You Kid Are An A+…Or Are You?

Grading has been something that I’ve wrestled with as a teacher for the better part of my fourteen-year career.  Teaching Language Arts–a subject that is highly subjective in nature–has made it difficult to feel as if I’m accurately assessing the true abilities of my students.  Determining the finer shades between "A" work and "B" work has been a constant battle. 

What has made my work exponentially more difficult is a tendency on the part of many teachers to inflate grades.  As a somewhat "old-school" teacher, I’ve tried to adhere to the "Cs represent average work" mantra for a long while now.  What I’m finding, however, is that Bs have become "the new average" and that As–once reserved for truly superior work–are given to any student that rates as "above average."  That leads to tears in my classroom when students who have never made a B–let alone a C–rolls home with their first quarter report cards!

It also leads to long conversations with parents concerned because their child "has never struggled in school before."  Convincing moms and dads used to having "A/B Honor Roll kids" that Cs represent average–not struggling–students is nearly impossible.  I’m tempted every time that grades are due to bump kids up from Cs to Bs to avoid working through still more difficult conversations.   

This tendency towards grade inflation has very real consequences.  Most importantly, it prevents parents and students from having a clear picture of individual strengths and weaknesses.  Students who "never make Bs or Cs" believe that there is little that they can do to improve academically and parents are prevented from providing additional support to polish their child’s developing abilities.  This lack of transparency (read: honesty) in student assessment is one of the greatest failures of the teaching profession.

In his recent Education Week article titled "Grade Inflation:  High School’s Skeleton in the Closet," Perry Zirkel–education professor at Lehigh University–argues that grade inflation is pervasive at the high school level, evidenced by rising GPAs and falling scores on standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT:

In the 1990s, ACT researchers Robert Ziomek and Joseph Svec found that high school students’ GPAs were notably outpacing their ACT assessment scores. A 2002 study of Arkansas students by Sean W. Mulvenon and Antoinette R. Thorn found strong evidence of grade inflation in that state, based on standardized-achievement-test scores and grades. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education, correcting its previous study of transcripts concluding that “significant” grade inflation was “not as pervasive … as assumed,” found that the average GPA of high school graduates had increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000. Later in 2004, the College Board, echoing its studies for earlier periods, reported that the proportion of SAT test-takers who claimed a high school grade average of A had risen from 13 percent to 18 percent over the past 10 years, while the SAT scores of those students had dropped by 5 points in verbal and 1 point in math.

He also argues that an increased reliance on standardized tests as a measure of student achievement is a direct result of this tendency to over inflate grades:

If high schools seek to drop grades or substitute another approach to measuring learning, such as narratives, portfolios, criterion-based mastery, or a new series of numbering or letters, fine. Just let them be clear and open about it, so that the public is not duped with the false expectations that arise from the traditional, normative A-F or 0-4 grading system. The problem is that high schools want to eat their cake and have it too, which causes the public to eventually become fed up. Whether it’s the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Pulitzer Prize, or a 4.0 GPA, the distinction is only meaningful for the exceptional ones at the very top. If a majority of the students in a high school are in the honor society, it is no longer an honor.

Unless and until high schools, along with the levels of schooling above and below them, are willing to provide a more honest and publicly understandable system of grading, we will continue to pay the price in terms of national and state insistence on standardized high-stakes tests to measure students and schools.

Keller’s point is a good one.  Whenever classroom designed and delivered assessments cannot approximate performance on standardized tests such as the SAT, the public will lose confidence in our abilities to evaluate our students.  By avoiding the reality that not all of our students are "above average," we are cheapening our credibility as a profession.


  1. Nancy Flanagan

    The charge of “grade inflation” presumes that the correct way to evaluate students’ work is comparatively, based on the concept of normal distribution of skill or knowledge–the bell curve. Grade inflation is only “pernicious” when one use of grades–sorting and selecting kids for various academic awards,perks and opportunities–is threatened by an inability to choose the “right” people for benefits.
    Grades are and always have been subjective, no matter what your math teacher says. A teacher can set up a grading system to reward persistence or punish students who know the content but refuse to jump through hoops. Many teachers also understand that giving a student a poor grade is almost never a motivator, especially for someone genuinely struggling with content(which may be part of the reason for grade inflation).
    I am always amused when I read hand-wringing over grade inflation at the nation’s top universities. Should we surprised to learn that the mean GPA of Harvard students is an A-? In a school with extremely competitive admissions, do we think that the right thing to do is spread our top achievers over another curve? In high achieving suburban schools where 95% of the kids are headed for good colleges, should we be surprised that there are 8 valedictorians with perfect 4.3 GPAs? What purpose does it serve to rank order high-achieving kids?
    Is this all about “judging students in relation to their peers”?

  2. Jake Savage

    Great post. Grade inflation is a pernicious and difficult problem, particularly because all of the incentives are aligned for it to continue and even worsen. The end result is, as you suggest, for the grades to become meaningless to anyone outside the school itself. In the meantime, teachers who grade according to the previously understood standard of the C average are harming their students’ future chances, since society will judge those students in relation to their grade-inflated peers.