As I wrote recently in Educational Leadership, grade inflation appears to be a real phenomenon with costly consequences for students. From 1992–2006, the percentage of American high school students who reported earning an A or A-minus average nearly doubled (from 18.3%–32.8%). An analysis of student work in Oregon concluded that most high school students receiving Bs (and many receiving As) are not doing work on par with college expectations for entry-level students. Perhaps as a result, more than 30 percent of freshmen drop out of college each year, costing taxpayers in excess of $1 billion per year in wasted grants and state appropriations to colleges.
Is there any way to stop grade inflation? One solution, some offer, is to open up the “black box” of teacher grades, which can be as carefully guarded as secret recipes, making it difficult to determine what actually goes into a student grade. As a result, one teachers’ A can be another’s C grade.
More than 20 years ago, in Spain’s Basque Country, a small high school stumbled onto what appears to be a simple antidote to grade inflation. In 1990, a small school in the Gipuzkoa province purchased new software that began automatically placing on report cards, with little apparent forethought from school officials, information about where students stood relative to the average grade in their class. Immediately, student grades shot up 5 percent (an increase, according to researchers who later analyzed the school’s data, on par with lowering class sizes from 22 to 15). Presumably, as students and their parents began to understand that a grade of say, an 85, wasn’t all that special compared to other students in the class, they began to work harder. And as a whole, the entire school began to perform better on Spain’s national exam.
Incidentally, this sort of value-neutral information about students’ relative performance is exactly the kind of feedback that motivation researcher Edward Deci has noted strikes the perfect balance between providing information to guide performance while not diminishing motivation by coming across as coercing, such as saying to a student, “You should work harder in my class.” Reporting how students are doing relative to their peers seems to be a simple way to open up the black box of grades while inspiring students to work harder. It encourages a student to think, “If the average grade in my class is 85, surely I can do at least that well … if not better.”
For the school in Spain, though, there was one problem.
After just one year, parents and teachers complained that the information was creating too much competition among students. Average class grades were removed from report cards and student performance swiftly sank back to prior levels.
What do you think? Should revealing where students stand relative to their peers be encouraged … or shunned?