Grade Inflation

Concerns about grade inflation, particularly but not exclusively in higher education, have resounded since the early 1970s. The problems remain today and many institutions have become grade-inflation conscious as never before.

The documented increase in grades in the past four decades is a complex, wide spread, though not necessarily uniform phenomenon, affecting to varying degrees all types of institutions and major fields. Within the university and college system, no single department, faculty, or type of institution holds a monopoly on grade inflation. However, grade inflation is prominent in the humanities (Shea, 1994), rife in faculties of education.

Indeed, education is one of the fields where the trend is particularly pronounced (Lanning and Perkins, 1995; Zirkel, 1999). For example, a U.S. national survey or urban, non-residential institutions found that education and the arts typically were high-grading departments, with physical sciences and mathematics low-grading departments (Summerville, Ridley, and Maris, 1990). Two 1980 studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Ohio State University each revealed a dramatically higher average grade in the education college as compared to the other colleges (Oldinquist, 1983). In a different four-year study, researchers (Sommerville, Ridley, and Maris, 1990), found that five departments (led by education) awarded grades that were, on the average, more than 0.10 grade points higher than those earned by the same students at the same time in other departments.

Some schools are relenting to grade inflation rather than fighting it; more are battling the trend. Administrators are viewing rampant grade inflation as an assault on the principles of the academy. To many professors, it seems that the goals of an increasing number of students is to receive higher grades with the least amount of time and effort possible (Chadwick and Ward, 1987) and dialogue on the problem, if not any effective or universal resolution, is taking place. In the wider domain, declining resources and more strident public demands for accountability compels higher education to validate the effectiveness of its educational programs.

Not everyone agrees that grades are inflated or that average grades are higher today than in the past (see e.g., Adelman, 1995). And, even if average grades have increased, the phenomenon of grade inflation is ³grossly exaggerated² (Becker, 1996, p. xiii). Skeptics contend that grades still differentiate among students, while ability and motivation remain key factors in accounting for the variance in grades. Moreover, those assailing high grades may have overlooked salient factors. To wit: high marks may be the result of good teaching and significant student effort; teaching and learning in the past was more rote and receiving a higher grade was more difficult; and professors in the past, hired for content knowledge or research excellence, may not have communicated as effectively with students as do faculty today.

Nevertheless, the objective of this paper is to examine what has generally become accepted wisdom; namely, that grade inflation is endemic in North American colleges and universities. If inflation occurs, it is also necessary to search for its sources, as well as examine the implications and solutions.

To undertake this study, a sample of the literature on grade inflation spanning the three decades from 1970 was used. Many studies are empirical reports that affect neutrality in reporting. Others assume a moral stance. Mansfield (2001), for example, observes that "The grades that faculty members now give . . . deserve to be a scandal" (p. 1).

The problem

Problems of grade inflation overlapped and followed an expansionary period in higher education. Hence, the difficulties can be traced back to the 1960s (see Hendricksen, 1976) . By the-late 1970s, grade inflation was one of the most frequently discussed issues in higher education. With the outcome of several surveys and the resulting negative publicity, there was greater awareness of the problem and the trend then seemed to be toward slightly lower grades (Bramley, Crow, and Gibson, 1978). A resurgence of concern emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s, concurrent with public concern for enhancing the quality of education (Lanning and Perkins, 1995) and with the movement of more corporate ideals into academe. Today, even in the face of declining research and some evidence to suggest a leveling off of the rate of grade inflation (Mullen, 1995), the problem has reemerged to become the subject of intensive research and reporting.

Grade inflation has been defined in a number of ways from varied perspectives. In general, inflation implies that grades are raised due to an artificial increase independent of academic effort or student characteristics such as ability or motivation. The phenomenon can be seen as the upward drift of grades or "an unwarranted number of students ... receiving honors" (Summerville, Ridley, and Maris, 1990, p. 33). It occurs when there is a maldistribution of grades characterized by an excess of As and Bs in a class (Shoemaker and DeVos, 1999). It is also defined as an increase in grade point average without an increase in ability (Bejar and Blew, 1981; Hadley and Vitale, 1985) and occurs "when a grade is viewed as being less rigorous than it ought to be" (Mullen, 1995, p.2) and when instructors provide falsely favourable feedback (Zirkel, 1999).

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