It’s pretty much an open secret at this point that many schools engage in grade inflation–that is, they give an assignment a higher grade than it would have received in the past. For example, to receive a “B” in many schools these days, all a student has to do is turn in the assignment. As long as they’ve included all the parts and answered the prompt, they get a “B” regardless of the actual quality of the content. In the past, doing the bare minimum like this would have been considered average and possibly would have received a “C” grade.
Edit to note: Grade inflation is about the system of grading as a whole, not about how instructors respond to individual students. A teacher who gives a student she likes an “A” is not grade inflating (though she is being unfair). A teacher who bumps up everyone’s grades by lowering the standards of the course is grade inflating.
The reasons for engaging in grade inflation are varied.
I have heard instructors argue that:
- If they fail a student or give them a low grade, the parent might remove the student from the school. Institutions do not want to lost the tuition money.
- If they give a student a low grade, they will have to deal with the aggressive/angry student or parent.
- Other schools are inflating grades. If they don’t, it looks like their students are under-performing. Their students may miss out on college or job opportunities as a result.
- Students are accustomed to receiving high grades. If they receive a grade that adequately reflects their work, they might think they are a failure and give up.
However, there are ethical implications to grade inflation that need to be examined.
- By awarding a student for doing the bare minimum, we suggest that the bare minimum is enough. But when a student goes on to higher-level work, they may find themselves unprepared. It’s better to learn how to do something correctly the first time, when the stakes are lower.
- Inflating grades does not offer an incentive for students to improve. If a student thinks their “C” work is really “B” work or their “B” work is “A” work, they will potentially be less motivated to work harder to excel in the course.
- Students need to learn how to fail. Failure does not have to mean an “F,” but students do need to learn how to pick themselves up and move on after receiving a less than stellar grade. I have seen individuals, adults even, fall apart after receiving their first “B.” A “B” is not a bad grade and will likely not affect anyone’s future employment prospects.; the implications of receiving a “B” or even a “C” are usually minimal. But if a student cannot process a slight setback like this, how will they fare after they enter the real world where their employers do not inflate their job performance reviews?
As a writer, I value honest criticism. I may not enjoy negative feedback, but I recognize its necessity if I am to improve my art. So I ask myself if grade inflation is truly the best way to help our students excel. If we provide criticism in the margins, but assign a paper an easy “A” or “B,” only the self-driven students will feel motivated to incorporate that feedback into the work. The rest will likely be satisfied with churning out their papers last minute the same way they have always done.
And grade inflation ends up devaluing student work. I wonder now how many of my own grades were merited, and what those “This paper is a gem!” comments truly signified. Was the instructor truly impressed? Were they simply trying to boost my confidence so I would continue on in the course? If it’s so easy to get an “A,” what did my “A’s” even mean?
The implications of grade inflation on a large scale will likely become more evident in the future. I worry, however, about generations of students being released into the world believing that they are performing at a higher level than they are. I worry that we are harming our students by not asking them to give us their best.