In addition to rising tuition costs, inflation of a different kind is affecting education. Most of us likely know what economic inflation is. After all, it’s been dominating the news headlines for the past year or so and broadly affecting the costs of goods and services we’ve been purchasing. But grade inflation, although it’s widespread and has been around for a while, has been referred to as the “conversation we’re not having.” So let’s talk about grade inflation.
Grade inflation is the increasing rate of higher grades being awarded coupled with decreasing expectations for receiving those grades. According to a study conducted by five economics professors from three universities, graduation rates at non-profit higher education institutions had risen from the 1990s to 2010. Researchers connected the increasing rate of graduations to rising grade point averages (GPAs) due to grade inflation. Although their study stopped at the year 2010, subsequent research by others shows that the grade inflation trend has continued in colleges since then, such as what has been seen at Brown and Yale. Similarly, grade inflation is occurring in high schools as well. A study by ACT revealed that grades for high schoolers have been increasing while achievement has been decreasing.
Typically, when GPAs rise, it might be assumed that students are spending more time on their school work, teachers and schools are spending more time and money helping students academically, students are enrolling in easier programs, or students are scoring higher on pre-collegiate standardized tests. But researchers did not find evidence of those factors. Instead, their study results suggested that students have been increasingly receiving higher grades due to relaxed standards. However, there are both costs and benefits of grade inflation.
• High school students might be overconfident in their abilities when entering college.
• High schools with inflated reputations can lead to economic inflation in their locales.
• Employers see a mismatch of their expectations and graduates’ knowledge and skill.
• Students come to expect high grades that can lead to grade grubbing.
• High school students are motivated to stay in school and continue on to college.
• Colleges receive more tuition revenue when retaining students until graduation.
• College degrees can help people get better jobs or promotions.
• Instructors who award high grades tend to receive positive evaluations from students.
The above lists of possible costs and benefits of grade inflation are not exhaustive but should be enough to prompt teachers and administrators to ponder if they are fueling grade inflation and, if so, how and why they are contributing to that trend. Some have expressed concerns with the grade inflation trend, others have claimed it is not a problem, and a few have denied that it exists even though evidence points to its presence and prevalence.
There continues to be disagreement over whether or not grade inflation is a problem and if so how it can or should be addressed. Rather than adopt an agree-to-disagree mentality, it’s time for teachers and administrators, if they haven’t begun already, to talk about grade inflation, investigate if it is occurring in their classes and institutions, evaluate the costs and benefits if they find evidence of it in their academic environment, and collaboratively work toward ensuring that students indeed are learning.