Inflated grades on school report cards: Who are harmed the most?

Just as price inflation can harm individual consumers and businesses and slow economic growth, grade inflation can harm students, schools and slow the growth or advancement of the U.S. education system. Recent studies have found a disquieting trend: grade inflation happens in both high-poverty schools where there is a large proportion of ethnic minority students, and in private schools and public schools serving wealthy communities. Many schools seem to be inflating grades, and school report cards may not be telling parents the true performance of their children.

What is grade inflation?  

“The subjective nature of grades and grading practices, affected by varying standards and/or interpretations on behalf of teachers, contributes to the phenomenon referred to as grade inflation” (Ziomek & Svec, 1995). Two scenarios are often connected with grade inflation: (1) students are awarded higher grades than they deserve, which yields a higher average grade (e.g., GPA), and (2) there is a tendency to award progressively higher academic grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past. Unfortunately, current studies reveal the existence of both.

  • More than one-third of B students do not reach proficiency in the final exam of Algebra I

The longitudinal trend shows that the inflation rate is getting higher today than a decade ago. Recently, researchers with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that more than one-third of the students who received Bs from their teachers in Algebra 1 failed to score “proficient” on the statewide end-of-course (EOC) exam for the course (Figure 1). Additionally, the study revealed that while the median GPA rose in all schools, it rose by 0.27 points in affluent schools (i.e. where less than 50% of students participated in the National Free and Reduced Lunch (NFRL) program) but just 0.17 points in less affluent schools (i.e. where more than 50% of school students participated in the NFRL program) (Figure 2). In other words, the grades seem more inflated in affluent schools than in less affluent schools.

Figure 1

Figure 1: More than one-third of B students do not reach proficiency in the final exam of Algebra I (Image from Thomas B. Fordham Institute)

Figure 2(1)

Figure 2(2)

Figure 2: More grade inflation occurred in schools attended by more affluent youngsters than in those attended by the less affluent (2005-2016)

(Images from Thomas B. Fordham Institute)

  • Students of color who received inflated grades were given low-level assignments

Grade inflation may also exacerbate the achievement gap associated with the socioeconomic status of students. According to a new study by the non-profit organization TNTP (The New Teacher Project) across four school districts and one charter network, “71 percent of students succeeded on the assignments they were given, but only 17 percent of those assignments were actually on grade level.” The study specifically examined students of color who received letter grades that were inflated relative to their performance on standardized tests and found that they were consistently given lower-level assignments even though some of them could do grade-level homework. Consistent with Fordham’s study, which pointed out that grade inflation may potentially widen the “GPA Gap” between students in more affluent schools and students in less-affluent schools, the TNTP study shows evidence that grade inflation has become a barrier to students’ equal educational opportunities.

Who are harmed the most by grade inflation?

Grade inflation creates a false sense of students’ academic progress. According to the 2018 NAEP report (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), two-thirds of 8th graders do not read proficiently at grade level and only one third of students entering high school are proficient in reading. Research shows that in the United States, anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of first-year college students require remediation in English, math, or both. Inflated GPAs give students a pass to advance from grade to grade and eventually graduate from high school, but the resulting insufficient literacy and numeracy seriously affect the future success of these graduates.

Grade inflation embarrasses school districts and exacts negative impacts on education in the long run. In Washington D.C., an investigation into the public school system (DCPS) revealed that one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received a diploma, because they lacked the proper credits to graduate, had excessive absences, or completed “credit recovery” programs for courses they hadn’t yet attempted. As a result of this scandal, the graduation rate of DCPS drastically dropped from 73 percent in 2017 to only 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools who are on track to graduate in 2018.

Grade inflation is detrimental to school systems because it is a manifestation of lowering standards. When high-achieving district, Montgomery County of Maryland decided to abolish tests in high school in 2015, school leaders saw grade inflation following the elimination of final exams. In the case of DCPS, the school’s administrators told teachers that a high percentage of their students were expected to pass and encouraged them to provide makeup work and extra credit to students, no matter how much school they missed. Although educators constantly face challenges and pressures from parents and school administration, sacrificing principles is not the way to help every student succeed.

What questions should school leaders ask themselves in the context of grade inflation?

While not every school or school district faces this issue, grade inflation is real. “New data show the percentage of A’s across core math courses nearly doubled from the first semester of 2014-2015 to last school year, rising from 16 percent to almost 32 percent. B’s rose more modestly while C’s, D’s and E’s dipped.” Grade inflation challenges school leaders to rethink expectations for students and standards used for evaluating students and reporting to parents.

Some questions school leaders may want to consider include:

  • Does your school district explicitly inform parents of the difference between course grades (using letters and Grade Point Average (GPA)) and final test scores?

GPA and test scores each provide valuable information because they measure different aspects of a student’s performance and potential. We need both; schools should use both to communicate with students and parents. While statewide test scores are external measurements not developed or graded by the classroom teacher, they can serve as an “audit” of course grades and progress to preserve high standards at the classroom level.

  • Does your school district provide additional useful information about students’ achievement on school report cards?

Recently, Montana’s Office of Public Instruction proposed that school report cards use graphs instead of letter grades to “show how a school’s students stack up against the rest of the state – mostly on standardized tests.” Whether this is a good practice is still arguable, but at least school leaders are working on designing useful school report cards for parents, students and the education community.

  • Does your school district add professional development for teachers and principals to learn how to give students both realistic feedback and dedicated support?

Sometimes, teachers lower standards because they are unable to identify the approaches and content that align with their state standards. On other occasions, teachers want to highlight incentives for student effort and learning by giving students encouraging grades. However, “holding students to a high bar requires a zealous and persistent commitment by everyone—from superintendents, principals, and parents, to assistant teachers and office staff.” To an extent, professional development will help everyone to share a clear understanding of what the standards are, and how educators can support students who need to meet the ambitious expectations of which we know they are capable.

In summary, grade inflation exists; it harms students, schools and the education system. When everybody gets an A, it is hard to discern what an A on a report card signifies. With an inflated A, parents hardly know whether their children are ready for college and for postsecondary life. Worst of all, an inflated A may jeopardize the learning opportunities and supports that students need and should have.