Grading 'Grade Inflation' From Two Perspectives

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To the Editor: I can give no more than a grade of D- to the Commentary by Gregory J. Cizek ("There's No Such Thing as Grade Inflation," April 17, 1996). The thesis of this persuasive essay, that the letter grades given in America's schools today have all but lost their meaning, is in my opinion right on target, and Mr. Cizek's seven steps for addressing "grade compression" would no doubt advance the state of performance-reporting in the profession. However, the author destroys the integrity of his thesis by using false assertions to support it. Those assertions are that (1) presently "everybody gets A's and B's" and (2) no one fails ("my own school-age children have a hard time thinking of anybody they know who has failed anything").

I am serving in my 11th year as principal of a suburban Denver high school with a student body of approximately 1,200 students. Our school, Littleton High School, is one of the better high schools in the state as judged by most traditional measures, with over 70 percent of our graduates entering postsecondary education each year, an on-time graduation rate of nearly 90 percent, and an average-daily-attendance figure of over 93 percent. It seems that the nature of our school and our community would provide us with the conditions under which one would expect most students to get only high grades if, in fact, Mr. Cizek's assertions in that regard are correct.

The data suggest otherwise. During the first semester of this school year, 289 students received 588 F's out of a population of 1,160 students. These figures, of course, would have to be added to the number of C's and D's given that semester to address Mr. Cizek's assertion that "everybody gets A's and B's."

We might also expect that all those who completed their senior year of high school would graduate if, in fact, Mr. Cizek's assertion that no one fails is correct. Once again, the data from Littleton High School suggest a contrary conclusion. In examining data from the last five years, I found that, on average, approximately 30 of the 270 seniors who are in school and complete their senior year are removed from the graduation list because they have failed one or more courses required for graduation. This is in addition to the students who drop out of school. Both informal observations and hard data obtained over the last several years tell me that Littleton High School's experiences in this regard are typical of experiences of other schools across the country.

Public commitment to education is faltering, in part, because the public has been fed misinformation. This unfortunate tendency is especially egregious when it comes from a person who is in a position of responsibility in the profession. From this standpoint Mr. Cizek's Commentary deserves an F. But I admit it; sometimes a well-deserved F becomes a D-.

Tim Westerberg
Littleton High School
Littleton, Colo.

To the Editor:

It is bad enough that too many students these days are getting A's, as Gregory J. Cizek sees it, but some commentators actually "argue that this is a good thing!" By way of illustration, he fishes out of my book Punished by Rewards the suggestion that we consider giving only two grades: A and Incomplete (which he changes for some reason to "in progress").

In context, this was one of several ideas for reducing the salience of letter grades until we have succeeded in eliminating them altogether. The point was not that more students should get A's, but that all students should be invited to engage more deeply with the learning itself. Mr. Cizek faults "the reform movement" for failing to spend enough time asking "How should grades be assigned?" In fact, far too much time is spent on this rather superficial question. What we ought to be asking is how the quality of learning is affected by making students become preoccupied with what grade they will get. The problem, in other words, isn't grade inflation or "compression"; the problem is grades.

A substantial, but little-noticed, research literature has investigated the consequences of getting students to focus on grades. The effects include (1) less creative exploration of ideas, (2) less interest in the learning itself, and (3) a preference for the easiest possible task ("Do we have to know this?"). Thus, the recommendation that instructors become stingier with good grades might play well with the macho, get-tough, no-free-lunch crowd, but it makes grades that much more salient to students, and thus exacerbates the real problem.

But what if every film were given "two thumbs up" and every blender rated a best buy? Mr. Cizek demands. And he's right: Such ratings would not be useful for their intended purpose, which is to sort movies and appliances for the convenience of people purchasing them. Whether this marketplace analogy makes sense for education is at the core of this whole discussion. If students were commodities to be rated, then one would naturally become indignant that too many were rated highly. But if the purpose of assessment is to provide information that will help students learn more skillfully and enthusiastically, and if an emphasis on sorting actually compromises an emphasis on learning, then our critique will look very different. In that case, we would not be disturbed about how many students are getting A's, but about how many students are taught that getting A's is the point of school.

Alfie Kohn
Belmont, Mass.

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