"Grade Inflation: The Current Fraud." By M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge.
Effective School Research. January 1997.

Grade Inflation: The Current Fraud

By M. Donald Thomas, Ph.D. President Emeritus, School Management Study Group
William Bainbridge, Ph.D. President, SchoolMatch Corporation, Columbus, Ohio


Alice Henderson (name changed) graduated in 1995 from high school with a 3.90 grade point average. Her grades were all As except for two Bs; one in physical education and the second in art. Alice had hopes of going to college. Unfortunately, she had 525 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and could not fill out the college application forms. (Henderson is currently working as a clerk for a fast food franchise.)

One of the greatest frauds perpetrated on high school students is grade inflation. In general, the highest academic grade inflation is in the lowest achieving schools.

In 1987, the authors began to conduct "School Effectiveness Audits" to answer a basic question often asked by Boards of Education: "How effective are our schools?" The audit process compares similar student demographic schools/school districts in the demographic group. School district results which are compared include the following:

  • Grade point average
  • Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)
  • American College Test (ACT)
  • Achievement-norm and criterion referenced tests
  • Average daily attendance of students
  • Teacher absences
  • Advanced Placement test results

After conducting a large number of audits, the auditors were amazed to find that some grade inflation was apparent in most schools. What was unexpected was that the highest amount of grade infaltion existed in the lowest achieving schools. Five high schools in one school district showed these results:

SchoolSATNorm Ref. TestGrade Point
ReadingMathematics
A75035 %tile26 %tile3.6
B90040 %tile42 %tile3.2
C99048 %tile48 %tile2.8
D105058 %tile55 %tile2.6
E112567 %tile74 %tile2.5

It is extremely difficult to explain how the lowest achieving school can have a higher grade point average than the higher achieving schools. Yet, this same pattern is found in most of the school districts in which the authors have conducted "School Effectiveness Audits."

The conclusion can be drawn that in low achieving schools with high grade point averages, expectations are extremely lowjust the opposite of what research indicates should be done. Having low expectations begets low achievement. The fraud is that the high grade point average gives a FALSE message to the students. Schools which expect little and provide high grades, regardless of the level of academic achievement, are fraudulent educational systems and should be corrected.

It is our position that every high school examine its grade point averages to uncover grade inflation. Wherever it exists, it should be forcefully and quickly eradicated.