Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue

Recently, I wrote a post in which I included the following lament about grade inflation:

I would say that my grading is tough, but fair. I feel as if I am in line with my school and department in that area. However, students expect to make A’s and B’s. In fact, students in Honors classes expect to make only A’s. It is frustrating for me to communicate to them that a B is a very good grade. In most grading scales, it means “above average.” The A grade means “excellent.” I don’t know about you, but not everything I do is “excellent.” This conveys a level of mastery that is impossible to achieve on every assignment in every class.

I received a comment from Anthony Ferraro, a 10th grade student (not my own) and we began a dialogue that I found very interesting. I think Anthony has some valid points about the complexities of grade inflation, and I invited him to contribute to this blog in the hopes of stimulating further dialogue. His contribution begins below in blue text, followed by my own. Afterward, we hope to hear from you in the comments.

First off, let me begin with a small disclaimer. As a student, I believe that the vast majority of teachers are trying their very hardest to benefit us in any way they can. They are our guides; our captains, and our friends. And while the majority of this post may seem as though I am berating and criticizing the top of the heap, the wonderfully idealistic teachers chock full of noble purpose and desire to help, I am only trying to point out an unintended consequence of their actions so that we may confront the problem as a community (clichéd, I know, I apologize).

When confronted with the dilemma of grade inflation, people – parents, students, and teachers – all seem to agree on the best strategy to go about combating it. To put it bluntly, albeit a bit simplistically, all parties involved want everyone else, simultaneously, to drastically alter their expectations. Teachers wish parents and students would stop expecting higher grades, not only when the student really isn’t up to par and therefore deserves a C in the already inflated grade curve, but also to make the students and parents instantaneously equate a C with par again.

As a student, the growing problem, however, is not the rising grade inflation. The problem is the lack of a universal acceptance of a standard, any standard. A teacher who deviates from the presently inflated grading scale — a scale which, as faulty as it may seem, currently exists as the standard grading scale — can affect a student’s life to a far greater extent than the teachers may think possible. A “C” is a killer on a transcript, especially given that an A, in today’s society, does not mean “excellent.” How can college admissions possibly discern between a C from a teacher who adheres strictly to the grading scale’s purported definitions and a C from a teacher who, intentionally or simply lazily (for it doesn’t matter at all), adhered to the modern grading scale. The first C states that the student produced work of average quality, but the second C states, particularly in public schools, that the student simply showed up for class. The effect on the interpretation of a student’s grade produced when the by-the-book C appears on a transcript can severely, if unintentionally, affect the student’s ability to apply to various colleges, because universities are working blindfolded. Their hands are tied, for it is neither feasible nor logical to somehow investigate and scrutinize each and every student’s application more than they have already. College admissions officers must make the most of the information they receive, and are therefore not weighing, interpreting, and deliberating the validity of any given student’s resume – they’re comparing it with another student’s. Particularly in disciplines for which standardized testing is not applicable, and assuming all other variables are accounted for, admissions will always take the student who, on paper, is the most qualified.

In today’s ultracompetitive college applicant environment, the acceptance percentages for all elite or even decent colleges are dropping. This fall indicates only a rise in applicants, not necessarily a rise in qualified applicants (meaning the quality of the student body isn’t shooting up at a proportional rate). However, due to grade inflation, “quality” changes. “Quality” grades are getting easier and easier to come by, and this hurts both the people who earned their A’s in, say, Ms. Dana Huff’s English class, where A’s are difficult to earn, and the people in her class who earned C’s. The people who earned A’s in Ms. Huff’s class are not distinguished from those who earned A’s in Mr. Apathy’s class, and the people who earned C’s in Ms. Huff’s class have been most unfairly divided from students in Mr. Apathy’s class. So not only are more and more students applying to more and more colleges, all students are becoming almost impossibly indistinguishable.

I guess my point is that one cannot simply fight grade inflation by stubbornly resisting its effects, because innocent bystanders can get knocked by the wayside, and hurting the people you really wish to help is in nobody’s best interest. I’d also wish to point out that standing by and doing nothing is not the best option either, for the issue must be addressed. We must work together to find a better solution, a solution that is feasible, a solution that can be agreed upon, and a solution where no harm is done. Both teachers and students deserve it.

Anthony Ferraro

I do think Anthony has some valid points. Not all C’s are equal, are they? However, I do think most competitive colleges know this. There are also other factors that determine admission, such as athletic ability, gender, race, geographic location, SAT/ACT scores, college resumes, college essays, and the like.

I think students in my class usually come out all right in the end, but they do earn grades commensurate with their performance on individual writing assignments. Students might, for example, earn C’s on essays, but bring their grade up through careful reading and subsequent good performance on reading quizzes or vocabulary tests and still earn a B or even an A in the end. I did have a student who earned a C on the first draft of his research paper last year. He was extremely upset about the grade at the time, but this year he told me that he appreciated the grade. He told me that he felt nothing he wrote up until he revised that draft was reflective of his full effort, and he said he has been doing good writing this year. I asked his current English teacher about his work, and he agreed that the student is doing good writing for his class.

Our culture has taught students that grades are the goal, when they are really a form of communication. I earned mostly A’s on my writing in high school only to receive a C on my first college paper. Not only that, but my friend had written a comma splice and I didn’t even know what that was. How could I avoid using one on my own paper? I didn’t understand how I could have earned a C. No one had found fault with my writing before. What I didn’t realize is that in comparison with my high school peers, I probably was a good writer. Did that mean I had no room to improve? Of course not. And that is still not true, for there is always room to improve. Whose fault was it? I can’t entirely blame my teachers, but I think that one way in which my education failed me was that I was compared with my peers instead of a standard, such as a rubric, which was designed to show me areas of strength and weakness. My C communicated to me that I had failed, when in my college professor’s eyes, it communicated that I had done adequate work — not good, certainly not excellent, but not poor either. My high school teachers did me no favors by drawing happy faces and A’s on my work. They didn’t help me become a better writer. They sent me the message that there was nothing I could do to improve. I wish I had learned what I needed to work on in high school, when it would have been easier and the consequences for taking risks with my writing less severe.

That is not to say, however, that I disagree with Anthony. I wish that we could dispense with grades altogether and use rubrics for every assignment, but I know that grades aren’t going anywhere. Grade inflation is indeed an issue that is hurting us all. It is going to take all of us to fix it, and it probably won’t happen overnight. To be honest, I’m not even sure what can be done, but I know it begins with the kind of communication and dialogue that Anthony and I have had over the last few weeks.

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19 thoughts on “Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue

  1. Our culture has taught students that grades are the goal, when they are really a form of communication.

    Absolutely. As a student, I know firsthand how much pressure is on us to get As. The worst part is that it's not even something to celebrate. An A definitely isn't "excellent" anymore – well, maybe in theory, but certainly not in practical terms. I know that whenever I got an A, it wasn't a big deal, but if I didn't, it was like it was the end of the world. We've been conditioned from a very young age that getting As is only the necessary condition for getting into decent colleges that will lead us to half-decent jobs. Sometimes I think teachers in general forget this, how grades can bring on extreme anxiety. We're basically taught that higher grades = better life. If it weren't like this, we would be able to focus on the intrinsic value of learning and education. For example, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, I loved it – but in the back of my mind I still felt a little resentment that I was going to be tested on it. I couldn't fully enjoy it.

    But to get back to the main point of your article, I'm not saying I support grade inflation. I do think it's the student's responsibility to follow the professor's rubric and have them review your first draft if they have the time. I always do that and I'm usually good to go. I just wish that some of my professors knew how stressful it can be for us. I know they're stressed, too, and that there are infinitely more "real" problems out there. Our grade anxiety as students takes on a pretty narrow scope of the world. But we're young and that's all we've been taught by society and our parents thusfar in life. Sad, really.

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  3. Wow. I wish my students wrote as well as Anthony! I'm planning to post on this same topic soon and will let you know when I do.

  4. A sub-culture exists in American society which assumes that showing up merits a diploma; in effect, C's for being in the seat. In communities where that subculture dominates, grades have no meaning at all.

    You and Anthony both articulate your stances well. It encourages me that this sort of dialogue exists.

  5. Anthony wrote

    affect the student’s ability to apply to various colleges, because universities are working blindfolded. Their hands are tied, for it is neither feasible nor logical to somehow investigate and scrutinize each and every student’s application more than they have already. College admissions officers must make the most of the information they receive, and are therefore not weighing, interpreting, and deliberating the validity of any given student’s resume – they’re comparing it with another student’s. Particularly in disciplines for which standardized testing is not applicable, and assuming all other variables are accounted for, admissions will always take the student who, on paper, is the most qualified.

    If Anthony is referring to state university systems, he's probably correct — GPAs and SAT/ACT scores are the metric. But there are hundreds of great colleges and universities that are more nuanced in their approach to admissions. One place to start is Colleges that Change Lives.

    Another interesting development is The Education Conservancy and College Unranked

    Established in March, 2004, The Education Conservancy (EC) is a non-profit organization committed to improving college admission processes for students, colleges and high schools. By harnessing the research, ideas, leadership and imagination of thoughtful educators, EC delivers appropriate advice, advocacy and services.

    Ms. Huff, I'd encourage you to get involved with The Education Conservancy as a way of furthering this dialog.

  6. I just found something else, David Callahan's article in the May 6 2006 CSM:

    Young people believe in honor and value integrity; they also worry that living by these beliefs could mean ending up as a loser. In justifying her cheating, one student told a researcher: "Good grades can make the difference between going to medical school and being a janitor." Few professors have a ready retort to this logic.

    well, first off, it is a false dilemma — any clear thinker should be able to challenge that.

    But Callahan's point is that

    What can faculty and administrators do to stem epidemic cheating? Their best hope is to cast cheating as an issue of justice.

    Students may be cynical about what it takes to succeed these days, but they do care about fairness.

    Perhaps the search for an end to grade inflation lies in justice, or fairness.

  7. . The people who earned A’s in Ms. Huff’s class are not distinguished from those who earned A’s in Mr. Apathy’s class, and the people who earned C’s in Ms. Huff’s class have been most unfairly divided from students in Mr. Apathy’s class. So not only are more and more students applying to more and more colleges, all students are becoming almost impossibly indistinguishable

    After their first exam or paper in college, the folks who got their A's from Mr Apathy will distinguish themselves loud and clear–they're the whiners and blusterers lined up for office hours trying to weasel out points and asking "How could this happen to ME?"

  8. I had the opportunity to finish my undergrad degree in Australia and what I loved about their grading system is that quantitatively it felt more accurate, but qualitatively I could feel just as good (if not better). 80% and above is "High Distinction" and 70-79% is "Distinction" and if you were in either category you puffed up your chest. I went from the US where I never got below a 90% (and often got 100% – as if an essay could ever be perfect), to Australia where my top mark was 85%. I'm not sure how this plays out in Australian secondary and elementary schools, but I wish we had a system that lets people feel good about grades, and still recognizes exceptional work.

  9. From somewhere I stole a quote that I'll paraphrase in my "love letter to parents" that I send home at the beginning of the school year:

    The grades I assign, and the commentary I write on your work, is a form of communication. If you treat grades as nothing more than a score in a basketball game, they are meaningless.

  10. Yes, I tell my students I don't "give" grades: "you earn them." It's trite, but it addresses part of the problem. If students and parents have illusions about A's, I am not going to feed them. I am not going to send my students on to the next teacher saying they have proven themselves capable of something they haven't.

    The truth is, however, that I am not surrounded by grade-grubbers daily. 2/3 of my kids couldn't care less about A's–they just want to pass. Now, some have a faulty idea of what should be the minimum requirement to pass, but overall, in my 3-year career, I have had maybe 3 students who came to me begging to take the – off of an A- or something like it.

    I think the attitudes of the students and parents with respect to grades reveal volumes about different communities' expectations in general.

    Excellent topic, and kudos to Anthony, a remarkable young writer.

  11. Interesting and both arguments are valid. I can easily see both sides. The answers are there, but not easy. Anthony makes extremely valid points, as do you. My chief complaint is the attitude of entitlement I see from far too many students and parents. I feel certain that Anthony earns his grades.

  12. Onyx, I'm not Anthony's teacher, but I'm sure you're correct. He's very articulate. As far as the entitlement goes, that's a problem I have too. I love to give A's to kids who clearly earned them. I can't stomach giving A's to kids who didn't earn them but expect them; parents who expect them are worse. I have a good story about that one that I should post some time. We have generated a culture that expects high grades for work that doesn't merit it.

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