Grade Inflation

Over this past weekend, a colleague of mine sent me a NEA Today article that discussed the idea of grade inflation. Grade inflation is defined as "a rise in the average grade given to students" (, 2017, para. 2). Though sides have been argued for many years whether grade inflation should be defended or not, it is an intriguing concept to think that 21st century learners are either not experiencing as much rigor as in the past, or they are evolving into excellent alternative learners. 

My former claim brings to light a possible reason behind some of the data Tim Walker presented in his article, "Beware of Hype Over Grade Inflation, Educators and Other Experts Warn" (2017). In analyzing high school student GPA averages between 1998-2016,

… the average GPA rose from 3.27 to 3.38. According to their data, 47% of high school seniors in 2016 graduated with an ‘A’ average, up from 39% in 1998.
— Walker, 2017

A transcript of grades to equal a GPA is one thing, as it measures the total outcome from each course a learner takes. However, behind that single GPA is a long list of assessments that a learner has tasked in order to achieve that final grade to throw into the average GPA. That level of tenacity, especially for the struggling learner or the impoverished learner, should be seen as a sought-after quality and taken into consideration. Furthermore, if education places worth upon the journey of our young scholars rather than just the destination, conversations regarding the creation of meaningful and authentic learning experiences need to take place, as well as how much weight the journey should carry versus who we become when we reach the destination. The question of why we implement specific strategies, participate in particular grading practices, and identify best practices as such will inevitably create evocative dialogue amongst educators.

If students were actually becoming better learners and deserving of all these A’s, then their SAT scores would also be improving, according to Hurwitz and Lee. But scores dropped by 24 points during the same period.
— Walker, 2017

Is the conventional route of teaching and learning the best tactic for 21st century learners? Whether grades are a sign of compliance, determination, discipline, currency, etc., it is not objective by any means. The human condition is severely complex, and what we define as constructive and productive may not be as black and white as we may think. Cultural norms, historically traditional approaches, how and why adversities are confronted, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being met (or not being met), and increasingly more elements affect societal appropriateness and achievement. How can we objectively measure human intelligence under such vast arrays of idiosyncrasies? I commend those who are seeking out ways in which we can meaningfully objectify understandings, and further challenge all of us to consider evolving our grading practices and instructional opportunities through an empathetic approach.

…grade inflation in high schools is widespread in affluent school districts. At suburban public high schools, GPAs rose 8% from 1998 to 2016. At urban schools over the same period, GPAs barely budged…. It’s in private schools, however, where grade inflation is most common –  three times more likely than in public schools. If the College Board’s data is correct, grade inflation is giving a major advantage in college admissions to the very students who need it the least.
— Walker, 2017

How had the standardized assessments changed throughout this study? What grading practices were the teachers utilizing? How did 21st century skills and technology affect learners and educators? Did more affluent school districts have more resources for their learners and educators? And if so, what does this say about learners accurately applying 21st century skills, and educators implementing opportunities for learners to infuse and redefine technologies for creation and innovation?

What About Standards Based Grading?

In trying to conclude on where I stand with standards based grading, I have had to consider the motive behind standards based grading and why some are skeptical of it. Upon reading Josh Work’s article, “3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading" (Edutopia, 2014), some have taken a stance against standards based grading due to the “redo” nature of it. This does not prepare learners for what the real world will ask of them. Others have pointed out that “…grading assessments and subsequent reassessments which can take up a significant amount of time” (Works, 2014). Time is an educator’s most valuable commodity, which is rarely found. And switching to standards based grading will take time and energy when reassessing curricula.

Regardless of the argument, one thing that must take priority is the opportunity for growth being created for the learner.

Where some may feel strongly about learners proving their skills, I believe in learners improving their skills.

I sometimes like to think of standards as our learners' job descriptions. We evaluate them on their skills within those standards so they can refine those skills and see growth throughout the school year based on our feedback given. The outcome of their growth is not being burdened by the mistakes and shortcomings along the way. Rather, their level of proficiency is determined by their current skill level. In this way, the mistakes of their past are built upon, not carried along.

Rethinking our grading practices forces us to consistently enhance our curricula with relevant and meaningful content differentiated for our learners. Amongst those conversations, more interdisciplinary opportunities can rise and begin blurring the lines between content areas, and hopefully between school and the real world. Moreover, if we were to utilize a learning management tool’s mastery grading system (standards based grading approach) and allow more opportunities to give meaningful feedback to learners, the culture then becomes a refinery of skills versus a production line of grades. 

I will continue to consider standards based grading, as well as other ways of measuring intelligence and skills, best practices, and relevant and meaningful instructional strategies. Until then, let’s speculate. One thing that still bothers me about grades though:

Maybe grades are merely signs of institutionalized compliance.

After all, knowledge does not equal understanding.

Grade inflation. (2017). In's online dictionary. Retrieved from

Walker, T. (2017). Beware of Hype Over Grade Inflation, Educators and Other Experts Warn. NEAToday. Retrieved from

Wheeler, Amber Dee, "Implementation of a Standards-Based Grading Model: A Study of Parent and Teacher Perceptions of Success" (2017). Theses and Dissertations. 1880.

Work, J. (2017). 3 Peaks and 3 Pits of Standards-Based Grading. Edutopia. Retrieved from

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