Grade inflation in the US is part of the culture….but it doesn’t have to be

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.
1–2
  • The student demonstrates very little understanding of the text and topic, and little or no awareness of the author’s choices. There is little or no detail, development or support.
  • In creative work, pieces show very limited imagination or sensitivity; the student rarely employs literary features, or employs literary and/or nonliterary features that do not serve the context or intention.
  • The use of terminology is missing, inconsistent and/or incorrect.
3-4
  • The student demonstrates limited understanding of the text and topic, and sometimes shows an awareness of the author’s choices, although detail, development and/or support are insufficient.
  • In creative work, pieces show limited imagination or sensitivity; the student attempts to employ literary and/or non-literary features; these sometimes serve the context and intention.
  • The use of terminology is sometimes accurate and appropriate.
5-6
  • The student demonstrates a sufficient understanding of the text and topic, and an awareness of the author’s choices, using adequate detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect some imagination and sensitivity; the student generally employs literary and/or non-literary features that serve the context and intention.
  • Terminology is usually accurate and appropriate.
7-8
  • The student demonstrates a good understanding of the text, topic and the author’s choices, using substantial detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect imagination and sensitivity; the student employs literary and/or non-literary features that serve the context and intention.
  • Relevant terminology is used accurately and appropriately.
9-10
  • The student demonstrates a perceptive understanding of the text, topic and the author’s choices, consistently using illustrative detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect a lot of imagination and sensitivity; the student employs literary and/or non-literary features effectively that serve the context and intention.
  • The student shows a sophisticated command of relevant terminology, and uses it appropriately.

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?

 

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One thought on “Grade inflation in the US is part of the culture….but it doesn’t have to be

  1. Scott Reindl

    Interesting post. Our school district is working on an overall review of grading policies, and this issue will surely come up. The IB grading method you described sounds like standards-based grading, which makes sense to me. As you mentioned, so much of our grading in the U.S. is based on compliance – showing up, turning work in, etc. It will be interesting to see where our district goes with this.

    Reply

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