Grade inflation

Grade inflation is the supposed increase over time of academic grades, faster than any real increase in standards.

It is frequently discussed in relation to U.S. education, and to GCSEs and A levels in England and Wales.


Grade inflation is often conflated with lax academic standards. For example, the following quote about lax standards from a Harvard University report in 1894 has been used to claim that grade inflation has been a longstanding issue: "Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily ... insincere students gain passable grades by sham work." . Issues of standards in American education have been longstanding. However, rising grades did not become a major issue in American education until the 1960s.

Until recently, the evidence for grade inflation in the US has been sparse, largely anecdotal, and sometimes even contradictory; firm data on this issue was not abundant, nor was it easily attainable or amenable for analysis. A Stanford University report in the 1990s showed that grades had been rising since the 1960s; in an effort to stem grade inflation, Stanford changed its grading practices slightly. National surveys in the 1990s generally showed rising grades at American colleges and universities, but a survey of college transcripts by a senior research analyst in the U.S. Department of Education found that grades declined slightly in the 1970s and 1980s. Data for American high schools were lacking.

However, recent data leave little doubt that grades are rising at American colleges, universities and high schools. Leaders from a number of institutions, including Harvard University and Princeton University, have publicly stated that grades have been rising and have made efforts to change grading practices. An evaluation of grading practices in US colleges and universities written in 2003, shows that since the 1960s, grades in the US have risen at a rate of 0.15 per decade on a 4.0 scale. The study included over 80 institutions with a combined enrollment of over 1,000,000 students. An annual national survey of college freshmen indicates that students are studying less in high school, yet an increasing number report high school grades of A- or better.

The debate on grade inflation has moved from assessment to causes. Are grades rising because standards are being lowered or because students are producing better work? If grades are increasing, but standards have remained the same, then grade inflation should not be a cause for concern, but would be a positive development. Grade inflation would reflect an improvement in students' work. If, on the other hand, grades are rising because standards have been lowered, then no conclusions can be drawn about changes in the quality of students' work.

'''Possible problems of lowering of academic standards associated with grade inflation:

  • Grade inflation makes it more difficult to identify the truly exceptional students, as more students come to get the highest possible grade.
  • Grade inflation is not uniform between schools. This places students in more stringently graded schools and departments at an inequitable disadvantage.
  • Grade inflation is not uniform among disciplines. In the United States, it is commonly asserted that grade inflation is more pronounced in the humanities than in the mathematical sciences, leading students to avoid taking classes in the sciences which may prove to be beneficial to them.

Arguments against taking action on grade inflation:

  • Higher grades at some schools may reflect better performance than others (although with no national standard, there can be no way to compare one school to another by grades).
  • Although grade inflation doesn't evenly distribute through departments, it is arguable, due to the subjective nature of grades, that interdepartmental grading practices were not even in the first place (e.g. how is one supposed to determine the English equivalent of an A's worth of work in Physics?)

Similarly, if one believes the purpose of a school is to better oneself and gain an understanding of the subjects, then one might not care too much if people are getting better grades than before, regardless of the cause. Indeed, it could be construed as a positive development since it might lessen the negative effects that some say grades have (see Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn).


The pressure to reduce standards placed on teachers can come from parents, students, and schools. This is especially true since, if other schools or teachers are inflating grades, any school or teacher that takes a "hold out" stance will place its students at a disadvantage. Some educators may feel pressured to give higher grades for fear of students complaining and receiving bad course evaluations, thereby diminishing their reputation resulting in denial of promotion or tenure, or causing them to face lower enrollment in their classes. Indeed, Professor Harvey Mansfield gives two grades to students at Harvard, an official inflated grade, and an unofficial grade that he feels a student deserves. Course evaluations produced by the students in a class are often used by committees to help them make decisions about awarding the teacher promotion and tenure. A teacher may improve evaluations by improving their teaching, but the strategy that comes most quickly to mind for achieving better evaluations is to give higher grades for assignments and exams. A comprehensive study by Valen Johnson shows a statistical correlation between high grades and high course evaluations [Grade Inflation: A Crisis in Education, Springer-Verlag, 2003]. In a separate analysis of grades at Pennsylvania State University, the onset of grade inflation in the 1980s corresponds with the onset of mandatory course evaluations.

While pressures to reduce standards do exist, at some colleges and universities part of grade inflation is the result of increases in student performance. Over the last few decades, the quality of incoming students at some schools as measured by SAT scores and high school class rank has increased. But for many institutions with rising grades SAT scores have been stagnant. Even at institutions where SAT scores have risen, the magnitude of the rise in GPA cannot be explained by increases in student SAT scores alone. Other factors are responsible for rising grades.

Many schools exhibit increases in grades that may not be related to a decrease in academic standards. There are alternative theories regarding the increase in student grades over the years, such as:

  • More schools offer pass/fail options.
  • Students are more focused upon career-preparation today, which means they are more likely to take classes which match their talents.
  • Computers have made students more efficient and allowed them to produce better work.
  • Cooperative learning approaches allow feedback on assignments which improves student work.
  • Students are working harder than ever before.

Countering these claims are the following arguments:

  • Pass/fail options are only taken by a small number of students that is not large enough to account for observed rises in GPA.
  • Students still have to fulfill distribution requirements so they are still taking classes outside their main interest areas.
  • Grade inflation persisted throughout the 1990s, a time when personal computer use had already saturated higher education.
  • Cooperative learning approaches are not common enough to account for observed rises in GPA.
  • Surveys of high school students and college students show that they are working less and are less engaged in academics.

A related point is that intelligence (at least as measured by the IQ scale) appears to be rising over time - a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. However, SAT scores of students nationwide have not been rising, but this would be attributed to the fact that SAT scores are based on percentiles.

Recent instances

In recent years, Princeton University had earned itself a reputation for awarding some of the highest average marks among the top American universities. In an attempt to combat this grade inflation and reverse this reputation, Princeton began in the fall of 2004 to employ guidelines for grading distributions across departments. Under the new guidelines, departments have been encouraged to re-evaluate and clarify their grading policies. The administration suggests that, averaged over the course of several years in an individual department, A-range grades should constitute 35% of grades in classroom work, and 55% of grades in independent work such as Senior Theses. To date, the administration has not taken steps to strictly enforce these guidelines, instead opting to rely on departments to apply them. Since the policy's inception, A-range grades have declined significantly in Humanities departments, while remaining nearly constant in the Natural Science departments, which were typically at or near the 35% guideline already.

Many argue that it places students at a disadvantage when they apply for employment after graduating at professional schools because of the comparatively lower marks on students' transcripts. The student body, for the most part, opposes this system of "grade deflation," but the administration stands by it, saying that other schools will soon follow - despite outright statements from other schools that say they have no plans to implement such policies. Reed College's uninflated grades do not appear to have harmed its alumni in competition for graduate school admissions; Reed is a leader in producing future Ph.D.s, ranking first in biological sciences, second in chemistry and the humanities, and third in history, foreign languages, and political science.

The University of Alabama has been cited as a particularly egregious case in point. In 2003, Robert Witt, president of the university, responded to criticism that his administration encouraged grade inflation on campus by shutting down access to the records of the Office of Institutional Research, which until that year had made grade distribution data freely available. The Alabama Scholars Organization, and its newspaper, the "Alabama Observer," had been instrumental in exposing the problem and recommending that the Witt administration adopt public accountability measures. The paper had revealed that several departments awarded more than 50% A's in introductory courses, and that one department, Women's Studies, handed out 90% A's (the vast majority of those A+.) The problem had grown consistently worse during the period examined, from 1973 to 2003.

Witt responded to the report on grade inflation by taking steps to censor independent faculty publications on the campus of the University of Alabama, including "Alabama Academe," the newspaper of the Alabama chapter of the AAUP. The Academe had been distributed on campus for more than thirty years. The "Alabama Observer," the publication of the Alabama Scholars Association, was also banned, and strict rules adopted to insure that criticism of the Witt administration would not reach the public.

UC Berkeley has a reputation for rigorous grading policies in some science and engineering classes. Departmental guidelines state that no more than 17% of the students in any given class may be awarded A grades, and that the class GPA should be in the range of 2.7 to 2.9 out of a maximum of 4.0 grade points. Other departments, however, are not adhering to such strict guidelines, as data from the University's Office of Student Research indicates that the average overall undergraduate GPA is about 3.25.

Other colleges such as Washington and Lee University, the University of the South (Sewanee), Cornell University, and the University of Chicago are also known for their rigorous grading practices . However, data indicate that even schools known for rigorous grading have experienced grade inflation; for example, a study by Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke University found that the average GPA at University of Chicago increased from 2.50 in 1965 to 3.26 in 1999, which was still below the average of most peer institutions. At some schools there are concerns about different grading practices in different departments; engineering and science departments at schools such as Northwestern University are reputed to have more rigorous standards than departments in other disciplines. To clarify the grades on its graduates' transcripts, Reed College includes a card, the current edition of which reports that "[t]he average GPA for all students in 2005–06 was 3.1 on a 4.0 scale. This figure has scarcely changed in the past 22 years. Reed has experienced little or no grade inflation. During that period, only five students have graduated from Reed with perfect 4.0 grade averages."

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