Grade Inflation

Dr. Winzer's Analysis


While some academics dismiss any problems related to grade inflation, the previous discussion indicates a more cogent and candid interpretation: that inflation is perceived as a true and endemic problem by many involved in higher education. Of course, high grades are not inherently undesirable. Most teachers implicitly and explicitly encourage students to achieve high marks and every school has many ways of honoring students. But it appears that current grading practices do not evaluate students' academic performance appropriately. It takes less work and effort to receive a high grade than it did in the past; the grades students receive are not awarded consistently in a manner commensurate with effort mediated by ability and other relevant factors; and performance has become only one measure among many. If it is a problem of puffery, with much of the current grading designed only to please and placate, then student grades are no longer the helpful measure that they once were.

The previous discussion shows also that there exist many plausible explanations for an increase in grades. The bewildering array of explanations is rendered even more confusing because there are several levels or foci for each explanation. Student evaluations of professors, for example, may be influenced by the grades instructors assign and high grades may influence tenure and promotion decisions. Implications

Traditionally, two basic purposes have accrued to the assignment of grades. The first is to inform students about their achievement both individually and in relation to their classmates. The second purpose is to inform the public, potential employees, regulatory bodies, and graduate schools of students' performance (Shoemaker and DeVos, 1999).

Today, simply graduating from university is less distinctive than in earlier decades. And, with rampant grade inflation, the informational value of a degree's grades has deteriorated and grades no longer serve as the important measure they once were for employers and others. This conclusion leads inevitably to the notion that grade inflation is not exclusive to the academy; the problems spill over to affect many areas.

In the academic domain as a whole, it is a breach of academic responsibility to acquiesce to the degradation of standards by inflating grades and pandering to demands for a weak, watered down curriculum. Colleges and universities that condone inflated grades are abrogating their responsibility to provide trustworthy information about student performance on and off campus (Wingspread Group, 1993).

Grade inflation is damaging for students. Not only is students' work today no longer being assessed appropriately but grade inflation disturbs students' own view of their competent and achievement (Cizek, 1996) by promoting a "counterfeit excellence" (Staples, 1998, p. D16). Student academic effort is devalued. Not only do students allocate effort to academic tasks in response to perceived incentives in the form of grades, which, in turn, affect future employment or further study, but rewarding students in spite of relentlessly poor performance subverts the value of achievement in favour of nonacademic factors. At the same time, grade compression tends to erase differences as the better students receive the same grades as everybody else (Hancher, 1994); all grades are at the top, making it difficult to discriminate the best from the very good, the very good from the good, and the good from the mediocre.

Inflated grades indicate watered down course content. Today's students, it is argued, are not required to master as much material as they once were. Nor is the material as challenging. Thus, even assuming students are receiving the grades they have earned - assuming they have mastered what they have been asked to master - students today are not as prepared as they were in the past (Crumbley, 1995). Too, if grades are going up, and student effort is going down, then today's students are unfairly advantaged in relation to earlier cohorts.

When abilities and talents are examined, there is a high end and a low end to the continuum. Rightly or wrongly, the higher education system is the agency for sorting and selecting. Grades sort students and assign them a particular spot on the continuum.

Who is admitted to graduate school and who is hired for a particular position in the larger economy are decisions that must be met fairly and dispassionately. Institutions have accepted the social function of certifying competence and select those to fill certain roles based on their grades. But today's grades are no longer a trustworthy cornerstone, and may not act as a meaningful guide to parents, employers, and graduate schools.

Graduate programs may accept students on the basis of tainted evidence and are then negatively affected when entering students lack the requisite knowledge and skills. Incompetents are being turned loose on the marketplace.

Response and solutions

Despite denials, evasions, and adroit rationalizations, grade inflation is a visible problem. Simply, students are receiving higher grades because instructors are assigning them. Yet the assigned grades may not accurately measure academic performance, including a student's ability to think critically, solve problems, and master content.

In general, responses to grade inflation are founded on two propositions. First, the intellectual performance of students in North American colleges and universities has shown a substantial decline over the past 20 years. Second, the standards employed in academe to evaluate intellectual performance have shown a substantial erosion over the same 20 year span. Many within and without academic areas hold that inflation must be curbed, whether through moral suasion or administrative fiat. The first step is to confront the issue, not always an easy task among faculty members. After Perry Zirkel, an education professor, attempted to correct the problem, he reported that, "Even if you try to correct this problem in a relatively innocuous, positive, way, you're met with either total apathy or downright resistance" (cited in Gose, 1997b, p. A41).

An increasingly popular response to the problems grade inflation is to modify the manner in which grades are reported on transcripts. In an attempt to help all those concerned both better assess student performance, some schools now note after a grade the number of students in the class and the median grade. Others indicate at the bottom of the transcript the number of classes in which the individual student exceeded or failed to meet the median course grade. Other schools have begun to indicate when courses have been repeated and/or require that initial grades for repeated course by factored into a student's GPA. Others look at the distribution of grades which is more important than the average grade in a course. Yet, critics note that "Educational standards cannot be instantaneously bolstered up with a mere restructuring of the final numbers any more than a decaying house can be repaired with a fresh coat of paint" (Agnew, 1995, p. 93). Such transcript manipulation does not address the central issue - it does not explain the academic standards in a particular course or an individual student's learning. Basinger (1997) points out that "inflated grades are but a symptom of an underlying problem: misguided educational standards - inappropriate content, modes of presentation and/or modes of assessment" (p. 4). Hence, the prominent response to grade inflation is a call for the reinstatement of higher academic standards. Intellectual fires can be lit by a rigorous curriculum presented by teachers who believe that their area of expertise is more important than students' subjective sense of how happy they are. The primary goal is to ensure appropriate content, mode of presentation, and grades where intellect is valued and rewards are tied to performance. Ideally, dealing with grade inflation is a faculty responsibility. Remedies must be collaborative and systematic with the standards and assumptions used by faculty in different fields clarified and discussed. Faculty must reach concensus about the meaning of the grading system in place. Hence, some suggested solutions focus on faculty's grade assignments. In this model, faculty members are held accountable for the grades they assign. To focus attention and stimulate discussion, the grade distributions of faculty members can be made public and grade distribution become an important part of faculty's annual performance review.

Administrators should be aware of a link between student accolades and the higher number of As on a grade sheet. Units that typically assign larger proportions of As and Bs, such as music and education, should demonstrate why their grade distributions are positively skewed (Kuh and Hu, 1999).

In many senses, student evaluations of teaching stand as one symbol of the erosion of faculty authority. If student evaluations are used to measure teaching effectiveness, recognizing that sometimes students produce paradoxical evaluations is important (Brodie, 1998). Careers should not be injured because a faculty member holds strict standards. Rather than use current student evaluations, an appropriate response is to evaluate professors using a well balanced combination of indicators of student satisfaction based on the effort required in the courses they take and what they learn in them (Correa, 2001).


Historically, grades have assumed a significant position in mirroring the achievement of students and thereby the effectiveness of the educational process within academic institutions. Since the late 1960s, however, rampant grade inflation has been documented at all levels of schooling and in schools across North America. While prominent at the most prestigious institutions, it also presents problems at the less elite schools, which have generally failed to resist the trend toward grade inflation.

After some reported leveling off in the 1980s, grade inflation has become again a subject of debate and controversy in the past few years, particularly when inflation is tied to student evaluations and the goal of attracting more students to certain departments. Alarm about grade inflation both spills over and finds its basis in two other related areas - today's students appear to achieve less and possess less mastery of skills than they did in the past and increasing concerns about grade inflation and student evaluations of faculty.

© Margret Winzer, 2005. This site last updated: May 3, 2005