Grade inflation is what happens when grades go up but the academic achievement they represent does not, at least not at the same pace. As with monetary inflation, the associated problems include the decreasing value and credibility of the currency, which, in the case of grades, counts for not just family pride and kudos, but also future educational and employment opportunities. Unlike monetary inflation, however, which is publicly monitored and controlled, grade inflation constitutes a hoax on the public, which continues to think that C represents a middling or average grade and that an A or, even more strongly, a 4.0 grade point average is exceptional.
Lately, most of the attention given to this phenomenon has been at the college level. Princeton University drew extensive media coverage in 2004 when it established a quota on the number of A’s given out at the undergraduate level. It was an effort to reduce their proportion in the total number of grades from almost 50 percent to a cap of 35 percent. Earlier, Dartmouth University had begun to include the class average for a course along with a student’s grade, to put the mark in context. The developments were further illustration of the upward trajectory uncovered in Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, statistics professor Valen E. Johnson’s 2003 book examining grading changes at Duke University over time. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences concluded in 2002 that the national evidence was undeniable and called for change. Grade inflation’s “self-sustaining character,” it said, eventually erases “meaningful distinctions.”
But the cumulative evidence suggests that grade inflation is just as pronounced at the high school level—and corrective efforts to combat it even more negligible. 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.
Rather than doing something to correct the problem, high schools in both the public and private sectors have developed cover-up strategies to game the system.
In late February of this year, the Education Department issued the latest “nation’s report card” on 12th grade reading and math, which showed that the average GPA of high school graduates had increased even further, to 2.98 in 2005, which approximates a letter grade of B. Given the wider spread on the downside and the weight of an occasional F or D, this means that in all likelihood more than half the grades were B’s or A’s. The upward patterns were parallel, from the highest- to the lowest-graded core subject (which were, in order, social studies, English, science, and math). At the same time, however, these students’ average reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had decreased by a statistically significant extent since 1992: The proportion of high school seniors performing at or above the proficient level on the NAEP reading test dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent. Although changes in the NAEP math test precluded such longitudinal comparisons, only 23 percent of the high school seniors performed at or above the proficient level.
Yet, rather than doing something to correct the problem, high schools in both the public and private sectors have developed cover-up strategies to game the system. These artifices include dropping class rank, quietly changing to a 5- or 6-point scale, and purportedly retaining a 4-point scale but providing for weighted grades, so that the top students have GPAs that well exceed 4.0. To illustrate, a friend of mine recently asked me to “put in a good word” to the admissions office of the university where I teach about his granddaughter, who was applying there. When I asked the girl for some information about her academic profile, she told me that she had a 3.89 average. Only after a conversation that escalated into a probing cross-examination did I find out that this grade point average was on a 6-point scale, and that her school did not use class rank.
Moreover, high school teachers and administrators, mimicking their higher education counterparts, have concocted various rationales to deflect attention away from the trend. The defenses include the need for student self-esteem; the competition for college; state policies for financial aid based on GPA, such as Georgia’s HOPE Scholarships; and the denigration of competitive grades altogether. High schools in California have been experimenting with deleting D’s, since this grade, like the penny, has arguably become valueless. Others have experimented with mastery learning while retaining the normative grades of A through F, rather than switching to a pass-fail or “mastery-nonmastery” scale. Euphemisms abound, such as the category “basic” for those who do not obtain the minimum passing level on NAEP and its No Child Left Behind law equivalents in each state.
If high schools seek to drop grades or substitute another approach to measuring learning, fine. Just let them be clear and open about it, so that the public is not duped.
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.
Perhaps inadvertently, then, the federal the No Child Left Behind law aids and abets the diluting, deceptive effect of grade inflation. While insisting on objective tests of achievement, Congress has joined the deceit by using normative language for a standards-based approach: As in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, no child is left behind and, thus, all the children are “above average.”
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. The long-standing and unmitigated pattern of grade inflation is a major contributor to the latest call for high school reform. Now the time has come for school boards, administrators, and teachers to make a coordinated, concerted, and courageous effort—something akin to an Alan Greenspan approach—to reverse this devaluing trend.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Grade Inflation High Schools’ Skeleton in the Closet