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High School Grade Inflation


Grade inflation not only makes it difficult to create meaningful distinction between students, but it also undermines the value and credibility of grades themselves, writes Perry A. Zirkel in this Education Week Commentary.

Despite these negative consequences, many teachers and administrators continue to inflate grades. They cite the need for improved self-esteem, financial aid policies based on GPA, and competitive college admissions as compelling reasons to change their grading style. But if schools want to change the way they grade without creating false expectations, writes Zirkel, they must be clear and open about it.

What do you think? Is grade inflation a problem? If so, what can be done about it?


There's another negative to grade inflation that most educators don't consider - and that is the expectation that you're setting for the kids' parents.

Many kids transfer from public schools to our private school, and in doing so, they are required to take a placement test. When they score low on the placement test, the parents get angry at our school, citing their child's transcripts: "She get's B's and C's at XYZ School, there's no way she's in the 1st percentile!" Try to explain to a parent that their child's teacher has actually been grading based on the goodness of their heart rather than representing an accurate assessment of their academic growth.

What can teachers do when social promotion continue to be the problem due to lack of space? What can teachers do when their colleagues are inflating grades and they are not? How would the teachers Not be "punish" when he/she is evaluated by administrators?

I am not sure how we can speak of grade inflation when it is such an individual teachers evaluation. The idea of grades as a assessment tool has long gone out the window and is now a pre-cursor to so many sidebar activities.
If we would assess on a more frequent basis and improve our method of instruction to aid in the learning process I don't believe we would be having this conversation at all. All of the aforementioned points are valid but should not be the end result in what we look for in our instruction.
The question to ask are our students ready to compete in a global market both on a social level and a academic one?

I am not sure how we can speak of grade inflation when it is such an individual teachers evaluation. The idea of grades as a assessment tool has long gone out the window and is now a pre-cursor to so many sidebar activities.
If we would assess on a more frequent basis and improve our method of instruction to aid in the learning process I don't believe we would be having this conversation at all. All of the aforementioned points are valid but should not be the end result in what we look for in our instruction.
The question to ask are our students ready to compete in a global market both on a social level and a academic one?

Of all the things which a teacher must do, the most arrogant is the writing of letter or number grade. Do we really think that student grades will predict their levels of future success?
Yes... we do. And yet, we know from the stories of students who come back to visit us that their grades are not what they talk about. They tell us how they enjoyed learning about a particular event, or working on a favorite story, or the day that Algebra suddenly made sense.
Last month, as they passed a resolution recognizing the teachers in the gallery, I listened to the Senators in the Washington State Legislature remembering out loud teachers who had inspired them to take their ideals into politics. It was real goosebumpy stuff... as watche it became a spontaneous series of speeches... and especially when four of the Senators discovered that they had been in the same teacher's class... and that he had been the inspiration for their efforts in politics.
No one said anything about grades.
I watch little children playing... and learning at the astonishing rate of pre-schoolers. I watch one who suddenly finds that she can walk up the stairs and down again. And I watch as she repeats the activity dozens of times... each time with a bright grin... looking around to see that we had seen her do it.
She isn't asking for a grade... she is asking others to celebrate with her the marvelous accomplishment.
Clearly we must assess our students and clearly we must report our observations... but mostly I think that is for those who only know the score and neither play the game nor watch it. I wish that I had the time and the energy to do for every student what I have from time to time done... write a long series of paragraphs telling them and any who read the words... what I think of their efforts... of their bursts of understanding... of their memory of historical events... of their delight when they are suddenly reading Latin and not translating it... of the day when they can prove that they can resolve the equations which will bring a Space Shuttle back from its mission to the Space Station.
I would like the time to track them down when they are 30 and 40 years old... and write about what they are doing.
One of my most treasured moments came when a young woman who had struggled all through school... probably receiving a few kindness grades... who phoned to tell me that her little girl, who had been at a day care in our school, was in the 3rd grade and was reading and writing and enjoying everything about school. And she wanted me to know that she had just purchased her own home... and had a new car... and that she was working for a bank.
She had never given any indication of being a student with high grades, but she had turned out okay... and she wanted me to know.
We all have had those sorts of contacts. And I think that they tell us more about the success of our schools than the cumulative grade point averages.
It is also a better indication of our competitiveness in a global or a local economy. And it is a better indication that when the future came, this young woman had learned what she needed to meet its challenges. And she knew why she was ready... that once upon a time she had trusted me and other teachers... and that we had somehow... made her aware of the skills and understandings which were already there within her. And then she began to teach... and to grade herself.
Wahoo! Of all the things that people do... for us, it's not the grading... it's the question: "What can surpass the joys of working day by day with students?"

As a university professor I can tell you that there are many, many students who are deficient in basic reading and writing skills coming to me saying that they got A's all through high school and that I must be wrong in my assessment of them.
Colleagues in other disciplines have the same experience. And the kids are telling the truth!

Grades may not be everything, but they give a rough indication at least of what the rest of the academic world thinks of their performance. Giving an A to someone with important deficiencies is not in the long run doing the student a favor.

Sure grade inflation and it's cousin, the "self esteem" movenment, are problems that delude parents and cheat students who would be much better off from building their esteem on the fruits of increase in competent performance. We must "fight" against the hollow "I'm soooo good self esteem(based on NOTHING more than saying so) movement that insecure "leaders" in education still foist on parents and students. Here is how I tried to participate in the "fight". My student teachers and I tried to make early estimates of student progress so as to be able to help them set goals, at first, just a bit higher than current performance. At reaching a small improvement goal, the praise(Skinner? Sure, but, MAN, it works!)came forth. We tried, never, to join in the YOU're soooo good movement, but always tried to tie recognition to some demonstration or inovation or improvement in performance, even if ever-so-small. As time and familiarity with the students' pace built up, we could hold the "carrot" a bit farther away and increase the challenge and NEVER forget the recognition/positive reinforcement. New/student teachers, sometimes, are overwhelmed by the detail that such a "behaviorist" approach would seem to require, but, with mentoring and a determination to become more thorough we get better at it. The politive feedback from the learners reinforces US! The whole point is to give the students the ability to set challenging, albeit attainable goals that, when reached, will prove an increment in performance. Rather than dote on "I'm gooood, just because", the emphasis goes over to the quality of performance. We tried to replace the hollow "Im gooood" with "Hey, I CAN do it a bit better each time!" Society rewards competent performance even after your parents are no longer at your side to tell you how sweet you are. Learning HOW to learn in a variety of contexts leads to many opportunities to give the learners reinforcement and, eventually leads them to find their own reinforcement.

The main reason for grade inflation is that administrators are under pressure to improve their passing statistics. They in turn pressure teachers and professors to pass as many students as possible. If passing percentages or overall grades are low,it is seen as a reflection on the teacher's performance rather than the student.In order to survive under this system, standards are lowered and grades are inflated.Thankfully, there are standardized exams such as NYS Regents which highlight the poor performance of many students in contrast to their classroom grades.The only way to correct this is for unity in recognizing that students must be held accountable for their performance to a standard based curriculum.

"Mastery learning" (the education fad that followed Madeline Hunterism and preceded cooperative learning) was spread throughout my state by teams from the State Department of Education. A secondary teacher called me to ask: "Don't you use GPAs anymore?" I asked her why the question? She replied that as mastery learning was being promoted, all students were to achieve an A or B or take it over again until they got to that level. Admittedly that is not completely what mastery learning is about, but that is how it translated. What she related was that not all students can do that level of work, and she was coerced into either inflating their grade or keeping them back forever...which wasn't going to happen. The terrible irony of this situation is that the resultant grade inflation became a major reason for moving to outcomes based education: grades didn't mean anything anymore. Thus, one bad reform drove a subsequent bad reform.

The most recent driver of inflation is the reduction of content taught to the skeletal "standards" taught under NCLB. This has led in science to memorization and the only student questions being "what is the right answer for the all important test?" The percent of high school graduates who are entering college has grown to over 60% in many states, but the numbers actually able to do college coursework without remediation indicates that more are not college material.

The extent of inflation appears higher in both K-12 and university levels, in the humanities where a new teacher must make a judgement call on the quality of work. Grade inflation appears less in the math and sciences where lab results and correct math answers leave little room for subjective teacher judgements. Grade inflation (higher grade for same work) appears coupled with content deflation (less work) as the amount of book required in literature classes etc. decreases. This becomes evident at all levels when international student exchanges show foreign students to be way ahead of U.S. students.

On day one of school every student has an A, what parents need to learn and be told is how his or her child child lost that A. We should not have to explain how the child earned a C and get totally blasted by the parents. This grade inflation is a serious issue in every private, parochial and public school in the country. If you out there think it is not a problem, you need a serious reality check. Do I give the student a D or F, If I give them a F I may have him or her again next year, I don't want to have to deal with those parents again. So we give a D and move the problem on to the next teacher. Multiply that by the thousands and you have a serious problem. Do I give a student a B or A knowing that the parents are going to jump into your face by giving him or her a B. So we give them an A. Problem solved. We have school administrators looking at the grade distribution by teachers, if too many fail for not doing their work they get hammered on their evaluation. We have school administrators looking at the demographic grade distribution and if too many whites pass versus african americans or mexicans they get hammered. Those of you in the trenches know that we are giving away the store in order to make the system happy. Forget the cheating aspects of grade inflation. We see it and fail to deal it with because of having to deal with the parents and their lawyers. This is a serious very serious issue that I am glad someone is least bringing it to the forefront in discussing the issue.


Grade inflation is a natural phenomenon. Over the course of a school year it's not unusual for a teacher to get close to the students in their class, often to the point where they're (sub)consciously rooting for their kids to do well. Teachers need not be taken to the woodshed for their empathy.

Students often get the benefit of the doubt with a grade if they demonstrate a "good" effort. Ancillary factors such as class participation, attendance, extra credit projects, good behavior, homework regularity, etc., are not accurate indicators of subject matter mastery and can often be misleading grade inflators.

These grade inflators validate the need for impartially prepared and graded exams such as the SAT's and state operated NCLB exams. At the end of the day these tests prove to be much more reliable indicators of mastery of subject matter than teacher grades.

In the article, Mr. Zirkel does unmask slight-of-hand grade manipulations but nowhere does he mention another policy instituted by a number of school boards along the Texas-Mexico border (and I must suspect elsewhere) that requires grades of 49 and below to automatically be raised to 50s on official grade reports. In addition to all but eliminating incentives for students and teachers to work toward raising standards, these policies encourage other grading oddities that further promote student and teacher complacency and that undermine efforts to prepare these at-risk, minority students for the rigors of college.

Take for example, a student who scores 77s for two grading periods, then does nothing for the third but then has that grading period’s zero raised to a 50, which results in an average of 68 instead of 51, would ultimately receive a semester grade of 70 because 68s and 69s are also strongly discouraged. What is worse, however, is that the 77s might have been awarded because many teachers, with administrations’ full knowledge, emulate district policy and also change grades of 0-49 on individual assignments and tests to 50s. In reality, then, the student could score 90s on 8 of the 12 required assignments for a grading period, not turn in the other four at all (the equivalent of doing absolutely nothing for 2 weeks out of 6), have those zeros magically transformed into 50s, and end up with that average of 77. The second grading period they could do the same again, then do absolutely nothing for the third 6 weeks, and still pass. With such teacher-initiated grade alterations and district policies, students can and do pass their classes even though they might do little or nothing for as many as 10 of 18 weeks in a semester, cherry-pick the material they choose to “learn”, and, in Zirkel’s words, receive fraudulent credit on official transcripts for college, scholarships, and AYP. If the class happens to be an AP course, that inflated 70 would then also be weighted and the student could receive as high as a 90.

Just as Mr. Zirkel mentions, teachers who don’t inflate grades due to these types of policies end up with higher failure rates, admonitions from administration for more effort and more hours, and pressure from parents who don’t understand why their children are suddenly failing. These kinds of grading policies may help schools meet AYP, but then a different kind of magic is needed to improve the dismal college graduation rates for unprepared and, ultimately, under-served students. The simple solution to this type of grade inflation is for school boards to have faith in their communities’ children, raise the bar where it needs to be, and instead of taking a magnifying glass to just the number of failing grades, submit to even more scutiny the number of passing grades.

I don't know that the issue that needs to be addressed is grade inflation. Before there can be any expectation of grade stability, there would need to be some form of standardization. Even amongst those schools that use the standard 4.0 scale, there is an enormous amount of variation from teacher to teacher, district to district. I can recall a teacher who used the 50% floor, cited above as a skewing factor, to ensure that a student wasn't unduly penalized for a single bad grade. It was still an F--but in a school that arrived at the final grade by computing the percentage of points earned out of possible points, it ensured that a single F had no more power than a single A. In the same school I had a teacher who firmly believed that a good test should go beyond the knowledge of the class in order to ensure that it was truly indicative of what students knew (a test on which students got everything right wouldn't truly measure how much they knew). Grading each test was a public affair, with the scores strung out along a continuum, looking for some logical breaks. I learned a lot from both teachers.

As a parent, I am much better informed by the reporting systems (and they may be coming from mastery based ideology) that tell me exactly what my child knows along a continuum (count 1-10, recite the alphabet, write a sentence with correct punctuation, make comparisons, etc). These have been few and far between. Frankly, report card grades tell me very little. I prefer test scores, and those from reliable sources, not teacher made.

The evidence shows that children are taught unevenly (Algebra I does not cover the same content at every school, more experienced teachers with better training have dramatically better student outcomes than others). To complain about grade inflation seems to be straining at a gnat.

Well, no objection to the approach of showing learners that they can make, small, and then, increasingly, large improvements in performance. It's dificult to deny that nothing succeeds better than demonstrable success in improving perpformance(the "Hey, I CAN do it!" factor). But, if parents and their bullseyes, called administrators, are demanding inflated grades, then there is probably no way to escape it. Perhaps the parents could be shown how this will be done by administrators, simply, moving the A/B/C/D/F brackets on the percentage scale. The teachers would remain free to stress, to learners, the meaningfulness of working to attain greater competence on the percentage scale. The front office could slide the "letter brackets" wherever.
Oh, but this "appears" aneaky! Surprise! The whole system of separate letter brackets vs percentage of competence in meeting the performance objectives of the curriculum IS sneaky! When someone tells you that they don't understand percentages but know, full well, what A/B/C/D/F means, a game is in progress!
Teachers: encourage performance increase by reinforcing it for the learners. The curriculum exists, so report the meeting of its objectives by percent or check-lists of objectives, being met. Let the front office convert all of this into the "letter system-du-jour". They are paid a whole lot more and ought to be able to take the flak. Don't fall for the entreatment for you to "believe in" or "own" the inflation. Sure, you are the acknowledged experts in the subject matter being learned, but the moving of letter brackets is political. Stay out of politics!
You are the experts in, both, the subject, AND the point-of-contact of the subject's challenges with the learners. Unless you are "bucking for" an administrative job and REALLY want to leave the classroom, try to keep the two professions clearly separate. Try to think about the difference between hospital administration and maintaining a practice in a medical specialty, with operating/lab/facilities, piviledges in the hospital.
For starters, resolve to try to separate what is good for learner progress from what is good for flak deflection in the office. It's a big part of what they do. Does it need to be what YOU do? What are your career goals? Really?

“Much of the variation among grades and across subjects, classrooms, and teachers concerns the components used to grade student work… In grades 10-12, approximately one-third of school districts report including student effort in grade determinations, attendance, and student growth: to a lesser extent behavior and attitude are also factors considered by a substantial proportion of secondary teachers (Brookhart, 1994; Feldman, Kropf, and Alibrandi, 1996; Robinson and Craver, 1989).
“This survey, along with previous surveys and research examining grading practices, indicates that it continues to be difficult to evaluate students’ grades without a context for the components used by individual teachers in grading or the school policies concerning specific aspects of the grading system.” (High School Grading Policies, RN-04, http://www.collegeboard.com/research/pdf/high_school_grading_10506.pdf)

If teachers can be convinced that class grades should only objectively reflect student knowledge of the subject matter, grade inflation and the disconnect between class grade and standardized test scores might be eliminated.

As a parent, or perhaps it's as an engineer, I need to know the truth. An 'inflated' grade is nothing more than a lie. I can't address a problem if I don't know it exists. And it serves NOONE, least of all my children, to let a problem go unresolved.

I believe that the grade distribution should be reported along with the grade. For example, a student earns an "A" in a high school English class. In that class, 25 students earned A's, 3 earned B's, and 2 earned C's. In another class, a student also earned an "A." In this class, however, the grade distribution is different: 3 A's, 7 B's, 10 C's, 7 D's, and 3 F's.

The "A" in the second class has a different meaning then the "A" in the first class because the grade distribution is different.

Yea for Cheryl Radar Eng., etc.! Yup, to report anything other than how the student has done with respect to a KNOWN-TO-ALL standard is extra stuff, fluff, whatever. How about the teacher assigning a code ID, known to the student, teacher, and parents of THAT student. Then from once to several times per week, the teacher could post a printout, in class, with ONLY the codes, in scrambled or random or whatever order, and showing each assignment to-date plus the total of points, possible/earned, per assignment and summary. Next to this would be the "percentages-and-letter-brackets"(PALB). Students would have ZERO mysteries about how they were performing, relative to a letter goal. Parents could drop in ANYTIME and visit a class and see the same printout on the bulletin board. If, for some reason, the administration chose to shift the PALB, such shift+reason would be promulgated to teachers and parents to update their information. Gee! No secrets? We can't have THAT! Can we? The program producing the printout, could, if the school required same, per week or whenever, add a page showing the DISTRIBUTION(Any secondary student could also do a simple percentage calculation, anytime.) OMIGOSH! How would the he/she TRIED HARD factor be leveraged in? Bye bye, TRIED HARD factor.

Ohhhh, how accurate and cold and uncaring? Rubbish! The students and their parents deserve and need a full accounting of the REALITY of student performance, during the course of study, so as to be able to make corrections in study habbits, homework time distribution, requests for help-from-the-teacher in once-per-week after school "help/make-up" sessions.

The timely reporting of performance, as depicted above, is somewhat like the speedometer/odometer/tripmeter display in a car. It is expected that such data during driving be accurate. To "adjust" certain of this data is even a crime! Imagine driving in today's tollway traffic without the feedback of accurate instruments, with KNOWN and COMMON standards. There's a pretty funny "stand up" skit in there somewhere!

Oh, and another thing to consider when looking at distributions is that the "office" may have ways other-than-random of assigning students to specific sections of a subject. Sorry, office! Your phone calls might increase with the "full disclosure" of distributions. Salary differential....

What has become inflated is not grades. It is the egoes of students and parents that no longer are satisfied with the "C" student, the average. We are pressing both our students and our school systems to provide us with above average kids. NCLB brought the designation, proficient into the grading language. Proficient used to mean able to perform an act at a professional level. It is now a random standard, set by those that sit above and judge from afar, gleaned from test scores that are compiled by computers. The ABCDF system worked fine for over a century and still works fine today. The best judge of the progress of a student is the teacher, any teacher. The best way to "fix" education is to leave it to the people that educate. Government's role is to provide the space, the materials, and the funds to educate.

How interesting that I read the commentary this morning at work after I had read the sports page in my local newspaper at home.

Tennessee has 3 levels of basketball. The "all state" teams were listed in today's paper. To my astonishment, Each level had 25 players listed as "all-state". Gee 150 boys and girls can go around the rest of their lives knowing they were "best" in basketball in the state.

When I played in the 60's, there was one classification. Eleven players were named all state (girls still played 6 on 6 in TN back then). Seems like grade inflation has spilled over into sports, as well.

I read the article on grade inflation and as a mother of a 6th grader as well as one who visits many area schools I think some of the reason for grade inflation has to do with the way teachers give the requirements to the students ahead of time. For projects and essays and even tests they tell them what they will be graded on even going so far as telling them how much each part of the project/essay/ test is worth. The child is told exactly what is expected and strives to meet that. That is very different from days when I went to school and you had to guess what the teacher expected. Teaching rubrics and being specific about expectations will lead to higher grades but not necessarily higher achievement.

Isn't possible that there's more to the concept of grade inflation? Maybe, just maybe, increased one-on-one services, tutoring centers and the like are ALSO improving student's grades. Teachers aren't allowed to give students F's, instead we are expected to provided extensive additional support to help that student pass. In other words, there's more to the idea of "grade inflation" than just arbitrary letter grade changes. The article was just another chance to rip on public schools without offering any true solutions to the real problems we face everyday in our classrooms.

There is a problem with grade inflation -- no question about it. However, as with all issues, it is best to look at the cause and to look deep. In each article written, there are the reasons. The number one that tops the list is the competitive nature of education -- a better GPA means access to better schools. Herein lies the overarching problem. Should quality education be limited to those who necessarily score the highest? Or, should everyone be able to access quality education in their own time and at their own pace. The answer is to create a system of grading that indicates whether the students have completed assignments and shown that they have the foundation to proceed to the next level. Education is powerful, but only if it is shared. On the current competitive scales, there is no comparison from year to year. The top five percent of the current year could be worse than the bottom five percent compared to the previous years or years to come. The bottom line is grades need to be meaningful, not competitive. They should indicate the information and the skill level attained by the student, not be a measure to screen out students and prevent them from achieving their educational goals. Higher Education should look for another method to decide who makes it past the application pool each year. Try drive, determination, commitment -- perhaps a meaningful interview and an essay that the student writes under supervision at an application interview. This more accurately reflects what we do in the workforce. GPA might be an interesting point, but generally speaking, its not the deciding factor. Take the emphasis off the GPAs and the importance and the inflation will take care of themselves. In the aftermath, confidence level of the students will not necessarily be dependent on the grades, but rather focus on what they have learned that will help them later in college and ultimately in life.

I teach algebra at a high school where many of the younger teachers mainly give A's and B's. I am a year or so from retiring and most of my grades are D's and F's. I am constantly pressured to lower my D and F rate. The standard bell-shaped curve no longer applies in the 21st century. We all live in Lake Wobegon(sp?)where all the children are above average, yet many high school students cannot tell you quickly what 5+8 is.

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