The Ongoing High Cost of Grade Inflation

Jed Applerouth, PhD
January 10, 2024
#
min read
Group of students shows off their A and A+ grades

Across the country, grades are up. At many institutions, As are no longer special, signifying excellence. In many cases they connote merely average performance.

This is problematic for many reasons. Explaining to your student that her unweighted 3.7 GPA puts her squarely in the middle of the pack can be a difficult conversation. And for the admissions officer at a selective college, wading through transcript after transcript filled with A’s, the job of picking the most deserving student for a coveted spot has never been more challenging.

This wasn’t always the case. Many factors have contributed to the steady rise of grades over time, and Duke researcher Stuart Rojstaczer has been closely following this trend for 20 years. Prior to the pandemic, grade inflation was a problem in American secondary and postsecondary schools, but since we collectively made it through the lockdowns and global experiment in remote learning, grades have never been higher.

One example of the severity of this trend at the college level was recently publicized in the New York Times, citing the research of Yale professor Ray Fair, who found that the share of A’s given at Yale has increased from 67.23 percent in 2010, to 72.95 in 2019 to an eye-popping 78.97 percent in 2023. At Harvard, the share of As similarly spiked from 60 percent in 2011 to 79 percent in 2020-2021. Princeton famously tried to cap its rate of A’s in the mid-2000s at 35%, but other peer institutions did not follow, putting Princeton grads at a relative disadvantage in the job and grad school market. Princeton reversed its position in 2014 and began to inflate undergraduate grades along with its peer schools.

Putting these numbers in historical context is striking given that, according to Rojstaczer’s research, the percentage of A’s given in college classes was a mere 15% in the early 1960s, before the Vietnam War era first influenced grading norms, and hovered around 30% in the 1980s.

The percentage of A’s as a share of all grades shifting from 15% to 80% communicates clearly that grades no longer mean what they used to mean. Our collective agreement and understanding of what an A connotes has changed fairly dramatically from excellence towards base-level proficiency.

The steady inflating of American grades, exacerbated by the pandemic, has many undesirable consequences:

1. The loss of distinction and differentiation

With rampant grade inflation and compression towards the top, grades are no longer the clear signal they once were for indicating exceptional academic performance and achievement. Students appear more similar now than ever before, as we’ve lost the full range of the grading distribution. This poses unique problems for admissions officers looking to build a class, given all the “noise” in the data.

2. The loss of predictive power

It’s no secret that grades in high school are a much weaker predictor of performance in college and beyond than they used to be. This was a principal finding of the research spearheaded by Harvard’s Raj Chetty, analyzing data from the Ivies, Duke, MIT, Stanford and UChicago, which “showed little relationship between high school grade point average and success in college.”

Chetty, Deming and Friedman’s analysis echoes the findings from the University of California’s report on the use of testing in UC admissions, which found the “predictive power” of high school GPA “has declined markedly over the last few years.” Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, cited the internal research from his institution which found that test scores trump high school GPA in predicting undergraduate grades at Yale. Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, could not have been clearer in her framing of the issue: “Standardized test scores are a much better predictor of academic success than high school grades.” Similarly, MIT’s Dean of Admissions, David Schmill, reported to David Leonhardt that “Just getting straight A’s is not enough information for us to know whether the students are going to succeed or not.”

3. More pressure on academic rigor

Hardworking students need to find a way to stand out in a crowded field, and if everyone has A’s then that accomplishment is not going to be a sufficient differentiator.

As a consequence, students have been piling on more academic rigor as a means of differentiating themselves. However, too much academic rigor leads to increased workload and heightened stress, which can compromise student mental health and well-being. Taking 11 AP classes can fundamentally change the experience of being a high school student and take away some of the space and time that many adolescents need to be happy.

4. The disconnection between grades and skills

As high school grades have been steadily rising, with over 47% of students graduating with A averages, measures of actual student achievement have been falling. Performance on the NAEP, the PISA, the SAT and ACT, and APs are all down. The 2022 High School Transcript Study found that grades are up nationally, but performance on the NAEP has been flat or declining. Students are achieving higher grades in more advanced classes without the corresponding gains in proficiency. This poses problems when students will eventually need to call upon skills that should have been taught and integrated.

5. The loss of accountability and challenges for teachers

When teachers face tremendous pressure from parents and administrators to inflate grades, it hurts teachers and weakens the profession. I reported on this back in 2013, when teachers were being counseled to “D ‘em up” rather than fail students, to give higher grades to keep parents happy, and to avoid giving C’s to prevent “taking money out of the parents’ pockets.”

Jessica Grose recently reported that “Teachers Can’t Hold Students Accountable. It’s Making the Job Miserable.” A public school teacher she interviewed said that when a big chunk of the graduating class “has a 4.0, grades are meaningless.” She also cited the unhappiness of teachers who must cow to parents quibbling for higher grades for their children, as one factor dissuading potential teachers from entering the profession.

Practical Tips for Families in Light of Inflated Grades

So, what to do? Princeton tried to make a righteous stand against the rising tide of grade inflation, but retreated. Nobody wants to move alone and face the consequences of competitive dynamics.

In the near term, it seems unlikely there will be a major push to reign in the increasing wave of A’s on transcripts. We don’t have a Jerome Powell, chair of the Fed, charged with reigning in runaway inflation in education. We have a bunch of individual actors, working towards their individual self-interest, compromising the overall system. Superman is not coming. But there are things we can do:

Talk honestly to your kids

Level-set expectations. What do these grades mean, and what do they not mean? What doors will a high GPA open? And when will a high GPA be insufficient? How does a GPA fit into the rubric of holistic admissions?

Listen to your students

Some students may be attaining A’s in a class, but are willing to tell you they have minimal working knowledge of a subject. They get the A, but are not building a foundation of knowledge. This matters if a student has an interest in pursuing a field of study or a career that might require a level of knowledge in a given subject area. In some cases, seeking additional outside help can bolster a student’s functional knowledge in a subject area. In others, dual-enrollment may be one way to bolster a student’s skill set outside what is offered in their high school.

Pay attention to objective measures

Don’t rush to reject feedback from norm-based or criterion-based assessments that are administered to your student. If your student scored below proficiency on the NAEP, but has A’s in class, it’s worth paying attention to that differential.

Different high schools have different grading standards. It’s useful to know how prepared your student will be for more advanced coursework down the road. And if objective measures of ability come in low, it may be helpful to make a change in the course-taking, or to supplement what is taking place in the classroom.

Use objective measures to balance out the more subjective measures

Grading is typically a highly subjective exercise, and different teachers and schools have different standards and definitions of success. This sets up some challenges for admissions offices wading through transcripts from 30,000 US high schools.

While high school grades are determined using different rubrics, scores on AP exams and IB exams are graded on the same scale according to the same rubric for students across the country.

This means that although an A in a high school class may be a weaker signal than it used to be, a 5 on an AP hasn’t experienced the same decline. In fact, AP scores are lower than they used to be. Students who can demonstrate objective mastery on a criterion-referenced test can provide validation to a grade given in a class. That 5 on BC Calculus absolutely validates a student’s 92% class average. The college credit, if available, is not as powerful as the confirmation of skills that a strong AP or IB score conveys.

Keep perspective

So, As abound. This is the world we live in, and it’s likely not changing any time soon. Put a high GPA in its proper context: know what it means and what it doesn’t mean.

As one local college admissions rep put it, “As are great, but what kind of As, and in what classes?”

We are living in a world with grade inflation, application inflation, academic rigor inflation, and ultimately anxiety inflation. Parents can be the voice of reason and sanity for their kids. We all want our kids to do well, but more importantly, we want them to be happy and healthy. Keeping all of this in balance and in its proper context has never been more important.

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