On Grade Inflation05-06-2021
As an academic year of unprecedented trials limps to a close, the predictable articles on grade inflation rise like daisies. It is hard to get worked up. Grade inflation is one of the few facts we can all agree on in our increasingly fact-free world. It is here to stay. But one thing often forgotten is that grade inflation actually hurts students. As Shane Trotter writes, easier teachers are not the best teachers. And in my experience, students actually want to be challenged intellectually and honestly assessed.
A recent study conducted at the Naval Academy showed that students learn less from easy teachers. As the researchers state, “Instructors who tend to give out easier subjective grades… dramatically hurt subsequent student performance.” While a generalization, these claims support the intuitions of anyone who has ever been to school or met a human. When students can give less effort, they do. So, why have schools been moving toward easier grading?
In a decade working in high schools, I’ve seen a consistent push to reduce writing, reading, and note-taking, expand late work windows, lighten workloads, dilute the weight of assessments, and, most fundamentally, to eliminate failures. The same can be seen at the university level. The amount of time college students have spent on academic work has gone from 40 hours per week in 1961, to 27 in 2003, to less than 12 hours in 2008*. During that time, the average grade has risen in both public and private universities, while national SAT scores continue to decline. Today’s graduates are not smarter or more prepared for their future, but at least they think they are.
The roots of these trends can be found in generations of self-esteem culture and a gradual educational shift from a standards-driven approach to one of customer service. As consumerism enveloped society, our schools became more concerned with perception and appeasement than learning. School, in the eyes of parents and educators alike, became something to game—the lessons taught an arbitrary ritual that stood between students and the diploma they needed.