Are grades being inflated?

grades inflated, high school, university

Do universities and high schools care too much about what students and parents want and give students better grades than they deserve? The Economist takes a quick look at how it works at Ivy League universities:

The video speaks for itself. We have the same phenomena going on in Europe. Even at high schools. Isn’t it better to give students the grades they have earned? Is there a danger that education will lose impact and other qualities becoming more important for succeeding in business? Anna Tavis, head of talent and development at Brown Brothers Harriman is of that opinion.

When it comes to schools in Sweden they are supposed to compete with each other for the students. And, not suprisingly, they hence give students grades they do not deserve. Have heard stories of students who failed exams been given the highest grades because of preassure from parents and sometimes even from the headmaster of the school. And would you believe it it’s not only private schools that act like this but even public schools.

Do you believe that grades are being inflated to please everyone? Should the best students be disappointed because their grades don’t show how they stand out? Or are students actually getting smarter? So much so that the average grade at Harvard is an A? Do you believe this development is positive for society? Or is it just a way of making student select a university where they will get high grades? What impact will it have on employers? Will it lessen the importance of grades? 

Video: The Economist – Picture: robertototmn


70 thoughts on “Are grades being inflated?

  1. Students should receive the grade they have earned. It is not right that grades are inflated to satisfy parents or the institution. It is unfair on students who put in the hard work to then receive a similar grade to their peer who manages to scrape it. I am well aware that colleges and universities want to keep grades at a high in order to promote that they offer the best education, however inflating grades is not the answer.

  2. Haha! What a great line, ” In the 1950s Ivy leagues let in plenty of rich but dim kids.” The professor who gives out the flattering and private grades sounds like a smart guy. It’s not just the kids and the parents who are the problem here, it is the schools themselves, lowering their standards for the almighty $$. The professors are caught in the middle. What a shame.

    1. Absolutely, Catherine. And unfortunately this phenomena has spread around the world from the only superpower. When high school national exams take place in Sweden some schools give students far higher grades than they deserve in order to be popular and benefit financially. Have to say however that universities in Sweden don't giv e inflated grades.

  3. Must say, Catarina, I wasn't aware of it! Thanks for sharing. I believe grades must never be inflated as that is medium through wich kids become aware of their weak points and they can work on it to improvise.

  4. The problem is we put emphasis on grades and not what is learned. I would rather know more, and have lower grades than the other way around. This emphasis on grades is a result of two things, 1. Parents perception that their child is perfect, and deserves accolades without earning them. 2. Our attention to immediate rewards, without thinking of the future consequence, or doing the work needed for good grades.
    We are creating children who think they deserve good grades, without realizing they are not learning anything vital for tomorrow. Makes me shudder, to think about when these kids grow up and have kids, how will they want them to be treated.

  5. You think colleges would be embarrassed by people entering the workforce with a degree from their prestigious university and be a complete and utter disappointment to their employer. But I guess that doesn't stop them from inflating those grades because I've heard and read a lot about it. Not doing the student or employer or schools any good in the long run. Just makes parents happy and for awhile the students are off the hook.

  6. Children should receive the grades they have earned. If grades are inflated, it is unfair on students who have worked hard. If students are aware of the areas they need to develop in, they can work on them to improve.

    There will always be those who are more academic and can pass exams with their eyes closed. To me they are one step ahead of the game.

  7. In the U.S., when we were in college, they called this weighted on a curve which meant that the grades were based on what the students in that class did from the highest and lowest grades. Then they adjusted the grades in relationship to those grades. I'm not sure what they are doing now but it could inflate the egos of these students thinking they know it all. I bet the managers won't like these students thinking they know it all.

  8. Frankly, the situation makes me sick. I taught senior high English for many years in an affluent area of a city. The pressure I got from some parents could be most stressful at times. I had colleagues who caved. Some administrators caved too; not to have their backing when it really mattered was horrendous. The trend in more recent times, and I can’t see it ending anytime soon, is the big business of luring international students. Bottom line is revenue, BIG revenue, at both public school and post secondary levels in Canada. (USA too.) It’s the old thing about “money talks,” especially in face of government cutbacks to education. Entrance standards, in reality, are often watered down. Understandably, parents want the best for their children. Education opens opportunity. And, understandably, parents aren’t happy to pay big bucks (sometimes their life savings) to send their children overseas to Canada or the USA just to have them “fail.” Placate the students and their parents with high marks and keep their business. Of course this is not just with international students. As I said, money too often supersedes standards and ethics.

  9. Catarina — grade inflation has been going on for years. But the schools are not going to change the "rigged" system. Word would soon spread to potential undergraduates if grades were given honestly, and they would seek out schools where they were guaranteed good grades. One reason not mentioned in the video is that if a professor becomes known for giving out bad grades, the students will trash him or or her on the Internet and no one wants that. Unfortunately, the mediocre student who is given an inflated grade gets an inflated sense of his abilities and is in for shock in the business world where you don't get graded on the curve.

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  10. Hey Catarina,

    You have selected a good topic to share with us. We should awarded intelligent students for their great performance in studies. I'm agree with Lenie that BA's – are not enough to secure a job.

    Dr. Diana

  11. Inflated grades are lies. They make the schools look more competent than they are. Grading on a curve was no better, but at least it wasn't a regular practice. Like others have said, if it's happening in colleges, it's happening on jobs. The educational standards in this country have been degraded for decades. It affects the quality of teachers, too. Maybe it's one reason for the high unemployment rate as well. Look where fear of litigation has gotten us.
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    1. The reason for giving high grades is because the main objective of schools are to make profit. And, Deidre, that US system is unfortunately being exported to Europe. The reason for the high unemployment world-wide is a formula that Milton Friedman came up with in 1968. His formula "proves" that keeping employment high keeps inflation low. Paul Krugman had a go at Sweden for doing so. Consequently the Swedish central bank lowered interest rates. And suddenly more companies decided to employ more staff. The sooner the world stops implementing Friedman's policies the better. They crashed the world economy in 2008 but are still being implemented.

  12. I think grades are higher than they should be. A parent spends so much money to send their children to college. If their kids do not get good grades, then that is money lost. The next parent may not send their kid to that school.
    It is too bad that universities etc, are now a business instead of a place of education.

  13. I was not aware of the grade inflation issue. I suspect there is more than one factor behind it, but it does point out that grades are rather arbitrary to start with. Maybe schools need to re-evaluate and re-establish the purpose of grades and then develop a grading practice consistent with that.
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  14. I think it is terrible. The top students deserve to get rewarded and not just get the same grades as everyone else. In the USA, this starts at a very young age. Everyone gets a medal in sports. You mustn’t upset the children who don’t do well in school either. This is not a good way to prepare young people for life as an adult.

  15. Well if the average grade at Harvard is a "A" then I definitely believe that grades are being inflated just to please students and parents. I don't think all universities are doing this, but probably a large percentage of them are. In the long run it doesn't do the student any good as the reality of real life sinks in and it doesn't do the college any good to put people out there in the workforce with a degree from their university who are ill prepared for the job they are hired for.
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  16. Grade inflation is indeed rampant and at all grade levels. It’s one of the reasons I left teaching. I hated the pressure to give out A’s and B’s when students clearly deserved C’s and D’s. It doesn’t matter if there are rubrics that can support the grade. The worst parents will complain to the administrator to get their way. I think the students I taught college composition to at Boise State were probably graded harder than many Ivy League students are. As a high school teacher, I put zeroes in the grade book, but not all teachers did because students would complain. I also didn’t hesitate to put a cheerleader on academic notice because she was behind. She cried to the principal who then made an exception for her because she was usually on top of things. Almost nobody knows who to give and receive constructive criticism these days 🙁 Definitely a topic close to my heart.

      1. Looking back now, I am thinking about the college comp classes I taught. Throughout the semester, no grades were given, but plenty of feedback ensued and the final grade took into account if drafts were turned in or not, but most of the grade came from the final writing portfolio. I also used to sit by my art teacher friend at parent teacher conferences and she would always have to have an argument with parents who demanded to know why their child didn’t get an A in art…

        1. We should get the grades we deserve and parents should not demand that their children get higher grades than they deserve. They are just postponing the moment their child fails because he/she can not hold a job or something like that.

  17. In New Zealand we always had a sliding scale. Meaning a certain percentage had to pass the exams. If that quota wasn't met then grades would be adjusted up. If too many passed grades would be adjusted down. I always thought that system was unfair and hopefully it is no longer in use.
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  18. Universities are not what they used to be. They are so afraid of lack of funding that in order to keep the students that they have, just give them an A. I am seeing it first hand with my granddaughter going to Pace University in New York. Why study, you are going to get a degree anyway. Handing out good grades that a student doesn't deserve will only back fire when they hit the work force
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  19. One of the things that is happening in the U.S. below the university level is a an increasing use of standardized testing. At this point it is used more as a way to evaluate schools and teachers than it is to grade individual students. In the future I could envision some use of standardized testing to replace grades as a way to make the grading process less subjective. It is likely that some educators would see this as a solution to the grade inflation issue you raise in your post. As the father of a middle school student I have mixed feelings about the increased use of standardized testing. While I agree with it is principle, I sometimes feel that my son is getting more testing than teaching. I'm also concerned that because of the implications of the test results for teachers and school systems there is sometimes more of a focus of training students to do well in these tests, not training them to do well in their future endeavors.

    1. Ken, do you really think we should abolish grades? Wouldn't it be a better idea for schools, and universities, to stop inflating grades in order to make profit? State owned schools do not inflate grades.:-)

      1. I don't think we should abolish grades, Caterina, I just see that a likely direction in which our school system is going. Personally I find most teacher evaluations more meaningful than standardized test results, although I agree with your point about grade inflation.

        1. Glad you don't want to abolish grades, Ken. For your information, it doesn't work in European countries. So now pupils are getting grades at a younger age. What needs to be done is take profit out of education. Schools should prepare the young generation for life. When they cut down on teachers and give higher grades that the pupils deserve they are working against what's good for society.

  20. This has been an issue that has gotten under my skin for many years now. I saw it as a volunteer guardian ad litem when teachers passed my kids to the next grade , even though academically they didn't deserve to be passed on. It's a bit of a carry over from the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality in many ways. Protecting a supposed self-esteem, in my opinion, does long term damage to the individual and society as a whole. I fear sometimes, for what our future leaders will look like.

    1. Glad, but not surprised we agree, Jacqueline. In Europe this goes on in private high schools as well so they can go to university. Sometimes at the expense of more intelligent and suitable students who have gone to state owned schools. Love your comment about fearing what our future leaders will look like.:-)

  21. This is part of a disturbing trend whereby students, of whatever age, are not 'allowed' to fail as apparently the authorities deem this bad for their psyche. Consequently, in countries where this is practiced, students are able to leave school scarcely able to read and write.

    To differentiate the better students from the pack, they need to give higher grades – hence the introduction of things like the A* grade in England. Far from preparing students for life in the 'real world' post studies, this encourages them to think that mediocre, or worse, performance is sufficient.

    Employers are strenuously opposed to this grade inflation but it seems that the politicians aren't really listening as they believe that if they are able to show increasing grades they can get more votes as the governments education policy is clearly doing well.

  22. I understand the issue. However the current education system is broken. Think about how and when it was developed and it hasn't changed in all these years. The grading system is just one small piece of the whole, a broken system that no longer meets the needs of those it is supposed to educate.

  23. That’s interesting Catarina – last night on the news there was a story about how students end up with huge student debt but degrees – such as BA’s – are not enough to secure a job. Possibly this could be the reason.

    1. That a master degree is required for almost any position nowadays is another form of inflation, Lenie. It's ludicrous that employers want someone with and MBA for a position as an executive assistant. As for student loans, in the US you can't get rid of them even if you declare personal bancrupcy. Simply put, what's happening is that too many people are making money on students.

  24. Catarina, this is a subject that I am passionate about and not just in University. It starts as early as grade one – no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. I even had it told to me that grades are bad for children’s self-esteem – fiddlesticks, grades are good to motivate students to do better, especially if the parents support their hard work. Anything less devalues the learning.

    1. Lenie, the issue of not giving grades and how early grades should be given is slightly different. This is about private high schools and universities giving students higher grades than they deserve to attract more students. In other words it's about making money:-)

  25. Grade inflation is insidious and is getting worse. Universities are afraid they won't attract the best students if they are known as "tough graders." Professors are afraid to give poor grades because now every school has online communities for students who publicly "grade" each professor. Professors are afraid of public embarrassment, that students won't take their courses and, even worse, that they might not get tenure. Brown University, I believe, is alone among the Ivy League schools that simply gives pass or fail grades. Most students will drop out if they are doing poorly to avoid a fail grade. Hard to know what the solution is. It wasn't like that when I went to college.
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  26. In my opinion, more important than of grades are the work of grade in relation to theme and aplication to the business!!!
    En mi opinión, más importante que las calificaciones son el trabajo de grado en relación con el tema y la aplicacion a la empresa !!!
    Meiner Meinung nach, wichtiger als der Noten sind das Werk der Klasse in Bezug auf Thema und Anwendung, auf die Geschäfts !!!

  27. Catarina, from what I've read, there are a lot more smart students competing with each other. (For example, at BU, there are a lot of smart students from non-U.S. countries who have parents who can pay full tuition). So, yes, it is harder to stand out, but I believe the competition has also gotten stiffer. I'm not even sure grades are a reflection of how well a person will do in the work force. Employers probably need to look at other factors, anyway, whether or not grade inflation is true.
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    1. Even if there are more smart students, don't you think an average of A is a bit too high, Leora? In Sweden private high schools give much higher grades than state owned schools. A friend of mine is a professor of law. As you know, you need top grades to get into law school. She is really tired of law students who don't command the language, can't write and lack a lot of basic knowledge. And those students had top grades.

      Agree with you completely about grades not being a reflection of how well a person will do in the work force. But private schools giving grades that are inflated is not a great idea. There are students at state owned schools that are smarter and would become better say, lawyers, but their grades are not high enough to get into law school. Is this development really good for society?

  28. Catarina this issue used to drive me crazy, it was so short-sighted. What will those students do when they run into the reality of a work place where outcomes matter? Unfortunately over time I have come to realize that in many work environments, performance doesn't matter. Whether the union is too strong or the management too weak, the bottom line is that many organizations give poor performers a passing grade too. The only thing I can say is that eventually the bottom line makes all the adjustments necessary. It's a pity our places of higher education aren't making that point clear early on.
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