The Ethics of Grade Inflation

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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.

For instance:

  • 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?

The Implications

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.

Krysta 64

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32 thoughts on “The Ethics of Grade Inflation

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s interesting you say that your teachers grade inflated as many students I talk to insist their grades are not inflated, but it’s difficult to know sometimes. I realized in college that grades were being inflated, but that was because I was being asked to go over my friends’ work and I was, honestly, a bit shocked at the grades they were receiving. Then again, peers tend to be much more critical of each other’s work than teachers are.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ravenclaw Book Club says:

        I actually know because my teachers admitted it! They often told us how the general performance of most of the class was terrible and how they had given us better grades because of that. I always found that quite ridiculous. A lot the time teachers would leave the best grades as they were and then inflate the worst ones to kind of make it all more equal. Stupid, honestly.

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        • Krysta says:

          That’s quite interesting. I understand teachers sometimes curve if a test seemed too hard, but it doesn’t seem quite fair to boost only certain members of the class.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ravenclaw Book Club says:

            It never bothered me personally because I’m not the kind of person who gets upset over other people’s grades – as long as mine are good, I don’t care if anyone else has good grades because of inflation. But I do see how it’s unfair.

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            • Krysta says:

              Well, it implies that those students were doing the same level of work when they weren’t, which could become problematic in terms of awards and scholarships. Though generally I agree that it’s best not to worry about what other people’s grades look like. The students who report other kids to the teacher always baffle me: “So-and-so’s essay didn’t address the prompt!” I’m sure the teacher noticed and handled it….

              Liked by 1 person

  1. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Good topic – I’m a high school English teacher, and grading has been a hot topic of discussion at our staff meetings recently. I never inflate grades because of the many reasons you listed above; however, I still have a very high percentage of failing students in my classes, so I understand the pressure to inflate. Despite the fact that I have so many failures, I refuse to inflate, mostly because 99% of my failures come from students who simply don’t do the work. I rarely have a student who fails the class because they had everything turned in but just did poorly. We are experiencing an academic motivation/apathy problem in our school which is why we are actually in talks to switch to a standards-based grading system rather than a point-based system. There will still be letter grades attached to report cards, but instead of awarding points, we will be tracking the skills the students must have, and hopefully eliminating the idea that points are the all-powerful motivator (which they aren’t; in honesty, they are usually pretty arbitrary).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I know some teachers who literally are not allowed to fail a student, even if the student has turned in no work and hasn’t shown up to class in two months. I agree with you that students don’t fail because they can’t achieve the goals, but, generally, because they just aren’t turning in the work. But I think we’re getting to a stage where, if there’s no reason to turn in the work, many students aren’t going to bother. At such a young age, many of them aren’t aware of the long-term implications of never learning algebra adequately, say. They don’t realize they’ll struggle in higher-level math courses, perhaps be unable to major in the science field they wanted, etc. So not to give them an incentive, I think, is dangerous. Though I agree that dangling a grade like a carrot in front of their noses hardly seems ideal, either.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think people in general do strive to do what is in front of them. The idea that students will cower in fear before a high standard is actually a bit insulting.

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  2. jubilare says:

    “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.” – It’s funny… my mother was just recently contacted by a student to whom she gave a failing grade back in the 70’s. He said that getting the grade was a massive blow, but that it also served as a wake-up call and prompted him to work that much harder. He thanked my mother for being hard on him, for effectively telling him that he could do better. He now has a doctorate and is a minister. …I can’t help feeling that the more we treat people like fragile eggs, the more fragile and helpless they will become. We don’t grow strong by having everyone lift our burdens for us. There’s a golden mean between being too harsh, and not being harsh enough.

    It seems you see the same problems. It’s scary.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I agree that it might be possible to be too harsh and thus demoralizing. On the other hand, I think telling the truth can be a huge incentive. I had a professor who gave me a “C” on one of my first papers in college. I was startled (though I suspect now that she might have just handed them out to everybody on the first paper, to establish her class as difficult), but you can bet I put 20x more effort into the rest of the course and ended up with some sort of “A.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        I agree. A lot of college Freshman have a huge shock when they get their first papers back. Even honor students. Because they simply aren’t prepared. But grade inflation is now slipping into college, too. 😛 Lowering the bar…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I agree so much with this. Giving people real evaluations of their work is immeasurably helpful to them. I got a few B’s on papers in college (shocking, so low, I know :p), but I was definitely more motivated to think about doing better work in that professor’s class. Most of my other professors gave me A’s on papers, and I didn’t put the time in I did for the other professor. Though at least, I think, he made me a better writer in general and it bled over accidentally into other courses.

      I teach a college freshman composition class and a lot of the assignments are designed to let students write personal things about their own language/literacy/writing experiences. It’s really opened my eyes to grade inflation in high school. Last quarter, I think 90% of my students wrote at some point in the class that they had had a 4.0 in high school and thought they were the brightest person ever. And while many of them are bright and lovely people, I don’t understand who DID NOT have a 4.0 in these high schools if every single student in my class did. (An intro writing class, which, theoretically the students “better” at writing test out of and never even take.)

      Many of my students also wrote how shocked and traumatized they were to be getting C’s in college. They don’t understand how they went from A+ students to C students. Many were appalled their high school had “lied” to them about how good their work was and “lied” to them by implying they were ready for college. Seeing the emotional toll grade inflation had on so many of my students when they transitioned to college makes me think it’s not a good thing, even when high schools think it’s helping–for whatever reasons. Give kids a few B’s or even lower grades when they deserve them, and give them a more accurate evaluation of the work they’re turning in.

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      • Krysta says:

        That is an important consideration. Some high schools grade inflate to make sure their students are accepted into college, but they’re not necessarily preparing those students so that they STAY in college. It’s nice for a school to post that they have a “98% college acceptance rate,” but at what cost to their students?

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      • jubilare says:

        Exactly. The people grade inflation hurts are the students! I heard the same story in college from fellow students. In contrast, my teachers (and my mother most of all) kicked my proverbial ass in high school, and by the time I hit college (and grad-school) I was ready. …we all need some pressure if we’re going to succeed. Not so much that we become demoralized, but enough to make us do better.

        But honestly, I suspect the main causes for grade inflation have to do with attempts for a school to churn out good numbers and competition for limited funding. And our nation is going to pay an extremely steep price for out idiocy regarding education. X(

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  3. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Krysta, what an interesting post!
    To be honest, I never really thought about grade inflation, because at my high school, I know we always had our work moderated, not only in the school, but also externally by other teachers from other schools. So I have always assuned that the grades I have received are a true reflection of my work, because other people who aren’t invested in me are also marking it.
    I definitely agree though – I’m against grade inflation, because there are those ethical issues. I know for me especially, I slack off on my work after getting a good grade xD

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, grade inflation isn’t so much about the individual student as it is about the system as a whole. Instructors in a program might be told, for example, to inflate grades so that the students in that program seem to be performing comparably to other programs. But I think it can help to have an outside grader come in, especially as they’ll just be looking at the work and not influenced by how the student was behaving in class.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lola says:

    I hadn’t heard or thought of it before. Maybe because it’s been a few years since I have been in school. I also wonder what can be done against this, as grading is often subjective and it;s hard to change that or objectify that. Maybe your idea of asking another grader would help, but that would take more time, so I wonder if many schools would do that.

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    • Krysta says:

      Grading is subjective to an extent, but there are certain variables someone will look for even in grading an essay–clarity and originality of thesis, strength of the supporting evidence, etc.

      Some schools do have a system where someone other than the instructor might grade an essay, but this will not stop grade inflation. Grade inflation isn’t about how an instructor personally feels about a student or what they deserve–it’s a systemic decision to bump up grades. So, for example, in the past having a vague thesis with weak evidence might have meant you had a “C”, but, across the board, the school might have decided that any student who manages to write a thesis at all automatically gets some sort of “B.”

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  5. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    This is a great post! I can’t believe schools are inflating grades to the point students never fail. Anymore, kids grow up with the everyone gets a trophy concept, and to some extent, I guess I did, too, but I never understood why teachers would hand out fake certificates to every student instead of acknowledging those who excelled in that class. In high school I had a teacher that graded on a curve and I received a 100. No grades were inflated grade when someone in the class received a perfect score. Well, people found out I was the reason they didn’t pass, and I didn’t hear the end of it for a week. I was actually penalized for being smart. It was so ridiculous. I was in first track college prep classes, so the idea of using a curve for a high level class made no sense to me. This happened in multiple classes in high school. I never once saw this in college and I went to four schools and graduated from three of them without once seeing an inflated grade. I’m assuming the inflation is seen mostly in middle school and high school, but that’s when kids need to learn the most. Teachers who inflate grades are only hurting their students, and the parents should understand that’s the difference between getting into college or having no future. I would never want a teacher to hand out a fake grade to my kid if they should’ve failed the class. Repeating a class or grade teaches kids the lesson they need to work hard if they want to succeed. I’m sure there are plenty of parents who only care about their child making it to the next grade regardless of how it happens and that’s a shame for the kid. I had the strictest schedules when it came to school. All I did was read, write, and take tests my mom made so I would not only pass but ace the class. I was so annoyed about this when I was younger, but I understood when the acceptance letters came, and I think some kids need to have some kind of structure. If not from the parents, then it’s the teachers job to instill the importance of learning.

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    • Krysta says:

      Grade inflation does happen in colleges, as well, partly because instructors don’t want to deal with angry students who aren’t accustomed to receiving a low grade (or what they think is a low grade) and partly because the job market is so competitive right now. TAs/GAs hoping to get a job, adjuncts hoping to be hired full time, and professors coming up for review might need or feel they need good student survey results to be hired or promoted. Naturally, students tend to give instructors better reviews when they receive higher grades.

      I think not failing a student is more common in high school and grade schools, but I’ve also heard of cases where a parent’s money or influence ensured that the kid didn’t fail a college course. It’s all supposed to be a secret, but if you catch an instructor in private some will admit they’ve been directed not to fail the kid of the guy who’s on the college board.

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      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        That’s interesting. I could see a parent with money using their influence to force the school into passing their child out of fear of losing donations. I completely forgot about the teacher surveys I had to fill out until you mentioned them. Do schools really pay attention to the results? I never thought our responses would put a professors job in jeopardy. Not that I would write anything that would be a cause for concern either. But after reading tons of book reviews, I can only imagine what kids write on the survey for a teacher that graded them fairly.

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        • Krysta says:

          I’ve never been able to find out who actually reads the teacher surveys. I almost suspect that someone besides the instructor would only read them in case of a review for tenure or something, but I really have no idea. I’ve just heard that adjuncts in particular feel pressure to inflate grades because of the surveys. (And it’s kind of ironic because everyone in academia knows perfectly well that a survey only represents what kinds of grades the students got, so I’m not sure why anyone would attach much meaning to the results.)

          I think ratemyprofessor probably accurately indicates what kinds of comments instructors get. They vary from “This class was easy!” to “This class was hard!” Well…which is it? Or…is the determining factor of ease…not the instructor but the student? And then there are some really funny answers like “The instructor was hard because she made us write a lot” (for a writing course) or “The teacher did not give us the test answers ahead of time.” Then the person gives the professor one star. Truly, the results say far more about the students than they do about the instructors.

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          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            That’s a good point. How can the school really take a survey seriously? It’s not like high school where you’re placed in a track with other students of the same caliber. College is such a mashup of all types of students. There’s the people who barely get in and then those who were at the top of their class. If you throw the best and worst of the bunch into the same class, the results of the survey will be all over the place. I never gave a teacher a bad review, but I’ve also never failed a class or came anywhere close to it, so I’m probably not the best example to use. Still, I would never rate the teacher based off my own inability to learn. I feel like you mostly teach yourself in college. I know I did. I completely agree. The results are a reflection of the students and not the teachers. I know I’ve had my fair share of bad teachers, but I think it’s also up to the student to try to learn the material.

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            • Krysta says:

              I suppose if you consistently received low ratings that would be a warning sign and if anyone read the comments there could be trends in it that might be something the school would want to address. But I also think students can have a difficult time accurately evaluating an instructor when they themselves have had no pedagogical training and aren’t really sure what to look for/evaluate. It’s kind of like me evaluating a doctor. Sure, I could say I felt like I wasn’t being listened to or that I felt rushed or something, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you that the doctor did something wrong unless it was really obvious. I mean…does anyone really know what they’re doing standing there typing away the whole time? What forms they’re filing out or whatever? It’s all a mystery to me because it’s not my job, and I would feel uncomfortable telling said doctor how to do her job when she trained for it and I didn’t.

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            • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

              That’s an excellent point. You could make the case that it should be a peer review instead of a student survey. I worked for a doctor years ago and doctors in the same field perform the evaluations for certain professional and state board certifications and that makes perfect sense. It really is unfair to allow students opinions to influence a professor’s standing with the school. But like you said, there could be trends in the surveys. If 10 of 20 had the same opinion, I’d also wonder if something was going on with the class.

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            • Krysta says:

              I think peer review would be great as really college instructors have no oversight. Grade school teachers have at least yearly observations, but no one really ever goes into a classroom to see what Professor Z has been up to for the last 20 years.

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          • Briana says:

            I think the school both does and does not take professor evaluations seriously. I think the people in the department reading them should have the sense to separate constructive criticism from students bitter about grades or complaining about things that can’t be changed or don’t really matter. But I’ve heard conflicting things from professors at different schools. At least one mentioned being in boring meetings about pay raises listening to the department debate the merits of a 4.6 (out of five) rating in one category vs. a 4.4. *shrug*

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            • Krysta says:

              The criticism can be evaluated, but the star ratings are more difficult to interpret. And…I don’t see the difference between a 4.6 and a 4.4. if there’s little context for it. :/

              Like

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