Grade Inflation

department - grade inflation2Inflation refers to an increase in the listed value of something while its real value stays the same. In economics, inflation exclusively refers to paper money, yet as today’s currency for the average student to sell his application to colleges is his grades, a not-too-surprising trend at Groton that started well over thirty years ago shows that grades haven’t escaped from inflation either.

Data fro vm the Academic Office indicates that from 1985 to 2004, the average Fifth Form grades at Groton for each graduating class steadily crept up from an 81.2 to and 84.7, with an average increase per year of 0.18 points. And quite suddenly, starting in 2006, the average Fourth and Fifth Form grades dramatically increased each year by average increments of 0.35, beginning from 84.1 in 2006 to 87.2 in 2014.

Although the steady grade inflation from 1985 to 2004 is on par with inflation at other institutions, the acceleration in grade inflation since 2006 is puzzling. Different faculty members have different theories about this phenomenon – while some blame the pressures from students, parents and colleges, others say that even more at play is the grade inflation all around us that seeps into our system.

With the recent report that the average grade at Harvard is an A- and a 2008 study published in the Teachers College Record Journal that shows that the proportion of A’s for college students has jumped a whopping 28 percent since 1960, grade inflation clearly is a national trend that affects every institution. Ms. Leggat says that “our grading system is conservative,” so some increase should be reasonable in order to put graduating Grotonians on an equal playing field with other students in the college process. But is there a point when too much grade inflation hurts the average student?

grade averagesSome teachers seem to think so. John Lyons explains that, at least for the History Department, “what a 92 is worth today is, generally speaking, what a 92 was worth ten years ago. But what an 82 is worth today is what a 76 was worth a decade ago.” In other words, while top students have not benefited much from the upward shift in grades, students with lower averages are causing the rift, at least on paper. “The best students can’t distinguish themselves as much anymore,” says Mr. Lyons. Although teachers may want to lessen the impact of what a poor performance on a test or paper will mean on a student’s transcript, the system is starting to fall apart when the bottom grades receive a boost while the top grades remain unchanged.

Another possible explanation is that Groton students have become smarter. After all, each year brings in record number of applicants, so the Admissions officers have more applicants to choose from. For one, Cathy Folts has noticed that “in recent years a handful of students are scoring higher grades” in her Spanish 1 class. She adds that her grading is quite objective; “either a verb is conjugated correctly, or it is not. And the tests have not changed. The difference seems to be in the type of students we are attracting.”  Ms. Folts sees “students who are more motivated to score those high grades, and when they do not, they are disappointed.  Perhaps some of these students are motivated by grades, while others simply enjoy the challenge of learning and of mastering a subject.”  She does “not know for sure what drives them.”

Others think that better students are not a good explanation for our grade inflation.  “Although the average student coming into Groton may have become more prepared over the years to take on our demanding academics,” says David Prockop, “that alone cannot account for the grade inflation” over the past seven years. Mr. Lyons confirms this, saying that “if you look at SSAT scores, AP scores and SAT scores over the past few years, students haven’t gotten much smarter.” The AP statistics available on the Groton website shows that while grades have risen, AP scores have not. The percentage of scores of 4 and 5 have not changed significantly from 69% in 2007 (326 out of 474 exams) to 67% in 2011 (283 out of 425 exams).

Or could teachers be improving their teaching as the years wear by, so that students learn more and score better on their tests? Señor Viacava sees some truth in this explanation, as he has improved his teaching during his time at Groton. Although his tests have not changed, he can see each year the amount of material covered increasing steadily. He is always testing new teaching methods so that his students learn more quickly and easily. Thus the classroom environment may be improving every year for most teachers, enabling students to score higher on tests until that teacher leaves or retires.

But the most plausible of all explanations is that the teaching body is exerting pressure on itself. At end-of-term evaluations, teachers discuss a student’s academic performance while grades are projected on a board. For example, if a teacher sees that a student with an 88 in his or her class is scoring 92 in other classes, the said teacher may reconsider the relatively low grade.

Data provided by the Academic Office in the School Profile shows that the higher rate of inflation over the past seven years is not restricted to only a few departments; all the average student grades by discipline have gone up with a median increase of 2.3 points over five years, with the exception of Religion (.13 decrease).

So what are different departments doing to fight the inflation? The History Department, for one, “has tried hard to avoid increases in the average grade in history courses,” in Tom Lamont’s words. When Mr. Lyons was Head of the History Department, the goal was to have a student average of 83; and even since some consensus seems to be at play, for History grades have only increased by .8 points over five years, the lowest increase of all departments. But the verb “to grade” is ambiguous in itself – Stephen Belsky said that he frequently finds himself “in conversation with peers, in which we do not use the term in exactly the same way.” Thus a strict grading guideline is necessary for a department to aim for a particular average.

While some, such as the History Department, are relying on a general accord as to what the average student grade should be, others are advocating for two systems of grading: one internal, for only the students to see, and one external, for parents and colleges to see. Dr. David Black is such a proponent: “an 82 in my class would tell the student that their work was good, but that there was room for improvement. If my average grade in the class is an 88 and we want this to be a 4.0 on that scale, the 82 might end up being a 3.7.  It’s really up to the administration to determine what our average should be.” MIT started this system for its freshman class (Class of 2017), whereby a student receives “hidden” grades which would then be re-calibrated by the school for the student’s transcript.

Allison Schrager, a teaching assistant in economics at Columbia University, recently confessed in an article for the magazine Quartz that she passively accepts grade inflation, but not because of pressure from other institution to follow the trend; she simply “didn’t want to deal with all the complaining” from her students. Clearly, grade inflation is in part due to the pressure to achieve high grades on the part of the students. So why don’t students forget about the grades and appreciate the learning experience? After all, high school is meant to be one of the best experiences of our lives; why not make the best of it?

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