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Inflating Grades Simply Deflates Education

July, 2001

By William L. Bainbridge

In one of this area's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods is a high school where the norm is low attendance and bottom-of- the-barrel scores on achievement tests, college entrance examinations and Ohio's proficiency test. But the school reports a high grade-point average.

Conversely, in an affluent Columbus suburb sits a school where students enjoy the advantages of well-educated parents and a well-heeled support system. In this school, the test scores rank with the nation's elite, but the grade-point average is lower.

Research suggests that this picture is more the rule than the exception. Data show that schools with low achievement generally have a higher grade-point average than schools with high achievement.

Grade inflation is defined as an increase in grade-point average without a corresponding increase in achievement. Grade inflation results from low expectations by teachers who reward inferior student work. And researchers have concluded that grade inflation may be getting worse. ACT, the Iowa-based college-entrance examination organization, compared the scores students earned on the ACT with the grade-point averages the students reported when they registered to take the test.

Researchers consistently find that students accurately report their grades. Using records of more than 2.6 million students in more than 5,000 high schools for a five-year period, they divided the schools into 10 groups according to the schools' average ACT composite scores. They then examined trends within groups, and found that ACT scores remained stable while grade-point averages rose consistently over the five-year period. More alarming, they found evidence of grade inflation in all groups.

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Department of Education reported that A students in high-poverty schools scored about the same level in reading as C students in schools serving students from affluent homes. In math, they scored about the same level as D students in most affluent schools.

According to the College Board, the percentage of high- school students taking their SAT-I with A+, A and A- grade-point averages has risen to nearly 40 percent from 28 percent in the past 12 years. During the same period, SAT-I scores fell an average of 12 points on the verbal section and 3 points on the math section.

In the process of conducting hundreds of audits throughout the country, SchoolMatch has found a close relationship between low student achievement and high grade-point averages in the high-school years. SchoolMatch Advisory Board Chairman M. Donald Thomas, former education adviser to the governors of three states and superintendent emeritus of the Salt Lake City Schools, points out that while one would expect high grades to indicate high achievement, the reverse is found in most high schools.

"Grade inflation is particularly extensive in high schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged students,'' Thomas told a national audience of school administrators. "This indicates clearly that expectations for students are very low, and standards do not match those of testing agencies.''

He is concerned that students in such environments receive inferior instruction and get good grades for mediocre work.

High schools in large cities and poor rural areas have the worst grade-inflation problem. While scores on nationally normed tests may be in the average range, grade- point averages tend to be about a B+ in many schools serving students from disadvantaged homes. If the grade-point average were to mirror the results on test scores, these schools should have a GPA of about 2.0, or C average.

While grade inflation may make teaching and pacifying parents and administrators easier, it provides a low-quality education. Insisting on more accurate grades requires intensive evaluation of student work and a greater variety of learning experiences.

Students learn more when grades and achievement are equal. Good teachers have high expectations that motivate students. When asked why grades are inflated, most teachers respond that they don't want to have problems with students or parents. In a recent study in California, one school system rewarded teachers based on grades they distributed: The higher the grades, the more likely the teacher to receive kudos or a bonus. And many students and parents demand good grades, whether they are earned or not.

Many people believe that high grades will enhance chances for a higher education. But admissions officers focus on class rank, test scores and students' activities, none of which is aided by inflated grades.

Grade inflation inhibits learning at many levels in many schools. One of the keys to improving learning in economically depressed areas is a fair and reasonable reporting of student progress on grade cards. Teachers and administrators need to keep track of grade-point averages as an indicator that high standards are in place, and as a significant benchmark in the process of improving learning.


is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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