Since the advent of numerical evaluation of academic performance, there have been student concerns about grades. Certain schools of thought may speculate that ranked quantification encourages students to strive towards excellence. It cannot be denied that some metric of quality is necessary to distinguish superior performance. But the idea that numeric grading scales are the best way to highlight exceptional students has not been clearly shown.
Grade inflation, the practice of awarding higher scores than would have been achieved in the past to lower quality work, is one way these challenges have manifested.Top-tier institutions in particular practice grade inflation at a higher rate than large state schools and this fact is a very real barrier to student success at state universities.
Some might question whether grade inflation is a real problem. In order to truly understand the supposed effects of grade inflation, though, its source must first be identified. In 2010, Brenda Sonner’s research identified that grade inflation, a trend which started in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was due in part to professors’ motivation to receive positive student evaluations. Overall, the simplest explanation is simply that students respond positively to positive grades.
An important distinction which logically follows is that grade inflation is not ubiquitous. Alfie Kohn’s research has found that across a survey of 3,000 universities, the grades on official transcripts were on average declining, but average grades awarded at top tier schools were rising. While state universities continue to grade stringently, or even more harshly, students at Ivy League institutions are not equivalently evaluated.
So, grade inflation exists, but not everywhere. Is grade inflation inherently problematic? Actually, no. Diligent students who are interested in learning for their own sake will not suddenly lose interest in academics because they know they will receive a high grade. Students who struggle to receive high grades might even learn better when they don’t experience the pressure of catering to their evaluation. Classrooms are often not an accurate predictor of “real-world” performance, so why introduce additional stress into the environment? The real problem exists with the reality that grade inflation is not an equally-awarded event.
When students from large public colleges are competing with students from top-tier universities after graduation, the relative measure of the former is less favorable than a student of equal potential who has been graded more leniently. Whether you agree or disagree with the benefits of grade inflation, it cannot be denied that this is a hindrance to students who don’t experience the results of this practice. State schools should catch up — recognize that the outdated grading style applied to students not only does nothing to foster a more thorough learning environment but, more importantly, disadvantages them in postgraduate endeavors.