it means is, we don’t actually know how smart Johnny is.

Grade Inflation

The term “grade inflation” is adopted from economics, which defines inflation as a situation in which prices rise independently of changes in the real value of products. Grade inflation, similarly, is defined as an artificial increase in grades over time—often because class assessments are too easy or teachers are too lenient. Grade inflation essentially overstates the real learning that a student has accomplished by giving high grades for mediocre work.

How Prevalent is Grade Inflation?

Just how prevalent is grade inflation? It’s difficult to say for certain, but it appears to be a significant problem in American education. Today, studies of grade inflation are most common at the postsecondary level, where grade inflation has been an administrative concern for decades. The interest in postsecondary grade inflation research is spurred in part by the fact that college professors are evaluated by their students, so there would seem to be a natural incentive for professors to grade leniently in order to keep their students happy.

On college campuses, grade inflation appears to be rampant. One recent study found that 42% of grades assigned at four-year colleges are A’s, and 77% of grades are either A’s or B’s. According to Inside Higher Ed, this represents significant and steady growth: “At four-year schools, awarding of A’s has been going up five to six percentage points per decade and A’s are now three times more common than they were in 1960.” As a result, GPAs at four-year colleges have been rising at a rate of 0.1 points per decade and have been doing so for 40 years (another report with similar findings can be found here). There are also differences between private and public colleges, with private colleges having slightly faster rates of grade inflation than public colleges. At Yale in 2012, 62% of grades were A’s, up from only 10% in 1963. At Harvard in 2001, 91% of students graduated summa, magna, or cum laude. (Today, that number is lower, 60%, due to a cap set the following year, although the median GPA remains high at 3.67).

In the K-12 world, grade inflation appears to be a similar problem, although the issue is less studied there. The 2009 NAEP High School Transcript Study, for example, found that between 1990 and 2009, the average GPA of high school graduates rose from 2.68 to 3.00 nationwide.

All of these students have good grades. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

All of these students have good grades. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Taken at face value, this might not be a bad thing if rising GPAs merely reflect gains actual learning, but there are reasons to believe that rising GPAs do not reflect this sort of real improvement, as studies by both The College Board and ACT attest. Drawing on data collected as part of its SAT and AP exam administrations, a 2011 study by The College Board found that average GPAs increased by 0.26 points between 1996 and 2006 even though SAT performance remained unchanged. It also found only a weak correlation between the grades students received in their AP courses and the score they received on their official AP exam. A study with a similar methodology conducted by ACT found that grades were inflated by 12.5% between 1991 and 2003, although a follow-up study completed in 2013 found that grade inflation had begun to level off.

Causes of Grade Inflation

The problem of grade inflation has its roots in the Vietnam era, when college students with high grades (generally a B average) could be exempted from the draft. If a professor assigned his student a C, it meant the possibility of deployment, and very few professors wanted that hanging over their heads.

But what explains the continuation of grade inflation in the four decades since the Vietnam War ended? One theory is that students are simply working harder than ever before and the higher grades merely reflect greater effort. But as already discussed, this doesn’t appear to be the case as achievement on other tests like the SAT has stagnated. Additionally, surveys of high school students show that students are in fact spending less time on homework than in previous years. At the postsecondary level, it has even been estimated that students now spend on average less than 12 hours per week on academics outside of class—and 37% of students clock less than 5 hours per week!

Another explanation is that the organizational dynamics of schools incentivize students and teachers to engage in a “bargaining” process whereby teachers bargain away academic rigor in order to secure quiescence and good behavior on the part of the students under their charge. At the postsecondary level, researchers refer to this as an implicit “disengagement compact” between professors and students.

Effects of Grade Inflation

Grade inflation can have a myriad of effects on individual students and the educational system as a whole. Some sanguine observers celebrate grade inflation for the way it boosts self-esteem and enables more students to qualify for college. But these benefits are dubious, and there is a host of negative effects of grade inflation.

First, grade inflation makes it more difficult to identify truly exceptional students as more students get the highest possible grade. This makes it difficult for employers and admissions officers to distinguish between applicants. Is Johnny really one of the best students in his school, or is he just an average student whose transcript disguises him as an exceptional student? In this situation, employers and college admissions officers must rely heavily on imperfect corroborating evidence like SAT scores to make their decisions.

Second, because grade inflation is not uniform across schools or classrooms, students who do not get the arbitrary benefits of grade inflation are at a disadvantage. If Mr. Nails is a tougher grader than Mr. Cupcake, students in Mr. Nails’ class might get lower grades than students in Mr. Cupcake’s class even though their mastery of the material is identical or even superior to that of the other group. In this situation, shrewd students (and their parents) will try to secure enrollment in Mr. Cupcake’s class. And given high demand for Mr. Cupcake’s class, school administrators may assume that Mr. Cupcake is a superior teacher even if this isn’t the case.

Third, grade inflation can negatively affect student motivation. As students become confident (or even overconfident) in their abilities to get a good grade, they are incentivized to study less. A study by Philip Babcock reports just this. Average study time was 50% lower in classes where the average expected grade was an A than in classes where the average expected grade was a C, all else being held constant. Thus, higher expected grades seemed to incentivize less effort while lower expected grades seemed to incentivize more effort. Additionally, this relationship seemed to be driven not by the grade a student expected for himself, but by the expected grades of others. In other words, Johnny may realize that his peers are going to get the same A that he is going to get, so why bother trying to stand out?

Possible Solutions

The problem of galloping grade inflation does not have an easy solution. One way to address the situation is to grade students on a normal bell curve, thus guaranteeing that some students receive A’s, some receive F’s, and most students fall somewhere in the middle. But this too can lead to problems of fairness. What if a large portion of the class masters the material? Do some of these students really deserve C’s? Another solution might come from outside the educational system if employers and college admissions officers begin insisting on samples of student work to verify their transcripts. This, however, would be a time-consuming and costly process.

Tackling grade inflation is challenging because it represents a collective action problem. One tough teacher acting alone cannot solve the problem of grade inflation, and if such a teacher were to try, it would inherently harm some of her students. If Mrs. Heartless tries to buck the grade inflation trend, giving out C’s and D’s, she risks harming the future prospects of those students who might have gotten an A if they had taken the course with a different teacher down the hall. When bad grades are rare, a single bad grade on a report card can stick out and be the difference in a college admissions decision.

Thus, to corral grade inflation would require a coordinated effort among all educators in a school or, preferably, a district. They would have to agree upon uniform grading procedures and expectations for student work in each discipline, and there would have to be incentives and sanctions in place to force everyone to stick to the agreement. It would also require a much more challenging recalibration of cultural expectations among students and parents who have internalized 50 years of grade inflation and are naturally anxious about college and career prospects. Any grade deflation effort therefore would also have to include assurances from employers and college admissions officers that students working under the new policy of grade deflation would be held unharmed.

Such an undertaking would be monumental, of course, and it seems doubtful that we will ever get this situation under control. But perhaps the first step we can take is to begin talking openly and earnestly about the subject in the hope of one day creating a more transparent system of grading that identifies exceptional performance without stigmatizing bad performance.


Contact David: dwc@msu.edu