Grades and GPAs (grade point averages) have always been a badge of honor or a source of strife. In a regular class, an A will get you 4 points, a B 3, a C 2, a D 1, and an F 0. Thus a 4.0 GPA implies you garnered As in all your subjects. More rigor, as in advanced placement courses often adds value to the grade.
Today — the variety of accelerated and advanced placement curriculums, together with unspoken code of grade assignment practices, the fundamental realities of high school (and university) grades is that they have become inflated. So much so that kids are graduating from high school with GPAs higher than ever. The GPA for the top 10 percent has risen from 89 to 97 and more kids are walking away with GPAs in the 6-8.0 point range.
Jed Applerouth, in his blog piece, When A is for Average: the high cost of grade inflation, says that grade inflation presents various ethical and practical concerns — especially in high school. Over time, the true value of an A has eroded as it is being granted more readily than at any time in history. According to the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress, the average high school GPA (on a 4.0 scale) increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.00 in 2009, while ACT and SAT scores remained the same.
Applerouth also points out that inflationary trends do not end in high school but rather continue into college. Where an A used to reflect superior academic performance, today an A connotes a performance slightly above average. He explains that grade inflation persists because everyone likes it and because of the obvious advantage it offers students. Whether moving from high school or undergraduate universities, inflated grades have great payoffs. They provide students with more choices. In contrast, students from institutions with low grading norms tend to be penalized and have less options as the acceptance rates are much lower.
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Pressure to keep grades high
Grade inflation begins at the top and trickles down. In many high schools, teachers are the ones who directly feel the pressure to ratchet up the GPAs. From principals and parents at top schools, teachers at low performing public schools, to kids who are financially dependent on scholarships, the political and pragmatic message received is to do what is necessary to maximize future opportunities. Despite our mantras of perseverance and grit, high schools are rewarded for their graduation rates, so the more students that fail, the less that graduate. No teacher wants to bear the burden of failing a student, despite the lack of effort — so the Ds and Fs are transformed. Teachers also feel the pressure of being the one to give an earned C or B that may undermine a student’s otherwise 4.0 GPA. So for some, the As are squeezed in, while for others, the Ds and Fs disappear — allowing both students to move on.
Downside of grade inflation
In addition to penalizing students whose grades reflect their effort and are not inflated, there are many other downsides to inflating grades.
Top heavy distributions. When grades are inflated, you get a data mushroom. In this top heavy distribution, a student with a GPA of 92.8 (20th percentile of the class) can be merely 0.2 points away from a student at the 40th percentile of the class. The exceptionally top students often get lost in this mix. Crowding at the top also impacts class ranking, which many colleges depend upon.
Capricious college admissions. With so many similar academic profiles to contend with, college admission decisions appear more and more arbitrary to the outsider. If everyone has a top score and a high GPA, college acceptance becomes harder to predict and more puzzling. This presents challenges and frustrations for students, parents and college counselors alike.
Impact on the university experience. Many recipients of inflated grades may fool those around them, but when they get to college, the professors are the first to note the incoming inadequacies. Between 28 percent and 40 percent of college freshmen need at least one remedial class, despite their exceptional GPAs.
Impact on Schools. High school institutions that do not inflate grades also suffer. As college admissions process more applications than ever before, there is little time to analyze the nuances of grading norms at individual schools. As a result, students who arise from more challenging grading cultures tend to be penalized with lower college acceptance rates.
Grit and resilience
When grades are assigned to make people look good rather than provide a measure of actual perseverance and achievement, students lose the notion that hard work pays off and that resilience can turn failure around. Resiliency and grit, according to educational researchers like Carol Dweck, may be the most important attributes that students need to succeed in the adult world. Dealing with a low grade can be a profound learning experience for a student. If you want an A, you have to earn it.
Yet, it is increasingly more difficult for teachers who want to assign a real grade to do so. In many situations — within minutes of viewing the online grade portal — it is not uncommon for a parent to demand an explanation about why his/her A-student received a C or D. And when that explanation isn’t good enough, the teacher finds themselves listening to their administration as they explain how the grade might impact the student’s chance to gain admission to a certain college or university.
Students today have learned that a failing grade bears little to no impact — even in gifted programs. Despite numerous parent conferences, they move on to the next grade level, year after year, and have little motivation to change. So how can teachers expect more when the motivating infrastructure has no meaning?
Why tests matter
Not only does grade inflation undermine the meritocracy of our society, it puts more pressure on high stakes test scores to undo the grade dilution. As grades become less meaningful, college admissions officers look to other tangible measures to make distinctions between student success and place greater emphasis on standardized tests.
In the WSJ article, Here’s Why Tests Matter, James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer reflect on the new SAT and explain why kids still have to take these tests and why colleges still put so much emphasis on one score instead of four years of academic grades. Their explanation? Classroom grades have become meaningless.
Piereson and Schaefer illustrate the ways schools openly dilute grades. One California public-school district implemented an “equal interval scale” score system. In this system, every letter grade is assigned a 20-point range. Students who score above 80 percent get an A. Only those below 20 percent will be given an F.
The issue becomes magnified at the university level. According to a study from Gradeinflation.com, run by former university professors, more than 42 percent of the grades awarded at two-year and four-year colleges are A’s. In fact, the number of A’s has been going up 5-6 percentage point/ decade.
At Harvard, one pressured professor began assigning 2 grades to his students — an official inflated grade for their transcript and an unofficial grade that reflects what they actually deserve. Think tank writers and faculty members at various universities question the need for grades altogether, suggesting that grades promote cheating and undermine intrinsic motivation. At some small schools, portfolios are being used in place of traditional grades.
Unfortunately, as grades become a less dependable measure of accomplishment and ability, administrators and admissions officers look elsewhere. And despite their inequities and obvious shortcomings, the standardized tests seem to be the only common quantifier left to judge students by.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.