Grade Inflation: What It Is And Why It’s Happening

Grade inflation is what happens in schools when students get higher marks than they actually deserve

By Erika Hanson | Published

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grade inflation

As gas prices continue to rise in the United States, inflation has become a popular word. Economic inflation is one thing, but inflation in the education sector is a whole other ballgame. While the nation may flaunt having higher than ever accounts of students graduating from school, grades have been rising as well. And this is where grade inflation comes in.

However, startling information correlating grades to those of exams is worrisome. Grade inflation is a very real aspect of public schools, and it only seems to be getting worse.

Grade Inflation Means Students Get Higher Grades Than They Deserve

Grade inflation happens when students are given a higher grade level than they are perceived to deserve. The term is often used to describe the tendency for educators to award progressively higher grades for work that ultimately should have been handed a lower value. The caveat, however, is that higher average grades in and of themself do not always prove to demonstrate grade inflation.

With that being said, as national average grade levels continue to improve while national testing scores decline, grade inflation is a big concern that many believe will have harmful consequences. 

Seth Gershenson is a professor at the American University. He believes grade inflation “clouds” measurements regarding the student’s true knowledge, scope, and skills. If skewed enough, Gershenson believes grade inflation could ultimately mislead future potential employers. On the contrary, some experts say inflation is not intrinsically all bad.

Harvard education researcher Zachary Bleemer believes that higher grades boost confidence and persistence even after graduation. Subjectively, neither expect on the matter are right or wrong. But that still doesn’t answer the questions as to why grade inflation happens in the first place.

grade inflation

More Students Are Graduating High School, And With Higher Grades

More and more children graduate from high school every year. Compared to a decade ago, the numbers are extremely impressive. Moreso, students graduating from high school boast higher grades, complete more courses, and obtain more college-level credits than ever before. The courses high school students take are also much more rigorous today. 

But while the United States might boast superior graduation numbers, stricter standards, and improved grades, these same high school students scored no better, and sometimes worse, than graduates did over a decade ago. Last Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education released a new analysis.

The study tracked transcripts of a representative sample of high school graduates in 1990, 2009, and 2019. In conclusion, the analysis suggested that teachers may be adopting more lenient grading standards, leading to increased grade inflation in high school students.

According to the research, recent students finished high school with 28 credits, compared to students in 2009 that graduated with 27, and the 24 credit average from 1990. Similarly, more students took harder math classes like algebra, pre-calculus, geometry, chemistry, and physics in 2019 than in previous years.

And as students continue to take on more higher-level courses, subject grades have risen as well. GPAs have steadily risen from an average of  2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019. These national exam grade points point to grade inflation.

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Nation Exam Scores Lower Despite Grades Moving Higher

grade inflation

In regards to national exams taken at the end of high school, math and reading scores were lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores have remained the same since 2009. While these dismal findings point to excess grade inflation, the numbers could also be driven by students that never end up taking their end-of-year exams. But that still fails to address the reason students’ grades are rising while tests are declining. 

Are our testing standards too harsh? Are teachers not prepping students well enough through the material they use to groom students for end-of-year exams? Or is there a mass amount of grade inflation happening in the United States? The answer is not a simple one, and it likely points to all these questions as factors to the rising grade inflation issue.

Grade Inflation Occurred During The Pandemic

Many individuals have claimed grade inflation has been an issue public schools in America have been tormented with for a long time. But for the notion as to why it’s happening, some point to the bureaucracy within the nation’s education system. Students today feel increased pressure from not only parents and fellow competitors, but policymakers as well. 

The goal is simple. Everyone wants children to graduate from high school. But as students are prompted to graduate and enroll in college, some believe the pressure was put on teachers and administrators to become more lenient when grading students, especially at the high school level. Similarly, skills measurement plays a role in grade inflation.

When teachers consider grades, they aren’t required to base that number solely off tests and grades. They also grade skills that standardized tests can not measure. 

Whether or not grade inflation is a serious problem within our education system is always up for debate. However, there is no denying that it is alive and well in the education sector. While the study from 2019 is shocking, those numbers will likely get worse in the future.

During the pandemic, teachers across the country were passing kids who likely would have failed at alarming rates. And if nothing at all, the data regarding grade inflation might shed light on another common view: Standardized test scoring may in fact be too high of a standard.