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Grade Inflation


Q. There's a high school across town that doesn't have a very good reputation for quality, and I just heard that the valedictorian last spring, who, one would think, must have had a lot of A's through school, only scored a 17 on the ACT college admissions test. You have to score a 20 to get in to our state university, which isn't considered a selective school by any stretch of the imagination. Is that grade inflation? Is it rampant? And what can we do about it?


It used to be that teachers gave out twice as many C's as A's. But now that situation has apparently reversed, and high grades are the new "average."


According to a review of grade-inflation studies by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, educators and others have been worried about this problem for more than 30 years. It started during the Vietnam War, when some professors nudged up male students' grades artificially to make the grade averages high enough to keep them out of the military draft.


Then the self-esteem movement convinced many teachers that if they built up a student's self-confidence with artificially higher grades for essentially easier work than students of the past, that student would respond by doing even better work than before.


Observers say that another key factor is the diversification of the student body compared to past generations in U.S. schools. With so many more marginal students, immigrants and others now filling classrooms at all levels and staying in school rather than dropping out, what might have been considered average work in the past now looks absolutely stellar.


Competition for limited seats in selective high schools and colleges, and a new spotlight on graduation rates, test scores and other data required by government programs also caused some educators to fudge on grades, to make themselves look statistically better to parents, taxpayers and the public.


According to a study by the University of California at Los Angeles, college-bound high school students show significantly higher grades today than they did 30 years ago. In 1972, 42 percent of students entering private universities and 25 percent bound for public universities had A averages. Today, 70 percent of the former and 53 percent of the latter have such an average.


So grade inflation is definitely widespread. But does that just signal better, smarter students who are earning more A's? Or are schools feeding parents and taxpayers phony baloney - higher grades - to disguise the fact that there has been erosion in the quality of the educational product being delivered over the past generation.


It looks as though the latter is true. The best objective, apples-to-apples comparison that we have, the standardized college admissions tests, shows a marked decline over the last few decades. According to the College Entrance Examination Board, the average combined score on the Scholastic Assessment Test (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) has fallen from 1059 in 1967 to 1020 in 2002. The actual decline is even bigger because in 1995 the SAT was "renormed." That means that the baseline of scores was raised. The change added 100 points to everyone's score 76 points to the verbal score and 24 points to the math score.


So anyone who took the SAT before 1995 must add 100 points to know how you would score if you took it today.


What can or should be done? At the very least, expose this practice to the light of day with honest, simple data. Use the existing millions of dollars of computer technology that taxpayers have provided for public schools to actually give parents and taxpayers some useful information.


On report cards, show a student's grade PLUS the classroom average grade PLUS the number of students overall in that subject who received an A, a B, a C, and so on.


Publish this information by classroom, subject, teacher name and building name on your district's website.


Then when you realize that 19 out of 20 kids in a social studies class got A's, and the average grade-point average at your high school is a 3.5, you have a raging case of grade inflation on your hands - and some solid data to take to your principal and school board to get that situation corrected.


Homework: Here are some short articles with proposed solutions on grade inflation. For information on college-level grade inflation, see or


By Susan Darst Williams Controversies 02 2008


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