GRADE INFLATION:
AN APPRAISAL OF THE RESEARCH

Dr. M. Winzer
Faculty of Education
University of Lethbridge

May, 2002

Concerns about grade inflation at North American colleges and universities were first voiced in the early 1970's and became the subject of intensive research and reporting. Today, even in the face of declining research and some evidence to suggest a leveling off of the rate of grade inflation (Mullen, 1995), complaints by faculty and administration about grade inflation are again rampant. Many content that today's grades are designed only to please and placate, and are no longer the helpful measure that they once were.

In a study of seven Ontario universities, researchers found that grade inflation had been significant at every university in almost every subject in a twenty-year period, though some subjects inflated more than other (Frank, 2001). In the United States Zirkel (1999) reports that 'many prestigious undergraduate institutions are trading rather than resisting the trend" (p. 249).

Levine (1994) studied the GPA's of 4900 undergraduate students; he concluded that student GPA's of A- or higher had "almost quadrupled from 1969 to 1993" (p. B3).

Zirkel (1999) reports that "The problem became so acute at the City University of new York that it led to calls for the termination of the chancellor for perpetrating a fraud on the public" (p. 250).

Grade inflation is prominent in the humanities (Shea, 1994), rife in faculties of education. Indeed, education is one of the fields where the trend is particularly pronounced (Zirkel, 1999); Lanning and Perkins (1995) found excessive grade inflation in colleges of education.

A U.S. national survey of urban, nonresidential institutions found that education and the arts typically were high-grading departments, with physical sciences and mathematics low-grading departments (Summerville, Ridley, and Maris, 1990). Further, two 1980 studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Ohio State University each revealed a dramatically higher average grade in the education college as compared to the other colleges (Oldinquist, 1983).

Problems of grade inflation can be traced back to the 1960's (see Hendricksen, 1976).

Response to student clamour for more say in their education.

In the late 1970's, as the outcome of several surveys with resulting negative publicity, there was greater awareness of the problem and the trend seemed to be toward slightly lower grades (Bromfley, Crow, and Gibson, 1978). A resurgence of concern emerge din the mid-to-late 1980's concurred with public concern for enhancing the quality of education (Lanning and Perkins, 1995).

The Problem

Although it appears that students' grade point averages (GPA's) have remained somewhat stable over the past five to ten years, it is clear that they rose substantially from the mid-1960's through to the mid-80's (Stone, 1995).

Because such a significant increase in grade averages apparently fails to represent an actual increase in learning, we must assume that higher grades are a result of grade inflation (Basinger, 1997).

Grade inflation has been defined in a number of ways from varied perspectives. In general, the phenomenon can be seen as the upward drift of grades or "an unwarranted number of students . . . receiving honors" (Summerville, Ridley, and Maris, 1990, p.33). It occurs when there is a mal-distribution of grades characterized by an excess of A's and B's in a class (Shoemaker and DeVos, 1999). It is also defined as an increase in grade point average without an increase in ability (Bejar and Blew, 1981; Hadley and Vitale, 1985) and occurs "when a grade is viewed as being less rigorous than it ought to be" (Mullen, 1995, p. 2) and when instructors provide falsely favourable feedback (Kirkel, 1999).

Others dispute the term grade inflation and prefer grade compression (e.g. Cizek, 1996; Hancher, 1994). Cizek contends that because there is no higher grade than an A, A's remain A's but B's become A's, C's become B's, and so on. The result is that it takes less to achieve an A, there are almost no failures, there are few C's, and the majority of grades are A's and B's.

Ontario researchers found a drop in the number of students getting low grades in most courses, and an increase in the number getting high grades (Frank, 2001). They found that the trend toward grade inflation at the upper end of the marking scheme was in English, French, music and biology. At the other end of the spectrum, most of the inflation was accounted for by fewer fails being assigned in many of the sciences, including chemistry, math, and economics, although they too experienced some increase in the proportion of A's (Frank, 2001).

Little data support the speculations about the root causes of grade inflation.

Students are better today. Many researchers dispute whether this is so. They argue that current students possess on average no greater capacity than did students in the past, but actually demonstrate less mastery of basic educational skills - less ability to read, write, think, and calculate - than did their counterparts generations age (Leo, 1993; Wingspread Group cited in Stone, 1995). In deed, according to Levine (1994) indicators actually point to a decline in college students' academic ability since 1969. Nor does it appear that students are more highly motivated today than in the past. Rather, to many professors it seems that the goals of an increasing number of students is to receive higher grades with the least amount of time and effort possible (Chadwick and Ward, 1987).

The size of an institution

Funding

Grades encourage learning In a study that compared grade inflation rates among students of different abilities at an open admissions public university, McSpirit and Jones (1999) suggested that faculty might be using grades to encourage learning rates among marginal students.

Adult learners. Many of these are over achievers and will drop a course rather than accept a grade of B (Hultgren, 1994).

Only about 30 percent of institutions used student evaluations in 1973 (Wilson, 1998).

Rigorous graders can become casualties of a system where the stress has become keeping the customer satisfied.

Student expectations

Baker (1994) attributes at least some inflation as "the result of wilting professorial backbone."

Cole (1993) attributes the problem to faculty laziness, claiming that it easier to record a good grade than a bad one. Faculty do not have to justify high grades; they have to defend low marks.

As many areas, particularly education, have shifted from a strictly objective positivist view of learning to a more constructivist approach, the nature of the student-faculty relationship has changed. Many professors experience difficulty in reconciling the activity of teaching as involving collaborative learning between teachers and students and the distancing that traditional approaches to student evaluation create.

Tension between norm-referenced and criterion-referenced evaluation. The collegiate setting is a norm-referenced world.

According to Mitchell (1998) a particularly insidious problem is grade variation within and among individual courses.

Others argue that inflated grades emerge as professors spoon-feed students and entertain more than they did in the past. Although students in the past had to put forth effort to determine what was significant in a required reading or lecture, many today are simply told what they need to know. Thus, while students receive better grades they have not been helped to master the material in any lasting way and may indeed have been hindered from doing so (Crumbley, 1995; Darby, 1995).

Instructor Workload. In institutions where large class sizes are encouraged, the work load may be a factor. When classes are excessively large, or a faculty member has multiple teaching, service, and scholarly commitments, the time spent on the evaluation of students' performance may be compromised (Rieck, 1993).

Blurring of the faculty-student relationship. When a faculty member encourages or allows less familiar a milieu, objectivity may be diminished and grade inflation may result.

Implications

Two basic purposes accrue to the assignment of grades. The first is to inform students about their achievement both individually and in relation to their classmates. The second purpose is to inform the public, potential employees, regulatory bodies, and graduate schools of students' performance (Shoemaker and DeVos, 1999).

Traditionally, it was held that grades accurately measured academic performance, a students' ability to think critically, solve problems, and master content - and were therefore a meaningful guide to parents, employers, and graduate schools.

Ultimately, grade inflation means that the students' work today is no longer being assesses appropriately.

Grade compression tends to erase differences as the better students receive the same grades as everybody else (Hancher, 1994).

Inflated grades indicate watered down course content. Today's students, it is argued, are not required to master as much material as they once were. Nor is the material as challenging. Thus, even assuming students are receiving the grades they have earned - assuming they have mastered what they have been asked to master - students today are not as prepared as they were in the past (Crumbley, 1995).

It is damaging for students because grade inflation disturbs students' own views of their actual competence and achievement (Cizek, 1996).

Graduate programs are, in turn, negatively affected when entering students lack the requisite knowledge and skills.

Lundrum 91999) found that students do not discriminate well between evaluating the course, the instructor, and their own performance.

Responses and solutions

High grades are not inherently undesirable. Most teachers implicitly and explicitly encourage students to achieve high marks and every school has many ways of honoring students who do so (Basinger, 1997).

Ideally, dealing with grade inflation is a faculty responsibility.

Some schools are relenting to grade inflation rather than fighting it.

Perry Zirkel, an education professor, attempted to correct the problem. He reported that "Even if you try to correct this problem in a relatively innocuous, positive way, you're met with either total apathy or downright resistance" (cited in Gose, 1997, p. A41).



© Maggie Winzer, 2005. This site last updated: May 3, 2005