The Long Term Consequences of Grade Inflation

Similar to regular inflation, grade inflation is the idea that each time you give a student an “A”, the value of it becomes diluted. If we give everyone an “A”, it doesn’t mean anything. As a teacher, especially a math teacher, this pandering to students and parents has given me cause to believe that the current educational practice of grade inflation will produce many undesired long-term outcomes.

What is Grade Inflation?

Ok, I made this term up. When I say grade inflation, I mean the weakening of a grade as the main marker of mastery in a particular content. In the truest sense, an “A” in Algebra means a 90%+ (although we round up 89.5…smh). By itself, this is a very clear score. If a student can manage to get above a 90%, it shows that they have mastered most, if not all, of the content. And (in my opinion) very importantly it shows they mastered it when they were supposed to!

So what happens when we allow a retake, re-assessment, and allow students to redo projects? It shows them that they don’t need to necessarily demonstrate mastery the first time. If this was it, maybe I wouldn’t have any philosophical qualms. But what many schools are doing is introducing quasi grade quotas to make their data look better. I know I am not the only teacher who wants to protect the integrity of grades so they can keep their value. I have been in meetings where school leaders say “We need x amount of students to be eligible”. I think there is a huge problem with that. Instead of reality and standards being our guide, we place an arbitrary number as a goal and bend our standards and reality to meet it. It’s like saying you want to bench press 300 pounds, and then saying that 200 pounds is now 300 pounds. Crazy!

The Problem with Inflated Grades

Wanting students to do well is deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of teachers. We don’t want anyone to fail. Sincere as we may be, we also are tasked with helping others learn. And learning must be assessed, and not everyone will get 100%. And that is okay. A student can be very nice, but if they don’t know Algebra, do they deserve to pass? What message does passing that student send to the other students who actually achieved mastery?

The reason grade inflation is so insidious is because it is backed by a seemingly sound philosophy. We want everyone to feel good and succeed. But there is an irony contained within that. When you try to make everyone feel good, you end up making no-one feel good. If I got an “A” because I demonstrated mastery the first time, and another student gets an “A” via piecemeal retakes and second chances, my “A” is devalued.

Long-term Consequences

The main consequence of a generation of students with inflated grades is an inflated sense of their own achievement. When I enter the gym, I know there are people stronger than me. If I can squat 350 pounds and another guy can squat 400 pounds, I cannot with a straight face say we are equally strong. And you would call me delusional. Similarly, when grades lose their meaning and integrity, students will think they are performing better than they are. The interesting thing is that even they (in the back of their mind) know their performance didn’t warrant their grade, but we have been teaching them to ignore reality and seek what makes them feel good.

It is similar to an over-indulged child. If they never hear no, they become insufferable brats that no-one likes. They bend reality (mental illness) to fit their superficial needs, rather than accepting reality and basing future action upon that. To put the cherry on top, not only do you have a low performer, they think they are performing better than they are.

What to do?

You cannot separate learning in an academic setting from the relationships that it necessitates. This is why we want everyone to do well. We want them to feel like they belong and are important. We want everyone to get along. I believe we can do that while keeping the sanctity of grades.

We have to learn to separate grades from value judgements. Having bad grades doesn’t make you a bad person. It also doesn’t make you not a part of the community. Instead of bending our standards we can offer more support. But at the end of the day, it should be the student’s responsibility to make it happen (if they choose to).

Hopefully this didn’t come off as a rant, but more as an admonition and catalyst for a better way. I don’t profess to have all the answers, but there are many intelligent minds in education that can and are eager to do the intellectual heavy-lifting. Hope you enjoyed reading!

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