(#311) Grade Inflation: Have We Arrived In Lake Wobegon?

Grade inflation/distortion has consequences for
self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-competence.

For most colleges and universities around the nation, graduation time has arrived. Professors have evaluated the final exams, grades have been submitted, and students anxiously await their grades. Or, more to the point of this post, they await their expected “A.”

Grade inflation

The condition that, if you stop and think, moves toward making everyone average.  If “A” is supposed to represent “Superior” or “Stand Out” but the majority of students are getting As, doesn’t that mean that the “A” has become more average than a rank of superiority? After all, if 40%, 50% or more of the students have inflated grades, how do the truly exceptional stand out and how do employers identify the great ones from the less-than great?

Maybe, we now live in the land where everyone is superior.  Doubtful.

Image: prakairoj@FreeDigitalPhotos

Image: prakairoj@FreeDigitalPhotos

Does grade inflation actually exist?

One extensive study pinpoints two eras of high grade inflation: The Vietnam War Era and the Student as Consumer Era (1980s to present era). The grade of “A,” according to this research (and more) is the most common grade now at both four and two-year institutions. A few years ago a Harvard professor “stirred up controversy by criticizing rampant grade inflation at his institution.”

The obvious question: Why does this exist?

While each institution may differ, some of the reasons put forth for grade inflation include:

  • Inflated high school grades do not equip incoming college students with the experience of receiving grades other than an “A.”
  • The student as “customer” mentality where the customer is always right creates expectations that have to be fulfilled.
  • Higher tuition costs are a fact and, thus, parents clamor to get what they paid for (high grades).
  • Student evaluations of faculty—and the use of those evaluations for tenure, promotion or renewal of contract can intimidate faculty.
  • Students have become obsessed with receiving (not necessarily earning) nothing less than an “A” for their graduate school application.
  • Where there is a larger reliance (at community colleges, for instance) on adjunct instructors—their concern for job retention may influence grades.
  • A lack of consistent standards across a department or discipline can create a wild west of grade distribution.

Video recommendation of the week.

In this video, The Economist takes a look at forces associated with grade inflation.

Inflation or Distortion?

But does grade inflation actually exist?  If we follow an economic argument, it does not. In true economic inflation there is no cap on prices. They keep rising. But in what passes for grade inflation, there is, in fact, a cap. There is no grade higher than an “A.” So what we really have is grade distortion.

Time for Question-storming

Whatever we call it, it exists. But what or who causes it? Certain departments? Particular courses? The same instructors?

Interesting anecdotal observation: When the charge of grade inflation is leveled, it generally appears to be aimed at the previous classes or instructors. The finger tends to point to another colleague, another campus, or another school as the culprit.

Can grade inflation be attributed to “academic freedom”? That is, each instructor can establish the best way to gauge and rank progress for her students.

If a student got an “A” in a feeder course and is struggling in the next level, is that because of grade inflation or does the current instructor deserve some scrutiny as well?

If they do not already exist, would agreed-upon departmental objectives, standards, performance benchmarks, and/or assessments help eliminate or prevent or, at least, minimize grade inflation?

What is the connection, if any, between grades issued and faculty evaluations? If a relationship exists, can it be transparently proven? If a relationship exists, should it be discontinued?

What have been the consequences of grade inflation? Does it lead to a poorly-prepared and a deceptively-delivered product (diplomas or certifications) for the future employers?

And will students who have come to expect inflated (or distorted) grades come to expect the same on employee evaluations, salary raises, and promotions? After all, if I got top grades should I not get top dollar as well?

If we believe the research, we find ourselves where more and more students are average and it’s not a fictional town. It has consequences for self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-competence.

Make it an inspiring week as you pursue your authentic “hell, yeah!” goals.—H.T.R.B. as needed.

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You can find my podcast series at Growth and Resilience (http://stevepiscitelli.com/video-media/podcasts). 

Check out my website  (http://www.stevepiscitelli.com/programs.html) for programming information as well as details about upcoming webinars (http://www.stevepiscitelli.com/webinars).

My books Choices for College Success (3rd edition) and Study Skills: Do I Really Need This Stuff?  (3rd edition) are published by Pearson Education.

(c) 2016. Steve Piscitelli. All rights reserved.


About stevepiscitelli

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This entry was posted in accountability, adjunct faculty, Appropriate Behavior, assumptions, awareness, college retention, confidence, courage, Dreams, Education, education reform, emotional intelligence, Grit, Integrity, Life lessons, Personal growth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to (#311) Grade Inflation: Have We Arrived In Lake Wobegon?

  1. Modwyn says:

    What do you think of grading contracts? Competency badges?


  2. It would depend (I would think) on the level/rigor of the stated competency. Having said that, the contract would spell out that in order to “get this grade” you have to “do this work; develop this skill; show this amount of improvement.” When I first started teaching (7th graders), the district had minimal level skills tests. In order to pass the course, the students had to score a certain percentage on the test at the end of the year. The competencies were “minimal” but they were stated. Thanks for the question.


  3. Pingback: (#344) A Blogger’s Retrospective: 2016 In Review | Steve Piscitelli

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