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Killing with kindness?

By November 1, 2011June 14th, 20162 Comments

For as long as letter grades have been around, so too, have fears of grade inflation. As far back as the 1890s, Harvard University professors were wringing their hands about students earning “sham” grades that would “seriously cheapen” the university’s reputation if the outside world were to learn of them.

That so many people could worry about the same phenomenon for so long begs the question of whether such concerns are merely successive generations of curmudgeons grumbling about the declining standards of youth or grounded in reality.

As I write in my latest column in Educational Leadership, recent data suggests that such concerns today may be indeed have some basis in fact. Here are but two data points:

  • Nearly twice as many high school students reported earning an A or A-minus average in 2006 than in 1992 (32.8 percent versus 18.3 percent).
  • In 2007, two federal reports found that the performance of U.S. high school students on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had declined between 1992 and 2005, even as average student GPA rose from 2.68 to 2.98.

Some critics dismiss these data because they rely on student self-reports of their grades, which, itself could suggest an equally troubling conclusion: that today’s students are more “truth challenged” than in the past. Test companies which collect these data, however, say their analyses suggest that self-reports are sufficiently reliable to use for research purposes.

The real question, though, may well be whether today’s grades accurately assess student learning. Here, too, the data are troubling.

In Oregon, reviewers analyzed the in-class work of 2,200 high school students against university professors’ standards for college-entry work and found that most B students and some A students were not doing work on par with entry-level college standards.

If we accept, as many researchers do, that grade inflation is a real phenomenon, we might ask why it occurs. Here are two possible explanations:

  1. Many teachers (as many as half by one estimate) base class grades on factors such as effort, behavior, and attitude that are only indirectly related to learning. In low-performing schools, in particular, grades seem to have as much to do with managing behavior as assessing learning.
  2. Educators may inflate grades out of sympathy for students who are underprepared for success: feeling caught between a rock and a hard place of either inflating grades or flunk large numbers of students, they opt for inflating grades.

But do inflated grades help anyone? Nationwide, 30 percent of students at four-year colleges drop out after just one year of school, incurring enormous personal costs and racking up more than $1 billion per year in wasted state appropriations and student grants. How many of these students received unrealistically high marks in high school, only to discover in college that their high schools might have actually been killing them with kindness?

Bryan Goodwin is vice president of communications at McREL. He is the author of Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success (ASCD, 2011).

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.


  • Cathy says:

    How do we better inform students of learning and their parents of progress? Parents “know” letter grades and are uncomfortable with other forms of feedback.

  • Jen Evans says:

    Hi Cathy,
    At the school I am employed at, we do testing each Friday. They parents receive a report card each month with a number grade. We do not use letters. We also do standardized testing 5 times throughout the year. Once on the first day of school, once in November, January, March, and June. The parents are able to see the progress their child is making throughout the year. We also do monthly tests. These tests include basic skills we have done in class and also during test prep. This helps a lot when discussing progress with parents.

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