Grade Inflation Is a Very Old Myth

Alfie Kohn - Grade InflationComplaints about grade inflation have been around for a very long time. Every so often a fresh flurry of publicity pushes the issue to the foreground again, one example being a series of articles in The Boston Globe that disclosed — in a tone normally reserved for the discovery of entrenched corruption in state government — that a lot of students at Harvard were receiving As and being graduated with honors.

The fact that people were offering the same complaints more than a century ago puts the latest bout of harrumphing in perspective, not unlike those quotations about the disgraceful values of the younger generation that turn out to be hundreds of years old. The long history of indignation also pretty well derails any attempts to place the blame for higher grades on a residue of bleeding-heart liberal professors hired in the ’60s. (Unless, of course, there was a similar countercultural phenomenon in the 1860s.)

Yet on campuses across America today, academe’s usual requirements for supporting data and reasoned analysis have been suspended for some reason where this issue is concerned. It is largely accepted on faith that grade inflation — an upward shift in students’ grade-point averages without a similar rise in achievement — exists, and that it is a bad thing. Meanwhile, the truly substantive issues surrounding grades and motivation have been obscured or ignored.

The fact is that it is hard to substantiate even the simple claim that grades have been rising. Depending on the time period we’re talking about, that claim may well be false. In their book When Hope and Fear Collide, Arthur Levine and Jeanette Cureton told us that more undergraduates in 1993 reported receiving As (and fewer reported receiving grades of C or below) compared with their counterparts in 1969 and 1976 surveys. Unfortunately, self-reports are notoriously unreliable, and the numbers become even more dubious when only a self-selected, and possibly unrepresentative, segment bothers to return the questionnaires. (One out of three failed to do so in 1993; no information is offered about the return rates in the earlier surveys.)

To get a more accurate picture of whether grades have changed over the years, one needs to look at official student transcripts. Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the US Department of Education, did just that, reviewing transcripts from more than 3,000 institutions and reporting his results in 1995. His finding: “Contrary to the widespread lamentations, grades actually declined slightly in the last two decades.” Moreover, a report released just this year by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that fully 33.5 percent of American undergraduates had a grade-point average of C or below in 1999-2000, a number that ought to quiet “all the furor over grade inflation,” according to a spokesperson for the Association of American Colleges and Universities. (A review of other research suggests a comparable lack of support for claims of grade inflation at the high-school level.)

–Alfie Kohn
The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation

4 thoughts on “Grade Inflation Is a Very Old Myth

  1. The more competition-minded student wants to know where they rank in the stack. Ideally they’d like their grades in the form of a percentile ranking, or something that maps to it in a non-black-box way, like ACT scores. If you’re going to use the first five letters of the alphabet as your range of possible grades, make each one represent a quintile. Then the median grade will be C from now until the end of time.

    • But then you’re automatically failing a certain percentage or the class and passing another. In a large class of, say, 1,000 students, you can expect the grades to meet that distribution. If, on the other hand, a teacher with 15 kids is forced to grade that way, then you’re exaggerating small differences and hiding any contribution that the teacher makes to the learning of the class as a whole.

      Some students do want to know how they stack up compared to others, but why should we encourage that? How is “I want to beat my classmates?” compatible with “I want to learn as much as possible?” Lots of research and my own anecdotal experience says the best way to master something you’ve recently learned is to teach it to others who are less confident, so I’d say we should encourage students to cooperate rather than compete.

  2. The complaints about so-called grade inflation are much more concerning than if grade inflation were actually a real phenomenon. What is scary, to me, is that The Boston Globe would report an idea based on faulty research. It doesn’t surprise me, though. So much of what is written is based on faulty research.

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