One thing that I have realized since I began teaching internationally is that in the United States, grade inflation is such a part of the culture that it has become completely normal.
When I was a high school student, I expected to get all A’s and B’s, without working too hard. Sometimes I had to put in the extra time to make sure I got an A and not a B. But I don’t think I ever got a C in high school. I will admit that I cared about grades probably more than the average student. I was in honors and a couple AP classes. But I don’t think I had to work that hard to pull off all A’s and B’s. I definitely found time to have a social life and my part-time job at KFC.
And the funny thing is, when I applied to colleges with my weighted 4.0 GPA, I didn’t get into several schools that I thought I might get into, including UC Santa Barbara, which has a reputation as a party school. Which tells you that universities are probably very aware that grade inflation is rampant.
It should be stated that my high school was just a regular public school in Southern California with a large population of students and it wasn’t known for having a stellar academic program or anything. It didn’t have a bad reputation either; it was just a normal suburban high school. I know that other schools, some private schools in particular, have much higher standards when it comes to grading. However, I think that on average, most students in America experience a similar situation to what I went through.
A couple years ago when I started teaching in an International Baccalaureate program in a secondary school in Japan, I finally realized that my understanding of grades was based on a system that has all but eliminated D’s and F’s.
In the IB program, we use what are called “assessment criteria” when we assess student work. For example, if I grade a literary analysis essay by a ninth grader, I would use a rubric with three criteria: content, organization, and style and language mechanics. Each criterion goes from a scale of 0-10, with 10 being a very successful performance in that criterion.
Here is the assessment criteria for “content” so that you can see what I mean:
Criterion A: Content (receptive and productive) Maximum: 10
|Achievement level||Level descriptor|
|0||The student does not reach a standard described by any of the descriptors below.|
When I first started using the IB criteria, I would read my students’ work and then use the IB rubric to assign the appropriate grade. But I realized that if I were going to give a true measure of the student work I was assessing, I would be giving scores much lower than an 8 or a 9.
As you can see from the scale above, it would be very common to give a student a score of 5 in the IB Program, since a 5 means the student demonstrates a “sufficient understanding of the text and topic.” If we convert that to a percentage, that is a 50%. But if you give that kind of score in America, you are basically telling the student that they have failed!
This took me some getting used to my first semester teaching in this program. I remember the first piece of writing I graded, I assigned really high scores (all 7’s and up) because I just didn’t feel right about giving students what seemed to me like a failing grade.
I have since realized that my discomfort with giving low scores comes from my experience growing up in an academic system that gives out A’s for making effort, B’s as just satisfactory, and C’s to make a statement about a student’s poor performance. D’s and F’s basically mean the student didn’t turn anything in and/or they just never came to class. Do teachers in America ever give a D based on actual performance?
I think teachers feel a lot of pressure from parents and from administration to give A’s and B’s. The universities are clearly aware that this is going on. But why do we want to keep a system like this? It makes these letter grades basically meaningless and gives a student very little information about their performance. It sends the message that effort is most important, not the actual work they do.
Grade inflation is one of the many things that is wrong with the way schools assess students in the US. I have a whole list of other things that I think could be improved, but I’ll save that for another post.
I’d be curious to know if you, reader, have had a similar experience. Is grade inflation a serious problem in the US?