Grade Inflation: Does a Rising Tide Really Lift all Boats?

Grade Inflation: Does a Rising Tide Really Lift all Boats?
Grade Inflation: Does a Rising Tide Really Lift all Boats?

Like most teachers, I spent the first few years of my career just trying to keep my head above water, running as fast as I could to keep from falling behind. Then came a horrible realization. Nobody cared how hard I worked as long as enough students got A’s. Give grades that were high enough, and the students would like me, the parents would like me, and the administrators would like me. I could do a terrible job. The students might learn nothing. Nobody would care as long as enough students got A’s. This harsh reality nearly paralyzed me for a time.

This revelation did not end my career. After a few days, I got back on track. I worked hard during my years of teaching, and I have reason to be pleased as I look back on it. However, I saw many awful teachers get away with doing almost nothing, as long as the appropriate percentage of their students got high grades.

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What happened to teachers who did not give enough high grades? Parent complaints and administrative pressure came down on them, no matter the quality of their work. All too often, high standards caused low evaluations. That is the cause of “grade inflation.”

Grades Rise, Learning Declines

Nobody paid any attention to grade inflation until the dawn of standardized testing.  Suddenly, the educational bureaucrats realized that students who were getting high grades were not doing well on the tests.  Finding an answer to that question is the goal of a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Since most readers have likely never heard of the Fordham Institute, a brief introduction seems in order. The Institute studies educational trends and makes recommendations. Politically, it is slightly right-of-center. Thus, they ask questions that some of the more liberal educational think tanks avoid.

Proving What Everybody Already Knows

The debate over educational testing has been going on for at least a decade. The problem that the Fordham people are trying to decipher is the reason why a student who gets an A or a B in a class often doesn’t do well on state-mandated end-of-course exams (EOC’s)?

The study, Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005–2016) by Seth Gershenson, looked at all North Carolina public school students who completed an Algebra I course and then completed the state’s EOC. It asked three questions:

  1. How frequent and how large are discrepancies between student grades and test scores? Do they vary by school demographics?
  2. To what extent do high school test scores, course grades, attendance, and cumulative GPAs align with student performance on college entrance exams?
  3. How, if at all, have the nature of such discrepancies and the difficulty of receiving an A changed in recent years?1
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The study’s three basic findings are:

  1. Many students get good grades, but few excel on the EOC’s.
  2. EOC scores predict math American College Testing scores much better than the course grades.
  3. Grade inflation occurred in affluent schools more often than in less affluent schools.

Grade Inflation and Frenetic Intemperance

Grade inflation is typical of the frenetic intemperance seen in modern society and discussed in John Horvat’s book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society.

Mr. Horvat defines frenetic intemperance as “a restless and reckless spirit inside modern economy that foments a drive to throw off legitimate restraints and gratify disordered passions.”

In this case, the legitimate restraint is the idea that one gets good grades in a class by working hard and learning the material presented in that class. Depending on a particular student’s talents and inclinations, some classes will be relatively easy, and others will be more difficult. Traditionally, “all A students” were those who worked hard enough and had sufficient skill to get the best grade in all classes – whether their talents inclined them to do well in that class or not.

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Colleges prize these students because their chances of success were high. Therefore, these students could take their pick of several top-tier colleges after graduation. Getting a degree from such a school allowed these students to obtain positions in the best businesses, law firms, medical practices, or wherever their hearts desired. This would, in turn, guarantee economic success.

Parents understandably want their children to be among these high-achieving students. This has been true for generations. However, in the last two or three decades, parents have become conditioned to the idea that it is the teacher’s job to ensure that their children become high achievers. Therefore, any grades that are lower than an A must be the teacher’s fault. These parents, and I have seen it happen, go charging into the principal’s office with the less-than-perfect report card and demand to know how the offending teacher is going to alter his or her teaching so that their child gets the required A. It takes a very brave – and perhaps foolhardy – teacher to tell the principal and the parents that the student is the one who needs to make the adjustments necessary to earn the grade.

A Cure That is Simple, but not Easy

The cure is relatively simple. We must raise standards and hold students and teachers to them. This will require a change in attitudes by all involved. The author of the study quotes Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz, “Ultimately, holding students to a high bar requires a zealous and persistent commitment by everyone—from superintendents, principals, and parents, to assistant teachers and office staff.”2

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Notice that the answer is simple, that is, simple to understand. No one should make the mistake of assuming that this simple answer will be easy to apply. Frenetic intemperance infects our schools –public, private, and parochial – as much as it infects other segments of society. Few people want to admit that it exists, much less do anything about it.

Therefore, grade inflation will likely continue until the grades mean absolutely nothing, as our schools continue to slide into the morass created by John Dewey’s philosophy that education is more about experience than it is about facts – but that is a discussion for another day.


1. S. Gershenson, “Grade Inflation in High Schools (2005-2016)” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, n.d., p 5.

2. E. Moskowitz, “‘Holding Students to High Expectations is Harder than It Sounds,” Flypaper (blog), September 7, 2018, Quoted on page 7 of the report.