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Grade Inflation: A ‘Fact of Life’ and Hard to Change

April 10, 2007 3 min read
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To the Editor:

No question about it: Perry A. Zirkel is right (“Grade Inflation: High Schools’ Skeleton in The Closet,” Commentary, March 28, 2007). Grade inflation is a fact of life in competitive high schools. Half my students are in my Advanced Placement classes, and even with the bump they get in grade point average for AP, they are disappointed with anything less than A’s. Without sounding like an apologist for the system, let me explain why change is darn near impossible from the ground (teacher) up.

In my parochial school, at least, we receive student evaluations and, like it or not, the grades students get in our courses influence what they say. Those evaluations are a significant factor in contract-renewal decisions.

Apart from self-interest, though, it’s very hard to take a grade position against the inflationary tide. Is a tough teacher being fair to students who are competing in a largely inflated pool?

Professor Zirkel’s proposed solution is also problematic. Unless we are willing to institute some kind of nationalized grading scale, schools that grade easier benefit their students in the college-admissions process. Unfortunately, it is the classic game-theory prisoner’s dilemma. The best solution would be for all to cooperate in reducing grade inflation, but the highest payout goes to the schools refusing to go along.

Perhaps the optimal situation would be for colleges to delay acceptance decisions until high school seniors have taken their last round of AP exams and had them graded. Certainly a hypothetical student who has a relatively low GPA but high AP scores on lots of tests is a better candidate than a higher-GPA student with lower AP scores. As it is now, a majority of most students’ AP grades are not available until after admissions decisions have been made.

Patrick Mattimore

Advanced Placement and

Introductory Psychology Teacher

Saint Ignatius College Preparatory School

San Francisco, Calif.

To the Editor:

In his Commentary, Perry A. Zirkel unmasks sleight-of-hand grade manipulations, but nowhere does he mention a policy instituted by a number of school boards along the Texas-Mexico border that requires grades of 49 and below to automatically be raised to 50 on official grade reports. In addition to all but eliminating incentives for students and teachers to work toward raising standards, this policy encourages other grading oddities that further promote complacency and undermine efforts to prepare at-risk minority students for the rigors of college.

A student who scores 77s for two grading periods, for example, and then does nothing for the third would have the zero raised to 50 because of district policy, for an average of 68 instead of 51. This student could then receive a semester grade of 70, because 68s and 69s are also strongly discouraged. Moreover, that 77 might have been awarded only because many teachers, with the administration’s knowledge, emulate district policy and change grades of from 0 to 49 on individual assignments and tests to 50. A student could score 90s on eight of 12 assignments, not turn in four (the equivalent of doing nothing for two weeks), have zeros magically transformed into 50s, and average a 77.

With such teacher-initiated grade alterations and district policies, students can and do pass classes even though they might do little or nothing for as many as 10 of 18 weeks. For Advanced Placement classes, those grades would then also be weighted.

As Mr. Zirkel mentions, teachers who don’t inflate grades can end up with higher failure rates, admonitions from administrators for more effort and hours, and pressure from parents who don’t understand why their children are suddenly failing. Such grading policies help schools meet adequate-yearly-progress targets, but a different kind of magic is needed to improve the dismal college-graduation rates for these underprepared, underserved students.

Elizabeth M. Igarza

McAllen, Texas

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Grade Inflation: A ‘Fact of Life’ and Hard to Change


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