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Easy antidote to grade inflation?

By November 11, 2011June 14th, 20168 Comments

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?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Brett says:

    My experience teaching overseas has taught me that showing where students stand relative to their peers is a good motivational technique. As in the example you provided, there is the possibility of creating too much competition.
    Currently, I teach in Thailand. The students here really enjoy the competition, and are always trying to do better than their classmates. The one problem that does occur is cheating on exams. Given the amount of pressure that is exerted on students to succeed, it is possible that they may resort to cheating. As in everything, it is important to strike a balance so that students do not feel compelled to cheat to receive a better grade.

  • Sarah says:

    From my experiences, I think that my students look for competition. The more competition that I can bring into the classroom, the better my students perform as a whole. I think that this idea of letting students know where they stand compared to the rest of the class is a good thing. It will influence my students to want to do better then their peers.

  • Brittanye says:

    Based on my experience, students are motivated to do better once there grade is compared to their peers. In my class if students want to know their grades, I say them out loud to the class. The student has the option of whether they want it read out loud to the class or they can check it online on their own time. Almost all of my students have their grade read out loud because they are so competitive and want to know if they are doing better than the other students or how far they need to go to have the highest grade.
    I think parents should want to know how well their child is doing compared to the other students. When parents only see their child grade, they may think tat they are doing well. In reality compared to other students, the students may not be.This should help increase parent involvement at home, which would hopefully increase the students achievement.

  • Mitch Elliot says:

    I find it important for students to understand how they have achieved when compared to others but to have also reflected on their own previous grades. I aim for them to do better than previous work of their own.
    Average grades tend to inspire top students, it can lead to students losing motivation who are always below the average class grade.

  • denise says:

    I feel it is important to instill in students a sense that working hard will achieve better results. Have we become a society of near enough is good enough? We need people to strive for greatness not it’s ok just to pass. Sharing where students sit is a great idea if it encourages them to achieve their best.

  • K.thaw says:

    This idea is well and good for students who are achieving and don’t have difficulty accessing learning. I wonder what publishing results would do for the student sitting in the corner hoping desperately that they won’t be called on and embarrassed in front of their peers? How does this improve their outcomes? Or does it just make them more determined to hide the fact that they are not learning? All teachers now that students who aren’t learning can develop extreme behavior to hide this fact. It’s possible we would push these students further away.
    Competition is helpful in classrooms, but it needs to be used in a way that ensure no students are humiliated in front of their peers.

  • I teach kindergarten and when I have students who aren’t responding to interventions, I send home a progress report. The progress report lets the parent know where their child stands in relation to the rest of the grade level. This has been very effective in getting parental support and raising these students’ achievement.

  • Although it is important to educate students that working hard will achieve better results, I am not sure that support competition between students is effective, since I think that grades are not always representative of the student’s knowledge.

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