Thoughts on grade inflation, part I: is grade inflation bad?

Grade inflation.  It’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, and ruining everything.  …right?

Well… I’m not so sure.  What I do know is that the typical conversation around grade inflation frustrates me. At best, it often leaves many important assumptions unstated and unquestioned.  Is grade inflation really bad? If so, why? What are the underlying assumptions and values that drive us to think of it in one way or another? At worst, the conversation is completely at the wrong level.  Grade inflation is actually a symptom pointing at a much deeper question, one that gets at the heart of education and pedagogy: what do grades mean? Or, put another way, what do grades measure?

This will be a two-part series.  In this first post, I consider the first question: is grade inflation bad?  In most conversations I have been a part of, this is taken as given, but I think it deserves more careful thought. I don’t know of any reasons to think that grade inflation is good, but I also don’t buy many of the common arguments (often implied rather than explicitly stated) as to why it is bad; in this post I consider three common ones.

What is grade inflation?

Just to make sure everyone is on the same page: by grade inflation I mean the phenomenon where average student grades are increasing over time, that is, the average student now receives higher grades than the average student of n years ago. (You could also think of it as the average value of a given grade going down over time.) This phenomenon is widespread in the US. I am only really familiar with the educational system in the US, so this post will of necessity be rather US-centric; I would be interested to hear about similarities and differences with other countries.

Let’s now consider some common arguments as to why grade inflation is bad.

The “Back in my day…” argument

This is not so much an “argument” as an attitude, and it goes something like this: “Back in MY day, a C really meant a C! These ungrateful, entitled young whippersnappers don’t understand the true value of grades…”

This is a caricature, of course, but I have definitely encountered variants of this attitude. This makes about as much sense to me as complaining “back in MY day, a dollar was really worth a dollar! And now my daughter is asking me for twenty dollars to go to a movie with her friends. TWENTY DOLLARS! These ungrateful, entitled young whippersnappers don’t understand the true value of money…” Nonsense, of course they do.  It just costs $20 to go to a movie these days. A dollar is worth what it is now worth; a C is worth what it is now worth. Get over it.  It’s not that students don’t understand “the true value of grades”, it’s just that the value of grades is different than it used to be.

There are a couple important caveats here: first, one can, of course, argue about what the value of a C ought to be, based on some ideas or assumptions about what grades (should) mean. I will talk about this at length in my next post. But you cannot blame students for not understanding your idea of what grades ought to mean! Second, it is certainly possible (even likely) that student attitudes towards grades have changed, and one can (and I do!) complain about those attitudes as compared to student attitudes in the past. But that is different than claiming that students don’t understand the value of grades.

If I may hazard a guess, I think what this often boils down to is that people blame grade inflation on student attitudes of entitlement. As a potential contributing factor to grade inflation (and insofar as we would like to teach students different attitudes), that is certainly worth thinking about. But grade inflation potentially being caused by something one dislikes is not an argument that grade inflation itself is bad.

The compression argument

Of course, there’s one important difference between money and grades: amounts of money have no upper limit, whereas grades are capped at A+.  This brings us to what I often hear put forth as the biggest argument against grade inflation, that it compresses grades into a narrower and narrower band, squeezed from above by that highest possible A+.  The problem with this, some argue, is that grade compression causes information to be lost.  The “signal” of grades becomes noisier, and it becomes harder for, say, employers and grad schools to be able to distinguish between different students.

My first, more cynical reaction is this: well, cry me a river for those poor, poor employers and grad schools, who will now have to assess students on real accomplishments, skills, and personal qualities, or (more likely) find some other arbitrary measurement to use. Do we really think grades are such a high-quality signal in the first place? Do they really measure something important and intrinsic about a student? (More on this in my next post.)  If the signal is noisy or arbitrary in the first place then compressing it really doesn’t matter that much.

Less cynically, let’s suppose the grade-signal really is that high-quality and important, and we are actually worried about the possibility of losing information. Consider the extreme situation, where grade inflation has progressed to such a degree that professors only give one of two possible grades: A (“outstandingly excellent”) or A+ (“superlatively superb”). An A- is so insultingly low that professors never give it (for fear of lawsuits, perhaps); for simplicity’s sake let’s suppose that no one ever fails, either. In this hypothetical scenario, at an institution like Williams where students take 32 courses, there are only 33 possible GPAs: you could get 32 A+’s, or one A and 31 A+’s, or two A’s and 30 A+’s… all the way down to getting all A’s (“straight-A student” means something rather different in this imaginary universe!).

But here’s the thing: I think 33 different GPAs would still be enough! I honestly don’t think companies or grad schools can meaningfully care about distinctions finer than having 33 different buckets of students. (If you think differently, I’d love to hear your argument.) If student GPAs are normally distributed, this even means that the top few buckets have much less than 1/33 of all the students. So if the top grad schools and companies want to only consider the top 1% of all students (or whatever), they can just look at the top bucket or two. You might say this is unfair for the students, but really, I can’t see how this would be any more or less fair than the current system.

Of course, under this hypothetical two-grade system, GPAs might not be normally distributed. For one thing, if grade inflation kept going, the distribution might become more and more skewed to the right, until, for example, half of all students were getting straight A+’s, or, in the theoretical limit, all students get only A+’s. But I really don’t think this would actually happen; I think you would see some regulating effects kick in far before this theoretical limit was reached. Professors would not actually be willing to give all A+’s (or even, for that matter, all A’s and A+’s).

The GPAs could also be very bimodal, if, for example, students are extremely consistent: a student who consistently scores in the top 40% of every class would get the same grades (all A+’s) as a student who consistently scores in the top 10%. However, I doubt this is how it would work (as any professor knows, “consistent” and “student” are a rare pairing). It would be interesting to actually work out what GPA distributions would result from various assumptions about student behavior.

The moving target argument

The final argument against grade inflation that I sometimes hear goes like this: the problem is not so much that the average GPA is going up but simply that it is moving at all, which makes it harder for grad schools and employers to know how to calibrate their interpretations. But I don’t really buy this one either. The value of money is moving too, and yes, in some grand sense I suppose that makes it slightly harder for people to figure out how much things are worth. But somehow, everyone seems to manage just fine. I think employers and grad schools will manage just fine too. I don’t think GPAs are changing anywhere near fast enough for it to make much difference. And in any case, most of the time, the only thing employers and grad schools really care about is comparing the GPAs of students who graduated around the same time, in which case the absolute average GPA doesn’t matter at all. (One can make an argument about the difficulties caused by different schools having different average GPAs, but that is always going to be an issue, grade inflation or no.)

In the end, then, I am not so sure that grade inflation per se is such a terrible thing. However, it is well worth pondering the causes of grade inflation, and the deeper questions it leads to: what are grades? Why do we give them? What purposes do they serve, and what do they measure? I’ll take up these questions in a subsequent post.

About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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4 Responses to Thoughts on grade inflation, part I: is grade inflation bad?

  1. tikitu says:

    Maybe simple competitiveness can explain some of the visceral emotional response. The older the person complaining about grade inflation is, the more their own grades will have been devalued by it. When it’s your idiot nephews and nieces waltzing through with the same grades you sweated and struggled for, that’s gotta sting.

  2. Christian Conkle says:

    Grades are not capped at A+. At my undergraduate institution, grades are capped at A. At my law school, grades are capped at “A+*”, which is worth 4.667 grade points. They added the star/asterisk to avoid the compression problem when they bumped the mandatory mean up to B/B+. We got mocked on national TV for that; see the top two Google results for “colbert report loyola law school”.

    At middle-tier law schools, grades are important for a tiny number of (high-paying) employers, who systematically hire the top 10% of the class. Large-enough class sizes, the near-universal adoption of mandatory curves, and with law students’ and law professors’ general seriousness regarding the equity and accuracy of examinations and evaluation saves this system from total catastrophe.

  3. L says:

    You’ve addressed the effect of compression on employers and grad schools, but not its effect on students and student culture. For those students who are aware of the distribution of grades (and how much competition exists for employment and graduation education) there may be little effect. But for students who are not, I imagine an “A” still means “well done!”.

    At the other end of the scale, I would probably have benefited (in the longer-term) from being failed in a couple of subjects in which I was nudged over the line. I have little to no competence in these subjects’ material. I don’t mean by this to abdicate responsibility for having worked so poorly.

  4. Vilhelm S. says:

    Even if grad schools don’t need more than 33 different levels of goodness, different ranges might encourage different student strategies. With a larger range, students can let some classes slip and put more effort into other ones. If there are only two grades, and 50% of students get A and 50% get A+, then it’s best to be just slightly above average in all subjects.

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