Academia: Grade Inflation

Academia Series:
Part One
Part Two

In the world of business economics, inflation is defined as a general increase in the cost of goods and/or services. In education, grade inflation is the general rise in the expected standard grade level of students, which is accompanied by an uneven difficulty in achieving said expectations.

Everyone is familiar with the standard letter grade system in most American high schools. A through F (excluding E), these grades are supposed to gauge the student’s performance in class, which is usually derived from a combination of factors such as attendance, in-class focus and participation, homework, and test scores.

Now, not too long ago, straight-A students were part of the rare elite, the best-of-the-best valedictorians who seemed to know everything anyone could ever need to. This is because C was actually considered “average”. It was the baseline, the starting point. A C was what you used to get when you did an okay job – something that every student should, with only a little effort, be able to achieve. B was above-average. They tried a little bit harder, they studied longer, but a B was a good grade. Bright students were B averages. An A was “exceeding expectations”. “A” students went the extra mile. They aced most of the tests, they turned in all the homework, they were early to class every day. It took effort to get an A in some classes.

These days, however, parents are constantly expecting more from their kids. Now, a C is a “bad” grade. You’re not trying hard enough. You can do better. B’s have become the new average, though many parents still consider it to be barely “acceptable”. Now, A is the goal, and often the expectation.

In some classes, it has become easier to get an A. If you show up on time, you turn in all the assignments, and you study for the tests, it’s expected that you’ll get an A. Many teachers now grade homework based on if you tried, even if you didn’t get all the questions right, leading to an easier grading system. Other teachers provide lots of extra credit and easy opportunities, knowing that many of the students want and expect an A. Students will sometimes freak out if they are not getting an A.

Other teachers, however, do not buy in to grade inflation. Shindledecker, the amazing Biology teacher who was mentioned before, believed that a B or a C grade was still good, that it was a heartfelt effort on the part of the student. When we took his tests, he felt that all students should feel challenged by the test, so I cannot recall a single test where even one student got 100%. He said, “If you get 100% on everything, you shouldn’t be in this class.” There were even questions that he would get wrong on his own tests. So the tests were difficult, the homework was involved and required actual thought. If half the class only got a C, he felt that was as it should be. It shouldn’t be easy to get an A, because then it robs from those who actually try hard to do so.

So where does that leave us students? What effect does it have on the teachers? If everyone knows about this whole inflation thing, it can’t be a big deal, right?


Not everyone fully “gets” the concept of grade inflation, and that while some classes will grant you an A for sitting down and not speaking, other classes make it far more difficult. So if a student tries hard but still struggles, perhaps because an A is reaching beyond their ability, they get a “low” grade of a B or C.

Which is better for the student: To try hard and to struggle and to push yourself, and only get a C, or to slack off in an easy class and get a free A without learning anything?

Parent’s don’t always care, though, what experiences matter and what builds character. They just want the grades. So when a pressured student is falling behind, they freak out, and they talk to the teacher. Often it dissolves into “Please give me an A, if you don’t my parents will be really mad at me and they won’t get me the car they were gonna give me for graduation.” So teachers feel the pressure, too.

To put myself in the situation: I am in AP Calculus. I’m also close to failing the class. Mostly due to a lack of motivation, but it could’ve legitimately been due to me struggling to understand the material. So if I had a C, or even worse, a D or an F, which are in no way acceptable by my parents, then I am led to believe that I have failed myself in some way, that I was not good enough. Yet, I tried, and certainly I must have learned something. Yet, I could just as easily have dropped out and enrolled in a Geometry or Algebra class, not learning anything because I already know it, but skating through the class and taking away an A. Clearly, another A means another success, right?

Letters are a poor indication of a student’s worth or ability. What you don’t see is how hard they tried for that grade. How long they studied, or how often they goofed off and went on a date rather than practicing their Spanish homework. No, instead expectations of students are rising, which in some ways is good but overall puts pressure on the student.

Don’t judge by grades. There is a general shift in the way colleges view grades, which gives me hope. Instead of looking just at the G.P.A, many colleges now look at what the actual classes were. How many of them. How challenging were they. It’s a positive trend that I hope continues to parents.

The trials and tribulations of a young student’s mind cannot be summarized through the use of a single letter. Grades do not tell you the journey, only the end destination; but in the words of Book, “How you get there is the worthier part.”

And everything changes
And nothing is truly lost
-Neil Gaiman

Academia: Grade Inflation

2 thoughts on “Academia: Grade Inflation

  1. 2

    I tell this story too often, so forgive me but it really did make an impression on me. During the ’60’s you could get a draft deferment by staying in school and getting a certain grade average – I don’t remember what it was. Students used to come to my father and say; “But Dr. Wiman, if I don’t get this grade, I’ll end up in Vietnam!”To which he would reply; “With motivation like that, you couldn’t study?”The story made me uneasy because I was a very poor student – my reading comprehension is not great and I get things mixed up. I understand what drives grade inflation but I’m darned if I know how to get rid of it.

Comments are closed.