Grade Inflation

Students are better today

Some debate surrounds whether higher grades are the result of better-prepared college entrants or grade inflation. Many researchers dispute whether students are better prepared. On the contrary. And because a significant increase in grade averages apparently fails to represent an actual increase in learning, we must assume that higher grades are a result of grade inflation (Basinger, 1997).

We will not rehearse here the data on grade inflation at the secondary school level (see e.g., Casas and Meaghan, 1995; Harvey, 1995; Stanley, Sale, and Kim, 2001) but point out only that the problems are endemic at this level which then confounds college and university entrance criteria. Critics argue that public schools have lowered standards, expect less, and work to allay student anxieties and create interest rather than achievement. Moreover, a sense of entitlement to good grades begins early with the enhanced expectations of parents and students as a result of grade inflation at the high school level. It is difficult for students to work hard, or for the professor to get them to work hard, when students know that their chances of getting an A or A- are 50-50.

Critics of the "better-prepared" stance hold that current students possess on average no greater capacity than did students in the past, but actually demonstrate less mastery of basic education skills - less ability to read, write, think and calculate - than did their counterparts generations ago (Leo, 1993; Wingspread Group cited in Stone, 1995). Indeed, according to Levine (1994), indicators actually point to a decline in college students' academic ability since 1969. Nor does it appear that students expend more academic effort or are more highly motivated today than in the past. Academic effort is the amount of time and quality of effort students devote to such academic tasks such as studying, writing, reading, using the library, and interacting with faculty (Kuh and Hu, 1999, p. 299). In a major study of more than 52,000 students from 112 institutions in two time periods, the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, Kuh and Hu (1999) found that grades appear to still reliably distinguish among students in terms of academic effort. However, the absolute amount of efforts students devote on average to academics may have suffered somewhat. That is, the amount of time students devote to their studies in high school and college is down and they are widely believed to be not as well prepared for college as previous cohorts (Astin, 1998; Gose, 1998).

© Margret Winzer, 2005. This site last updated: May 3, 2005