The term grade inflation refers to an increase in grade point averages over time without a corresponding rise in achievement. Grade inflation illustrates a concern about declining academic standards in high schools, colleges, and universities over the past 15 years, particularly at elite institutions. For example, fewer than 10 percent of all grades given at Stanford University since 1992 have been below B; similarly, 91 percent of the grades earned at Harvard University are B- or above, and over 90 percent of Harvard graduates received honors in 2001. Applying the term grade inflation to these trends suggests that the grades are artificially high with a consequential decrease in the relative value of high grades.
Some researchers identify the source of this grade inflation within the dynamics of student-teacher relationships. For example, most U.S. universities use student evaluations of teacher performance in their tenure considerations; thus, teachers are reluctant to give poor grades for fear of negative feedback. Additionally, some professors fear that giving low grades puts students at a disadvantage when applying for jobs or graduate school. Finally, researchers note that many professors dislike facing students who are upset with their low grades and will grade higher simply to avoid these confrontations. These practices are problematic because artificially high grades can mask a student’s true ability. Students may have trouble handling an upper-level course if graded leniently in the lower-level prerequisite. More broadly, students may appear on paper as better educated or better qualified for a job than they actually are, which can cause problems when they are confronted with a task they may be unable to perform.
As with many social problems, however, conflicting evidence abounds. Some researchers assert that the grade inflation problem is not clear-cut, as the development of certain university programs may be causing grades to rise legitimately. For example, the expansion of financial aid programs may motivate students to achieve in order to maintain their aid packages. Faculty development programs that help professors to plan effective syllabi, state explicit expectations, and foster student learning may also contribute to rising grades. Further, a rise in the median age of the U.S. college student may indicate that today’s students are more mature and better able to handle college material. Finally, studies of inflation at elite colleges may overestimate the extent to which inflation occurs at a national level. Studies that include community colleges paint a different picture of inflation. For example, during the 1999-2000 school year, only about 14.5 percent of students across all types of colleges received mostly A’s, while more than one third received C- or below. Though grades may be on the rise, it is not clear whether this is due to artificial inflation, lack of reliable research, or simply greater teaching and learning over the period in question.
- Boretz, E. 2004. “Grade Inflation and the Myth of Student Consumerism.” College Teaching 52:42-46.
- Horn, Laura, Katharin Peter, and Kathryn Rooney. 2003. “Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1999-2000.” Education Statistics Quarterly 4(3).
- Marsh, Herbert W. and Lawrence A. Roche. 2000. “Effects of Grading Leniency and Low Workload on Students’ Evaluations of Teaching: Popular Myth, Bias, Validity, or Innocent Bystanders?” Journal of Educational Psychology 92:202-27.
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