Grade Inflation: A Complicated Story

"Grade inflation" is, apparently, everywhere. I hear about it in the news. Employers complain about it. Universities aren't sure what to do with all those student's "inflated" entrance averages. So goes the lament over this supposedly new and vexatious phenomenon.

Let's pause for one moment though and think about what the term "grade inflation" is trying to tell us. On the one hand, it is claiming that grades have gone up among high school and university students. It also encourages us to think negatively about this change. Grade inflation implies that these grades are not reflective of student achievement and that by extension students do not deserve them. Grades are going up, we are led to believe, because educators are just handing students the marks they want.

It would be pointless to dispute the first part of this claim. Grades have most definitely risen across the board. However, I think the other ideas encapsulated within the term "grade inflation" are an oversimplification. They are the result of the poor understanding those outside of high schools have regarding recent changes in assessment and teaching.

For one, you need to understand that in high school educators don't evaluate students anymore, we evaluate their work. Like a private contractor, we care that the students produce good work and that it arrives by an agreed upon or negotiated deadline. We don't remove marks for late assignments because if an assignment is behind schedule by a few days or so. We negotiate extensions to ensure product quality. Partly this is good pedagogy, as many studies show that this means more students actually complete assignments. The result is greater student learning, which is the goal if you are a teacher and not a gate-keeper. On the other hand, it is also the product of school policy in response to legal challenges about the deduction of late marks. Either way, it's actually better for the student because they learn more. It doesn't mean we don't give feedback on the performance of students. If you have a look at the report cards handed out by Ontario schools you will note that students are given different levels of achievement on their work habits. Universities have decided not to pay much attention to this information in their admissions policy, opting for the more straightforward, and perhaps misleading, focus on final grades. Though its a topic for another post, one wonders if universities shouldn't be paying more attention to students study skills, given that success in university relies on a very specific set of competencies and a particular learning style.

Student's who fail have also been a target of changes in assessment policy. I hope it is an uncontroversial statement to say that when a student fails a course they don't learn anything, usually because they don't do the work. So even if you find the well documented evidence about the negative effects of failure on self-esteem and future performance too touchy-feely for your hard nosed approach to education, students who are forced to complete credit requirements just learn more, which is the goal. That's why we have credit rescue and credit recovery for students who don't meet minimum standards, but are close enough that a few extra weeks of remediation, or a make-up assignment will get them the credit.

So this explains partly why grades are going up overall, because less students are failing and are learning more. However, these are not the students, generally speaking, who end up in university. What about all those 90%+ students flooding into universities only to see their grades drop 15%-20%. First of all, the averages reported for grade decline are for all students, not just those with high marks, so it is hard to say exactly how much of a decline is seen among top achievers. But this decline is also indicative of the big divide in assessment policy between university and high school. High schools give A+ when student work reaches the maximum expectations for the assignment. Universities almost only give A+ and even A when student work exceeds course expectations. A+ and A are on the grade scale, but in reality aren't an option for instructors. Some universities actually actively discouraging them from assigning such high marks. This amounts to a 10-15% drop in grades right out of the gate and has nothing to do with student achievement, so much as differing cultures: teaching vs. gate-keeping.

If we dig down deeper we find that university admissions and funding policy are a big contributor to the poor fit for new university students. They have hard cut-offs for awards which encourages students and parents who are only one or two percent short of an award threshold to lobby for those extra few percentage points to get a student more money. If the student is generally good than this one or two percent variance may not mean a great deal of difference on an individual basis, overall though it does raise marks at the top end. I am still skeptical that this one or two percent is somehow the major culprit. The fixation university instructors have with marking to bell curves, makes most of the data on grade inflation hard to read. As my previous post pointed out, it means those grades don't reflect student achievement but instead an abstracted ideal of what student achievement should look like. Suddenly, this issue is a lot more complicated.

What I think is ultimately at the heart of the divergent grades are two factors: differing cultures of literacy and poorly adapted university pedagogy, especially at the first and second year levels, In the first instance, students in high school are exposed to a post-literate, or multiple literacies culture. This is often stated pejoratively to highlight poor writing skills. What it actually means is that students are encouraged to communicate in print and non-print form in a variety of formats. Writing an essay is only one form of expression among many that high schools try to develop. In universities, essay or review writing is sometimes the only form of expression encouraged in the first two years. In short, the university structure of lectures in first year and seminars in upper years is completely backwards and fits poorly with how students have been taught. The shock of entering a totally foreign learning culture is likely part of the reason for the grade inflation 

The second source of the disconnect is the prevalence of poor pedagogy in the first two years of university. Students move from a high school environment that communicates clear expectations, gives straightforward assessments and provides support to maximize student achievement and learning to an environment with no support, few clear expectations and a pedagogy based on the least innovative and least effective way of imparting knowledge: the lecture. Fifty years ago, lecturing or talk-and-chalk, was probably fine for students entering university. At that time high schools tended to throw knowledge at students and see what stuck. For those who already had the learning skills - university was the natural next step where they could keep being effective learners on their own. University faculty didn't have to teach in any real sense, not because students were better prepared, but because the only ones who squeezed through the door were the ones who figured things out all on their own.

Lecturing is the definition of spoon feeding information, and students don't want to be spoon fed. They want a chance to think and develop their own relationship to the knowledge. They want clear expectations. "How do I get an A?" doesn't mean what do you want me to write. They are asking What are your expectations? If too many students are asking you this, it means you haven't been clear about what you want.  Also, they shouldn't have to chase you down in office hours to get this information, it should be evident in the description of the assignment. So many professors complain about low critical thinking skills, but what chance do students have to practice those skills during your three hour monologue on the printing press and the public sphere? There are those who will defend the university approach to learning over the secondary school approach. That is fine. But even if you prefer the university system over the one emerging in secondary schools, it is still clear that the issue at the root of the grade inflation debate is divergent educational and institutional cultures, not grades that are poor representations of student achievement. A 90% in high school is not the same as a 90% in university. That doesn't mean the student really isn't a 90% high school student. Those two standards are increasingly disconnected and very different.

So where are we to go? First, universities need to stop giving hard cut-offs for awards. They also need to start using the learning skills as part of their admission and awards criteria if they want student who will fit well in the University environment as it is. More important, is a major rethink of how we teach first and second year students at the undergraduate level that better appreciates the skills and knowledge they have in order to build on it. We should dispense with a system that simply throws them into the water to see if they can swim. This means more money, smaller classes (or at least more effective and involved TAs) and more opportunity for engaged rather than passive learning. Lecturing still plays a role. By all means record a one or one and a half hour lecture each week and post it for student to watch, then do something more useful with your three hours of class time that actually helps your students develop a better grasp on the course content and readings. Who knows, they might actually learn something.

Back to Blog

© Braden Hutchinson 2014