What is grade inflation and why should you be concerned about it?

Last updated Jul 9, 2021 

Students, parents, and colleges place a significant amount of faith in grades as the best indicator of academic performance. There are multiple factors causing grade inflation. Unfortunately, by offering misleading information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses, inflated grades often do more harm than good, making it more difficult for students to navigate their career development and more difficult for parents and educators to know who needs more support. Tutoring is one way to help those concerned about grades develop a better sense of where a student stands and build a better foundation of skills for that student’s future.

What is grade inflation and how can you tell if grades are inflated?

Letter grades and their subsequent inflation are relatively new phenomena. According to Max Kutner at Los Angeles Magazine, the late 1800s saw a rise in school enrollment and thus demand for a standard form of assessment: letter grades. Grades functioned as designed for over a century, but now they are showing signs of inadequacy. Today, the average grade of an incoming college freshman is an A or A- compared to a B average 50 years ago, and average scores on standardized tests in 2016 are either lower or stagnant. As Ann Dolin from Education Connections succinctly puts it, grade inflation “is the tendency for teachers to give higher academic grades when the same work would have earned lower grades in the past,” making many people question if grades remain an accurate measure of students’ academic performance.

Given the negative implications of grade inflation, one might wonder why it occurs and what its future holds. Dolin identifies some reasons for the trend, including high school educators compensating for increasingly competitive college admissions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Kutner is equally concerned about how COVID-19 will exacerbate the problem since so many colleges are shifting to temporary, and sometimes permanent, test-optional policies and so many high schools are adopting more “lenient” grading policies to cope with the difficulties of teaching and assessing students via remote learning and the pressure to reduce stress for already anxious students and parents. 

Although they are not concrete or foolproof, there are ways to determine if a student’s grades are inflated. For example, the average grade or GPA of a school and class rank are useful indicators. A school that has a high percentage of students earning As and Bs, or an unweighted GPA of 3.0 and above, and that doesn’t use class rank is likely to be experiencing grade inflation. For those schools that do use class rank, if a student’s rank doesn’t seem to match his or her GPA, it might be another sign his or her grades have been inflated.

How does grade inflation affect students?

Grade inflation causes students to be unready for more challenging academic work, unprepared for lower standardized test scores, and unable to stand out from their peers. 

  • Writing for the National Association of Gifted Children, Brandon L. Wright expresses concern for the “disservice” done to high achieving students who graduate with confidence, only to suffer shock and shame, finding that “they’re nowhere near ready” for their elite college courses. Moreover, research shows that students who mistakenly believe they have “already mastered material” will become complacent while their “parents will not recognize the need to help [them] catch up.” 
  • According to Ann Dolin, “another downside is that students (especially in college) sometimes avoid more challenging classes” that could have unlocked an unknown talent or possible vocation; because, they assume the classes “could yield lower grades.” 
  • Dolin also finds the gap between grades and standardized test scores as measures of mastery, which she refers to as the “rigor gap,” equally worrying; because, it’s a sign learning is not occurring as effectively as assumed. 
  • Medium’s “It’s Time Reinvent The Way Schools Grade” warns that with less accurate grades and more homogenous high grades it has become “incredibly difficult to distinguish class superstars” from those who only just understood the main concepts of the course.

The negative effects of grade inflation also tend to affect people differently depending on their socioeconomic status. Since grade inflation is more “prevalent in affluent school districts,” according to Medium, those privileged students are more likely to face the aforementioned challenges. Meanwhile, lower income students whose grades may not experience as much inflation may find it harder to compete. For those whose schools do inflate grades, there will be a greater need for remediation, according to Tanji Reed Marshall of the nonprofit Education Trust. Wright warns that the trend of minimizing standardized test scores will only worsen this effect “most harm[ing] the most vulnerable.”

Next Steps: What can you do about grade inflation?

  • Focus on your student’s grades in midterm and final exam grades. Those will be a much better indicator of whether or not the student has understood and retained the information taught in a course.
  • Get a “second opinion.” Take a close look at your student’s performance on PSSAs or similar exams. Or have your student take a skills test to see what level of mastery is indicated by their performance. Call our office if you have questions about how to assess your student’s skill levels.
  • Academic tutoring and standardized test prep are two ways to mitigate the effects of grade inflation. With more individualized assessment and instruction, tutors can make sure a student is on track both with his/her academic and executive functioning skills. Tutors are also available to help those hoping that an impressive ACT or SAT score will allow them to stand out to college admissions officers familiar with grade inflation. Signs that grade inflation is occurring and tutoring might be worthwhile include struggling to study independently, getting frustrated by key subjects, and disparities between in-class/standardized test scores and grades. If that sounds like you or a student you know, consider taking advantage of the range of helpful tutoring services A+ Test Prep and Tutoring has to offer.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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