educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

“A” for everything? Maybe not quite

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Grade inflation is a popular topic (at least on Google, where the term gives you a quarter million+ hits). A recent article in Inside Higher Ed titled “Grade Inflation, Higher and Higher” examined again a subject that seems to annoy almost everyone.

The Inside Higher Ed piece, by Scott Jaschik, looks at the first major update in years of a “database on grade inflation” and finds that grades are indeed rising in general, A is the most common grade across a range of colleges, although — hold on now! — community colleges have seen a rise in Ds and Fs. So what gives?

Well, I guess I don’t need to “believe” in grade inflation, because the evidence is there (some good charts accompany Jaschik’s article), but I am at times skeptical of the overall critique, especially at schools that have jacked up their admissions requirements. And let’s make no mistake about it: Many schools have jacked up their admissions requirements.

Think about it: Who are graded students really being compared to?

Let’s take writing, for instance. Even with a closely defined rubric (and keep in mind I was once part owner of a rubric software company), there will still be a degree of subjectivity to your grading. If your “scale” is against the whole universe of learners, then wouldn’t it make sense that as your school became more selective, that as it picked to walk its august halls and quads “better” students who were “better” prepared, that you would be seeing higher grades in your courses?

Throw in the high costs and thus pressures of college, and I can see how students would work in a way that would result in teachers seeing fewer Ds and Fs because the work students are doing is better.

The worries about grade inflation — bring it up a cocktail party or whatever it is you do to socialize and see what people say — also might beg the question of what the worry really is. As David Gooblar wrote a few years ago, “But the fact of the matter is that grade inflation is probably a victimless crime. There have been no convincing studies that demonstrate that higher grades lead to poorer learning outcomes for students.”

The other side of this that Jaschik describes in his article, the rise in Ds and Fs in community colleges, makes sense in the context of efforts to broaden access. If some schools are allowing more students in – and dammit, we should be opening up this kind of access – then grades might be lower, which would be no reflection on the school itself or the teachers teaching there (ahem, standardized tests…). The only problem would be if students could never get past initially crummy grades and, downtrodden, withdraw from the whole process.

Anyway, in terms of inflation, teachers at all levels could receive pressure, especially in some districts, to give good grades. Individual grains of grades eventually build the kind of cumulative pile that students show off to the next school up the ladder. The pressure from helicopter or bulldozer parents can be very great. I, myself, am seeing students of mine with GPAs over 5.0. It reminds me of Spinal Tap’s “these go to 11…

Ultimately, though, like most things about education, grade inflation is a result of a complex interplay of factors. At the least, I think you should be wary of those who think schools are just giving grades away.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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