Stopping Grade Inflation Not So Simple

By Shalyn Hopley

Earlier this year the Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief editorial article on grade inflation, “To stop grade inflation, just stop inflating grades” by Allison Friederichs. Friederichs argued that while many professors claim they do not inflate grades and insist that their colleagues also abstain from inflating, grade inflation continues to impact almost all institutions of higher education.

Friederichs suggests a multitude of reasons for the disparity between professors’ self-perception of their grading standards and their role in the pervasiveness of grade inflation. One possible reason for this is that professors really do believe they give the grades their students earn. Another proposition is that educators purposely deceive themselves into thinking they do not personally contribute to grade inflation. The final psychological explanation offered involved collective identity, where professors hear their colleagues talk about not inflating grades and, therefore, assume they are not guilty of inflation either. On a more practical level, course evaluations have been suggested as the reason for the phenomenon, as teachers observe the impact of the grades they give on the course evaluations students provide.

Friederichs’ ultimate point is that professors need to stop inflating grades. If educators are serious about teaching students, they should insist upon giving students the grades they earn; higher grading standards encourage students to learn both the material and how to work for an achievement. If some professors would set an example, others would follow and eventually the problem of overly-high grades for substandard work would be alleviated.

In many ways, Friederichs makes a good point. In a 2011 New York Times article, a study of over 200 universities, colleges, and institutions of higher learning showed that over forty-three percent of grades were in the A range. With that in mind, an A no longer represents exceptional work and instead it becomes the majority of work produced by students. According to Hamid Zangenehzadeh in “Grade inflation:  A way out,” grade inflation also makes it impossible to compare performance between institutions, departments, and even individual courses. Grade inflation hurts students, however, not in the way that Friederichs says it does. Friederichs wrote “by inflating grades, we are failing to teach students what it means to succeed, which erodes their self-esteem.” Rather than not learning to succeed being the problem with grade inflation, the fundamental issue is that students are not learning what it means to fail. Students need to be able to fail in order to develop the determination to succeed, and grade inflation prevents students from learning this vital lesson.

Friederichs’ idea has a solid foundation, but she provides little insight into the shorter term consequences of taking this nebulous “first step” towards combating grade inflation as a professor. She proposes that professors believe that positive student evaluations are increased by higher grades. Conversely it would seem that lackluster grades would increase the number of negative student reviews a professor receives at the end of the semester. Evaluations, among many other things, are used to determine issues such as tenure, promotions, and salary increases at many universities and colleges, and are an important part of assessing an educator’s performance. The professors who start the trend of deflating grades are likely to suffer professionally for setting high grading standards. According to a 1991 Journal of Economic Perspectives article by Richard Sabot and John Wakeman-Linn, “Grade Inflation and Course Choice,” grades are also an incentive in course selection. If a professor routinely has small class sizes, it can negatively impact his career at a university.

Friederichs advertises a simple solution to grade inflation, but her solution is anything but simple. In order to stop grade inflation, professors must face many professional obstacles, potentially risking their careers in the name of academic integrity. Short of institution-wide coordination in deflating grades, acting individually does not appear to be an inviting option. So while Friederichs’ proposed solution may eventually succeed, it is easier said than done.

Shalyn Hopley is a senior at Clark University majoring in English. Clark University is home to the Lambda of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.