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Recently, I discussed some guidelines for navigating claims about education evidence to inform education reform, specifically how research is framed in those claims. In the weeks following this piece, hand-wringing about dropping SAT scores have been joined by charges of grade inflation within teacher education—both of which highlight that we remain trapped in numbers games that insure we are all destined to lose in the long run.

First, Rick Hess at his Education Week blog, Straight Up, offered three consecutive posts [HERE, HERE, and HERE] claiming that teacher education is a failure based on his charges of grade inflation:

“There are perennial concerns about the rigor and quality of teacher preparation. These have become so familiar that ed programs have taken to shrugging off the critiques as uninformed or anecdotal….Turns out that ed faculty are much more generous when it comes to grading.

Claims of grade inflation have existed for a century (or more), leading me to wonder when the golden age of deflated grades existed, but parallel to Hess’s charges came the perennial concerns about SAT scores, ironically well represented by E. D. Hirsch, in the New York Times, misreading the dropping SAT verbal scores:

“This is very worrisome, because the best single measure of the overall quality of our primary and secondary schools is the average verbal score of 17-year-olds. This score correlates with the ability to learn new things readily, to communicate with others and to hold down a job. It also predicts future income.”

While I agree with Hess about the need to examine the quality of an education degree and with Hirsch about the negative consequences of the accountability era, I cannot accept the misuse of data to reach those valid conclusions.

Grade Inflation, Really?

The grade inflation claim—whether is it used to bash further teacher education and teacher quality (as Hess does) or to suggest once again that education is in a perpetual state of decline (as has been the case for over 150 years)—offers another opportunity to examine closely claims made about education, the agendas behind those claims, and strategies for culling valuable conclusions out of the entire process.

First, concerning grade inflation, a point of logic must be confronted. If we genuinely have been experiencing grade inflation (which suggests that educators offer grades above what students deserve—either out of negligence, ineptitude, or some sort of brazen and cavalier attitude) and standardized testing such as the SAT is an objective, and thus not inflated, reflection of student ability (although we tend to believe all tests are about “achievement”), how do we explain that GPA remains a better predictor of student success than the SAT?

Both claims of grade inflation and of the objective nature of standardized testing are misleading and far more complicated than we suggest.

Further, claims of grade inflation are framed inside as assumption that grades have a static meaning and purpose among teachers and students. For example, if grades are intended to label and sort students, this is a far different purpose than grades being a mechanism for supporting better teaching and deeper learning. Teachers who use grades to label and sort assign “A’s” that are far different than the “A’s” under teachers who view assessment as a subset of teaching and learning. (I, for example, require and allow student revision in a pursuit of student growth, rejecting the use of averaging as a means to calculate grades—a far different philosophy of grades than someone seeking to label and sort a class of students; I guarantee my students' GPAs will be higher, but more authentic, than students in a traditional classroom.)

To be clear, we do not (and cannot) have a solid baseline of data to make any pronouncement about grade inflation because grades are used in a wide variety of ways and within a wide range of philosophical and statistical norms.

For a brief example, in order to determine if grades are inflated, we would all have to start with a tenuous premise—the bell curve—resulting in (for simplicity) something like 10% As, 20% Bs, 40% Cs, 20% Ds, and 10% Fs for a normal distribution of students. Even if this is predictive (and I find that hard to accept), we never have classrooms that are normal distributions of students (we may have all As in a class or all Ds—who knows?), but even if we did, this is the problematic thing about both embracing the possibility of a normal distribution of grades and then raising concerns about inflated grades: If we use grades to rank and sort, and then cull who proceeds in the education process, don’t we have to end with students making all As? (If not, that is, if we force unique populations into a bell curve, then we are contradicting the very premise we start with).

Now, let’s look at how Hess makes charges specifically against education colleges/departments—by comparing among all elite students (those culled and allowed to move on to higher education; thus, seemingly comparing like populations, as in education majors compared with chemistry majors).

Hess’s charge of grade inflation in education majors begins with the unsubstantiated (and unspoken) assumption that there exists some norm of grades against which education GPAs can be compared. Why are those lower grades deemed “accurate,” but the education GPAs are “inflated”? The corrosive and easily manipulated assumption that lower is better, harder (in the warped language many use, more “rigorous”).

With my comments above about the bell curve in mind, consider this: Many content areas and departments—committed to grades as a device to label and sort students (in order to “weed out” weaker students from their department and field)—force their introduction courses onto a bell curve (yes, shaping a uniquely elite population into a curve that reflects, in theory, a normal distribution of students). These actions, directly deflating grades, is never challenged, discussed, or examined, especially while we are charging other areas with grade inflation.

In short, claims of grade inflation are almost always ideology masked by a numbers game that depends on assumptions about the purposes of grades, the nature of grades, and relatively warped views of teaching and learning. (GPAs by discipline are likely a greater reflection of how that field views assessment than it is any evaluative reflection of the inherent nature of the so-called rigor of that field.) It is just as possible, if not likely, that many fields are practicing grade deflation as it is that education degrees are reflecting grade inflation—though I suspect that determining either is both impossible and a waste of energy.

SAT: What It Is Good For? Absolutely Nothing

Hirsch’s comment above about the SAT, once again, triggers and reflects significant errors in what we say about education data and the conclusions we draw from that data.

We appear to have a pathological obsession with low SAT scores—never considering an important rule of thumb for test data: Never use test data for purposes other than those for which the instrument was designed (See Bracey).

While Hirsch claims that the SAT verbal score provides important data for, apparently, everything (learning, communication, jobs, income), he fails to note that this test has only one purpose, to predict freshman college success (which, again, as I noted above, it does less well than simple GPA). That we can use SAT scores to label, sort, and rank does not justify that we do such, specifically since the College Board itself warns against just that.

Further, the cries over lower scores ignores the exact dynamics of statistics that those enamored with numbers claim to trust (see my above concerns about both embracing and distorting the bell curve theory): The plummeting SAT scores—always more closely correlated with out-of-school factors than anything else—have declined as they should have over the past seven decades because the population of test takers has shifted from an elite population toward the normal distribution. If SAT scores were to rise while the population shifted toward the norm, then this would be a sign that the data are corrupted (likely by SAT-prep strategies or inherent flaws in the test itself, such as links to socio-economic status of the test takers and remaining biases related to race and gender [1]).

Is Hirsch correct in charges against the negative impact the accountability movement has had on teaching and learning quality in the U.S.?:

“In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.”

Yes, he is, but his use of the SAT isn’t a valid avenue for that claim—it simply is a convenient way to make that claim because it triggers misconceptions common among the public. (The College Board itself recognized the statistical trap of the growing populations taking the SAT, and the impending public relations nightmare—leading to a re-centering of the SAT in the mid-1990s—and the fact of scores dropping.)

Claims of grade inflation and plummeting SAT scores make for easy ideological rants, and even some credible charges against our schools and suggestions for reform, but more often than not, the actual basis for those claims themselves are either flawed, overly simplistic, or self-contradictory.

I suspect we can all do better than that, unless we are more enamored with the numbers games themselves than creating the education all children deserve.


Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.

Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9),950-958.


"The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation," Alfie Kohn

"The latest in free-market educational solutions", Peter Smagorinsky

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Mon Sep 19, 2011 at 11:47 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I think there is more grade inflation on a (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    primary and HS level than college.  I think college professors are actually some of the hardest graders with some of the best criteria for grades.  As far as teacher education goes, primary and secondary teachers are totally different.  HS teachers have to have majors and minors in their teaching subjects, and since these are regular college curriculum courses for those majors, the idea doesn't float.  Core subject professors are some of the hardest graders anywhere IMO.

    •  It varies. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      As you get to chose your classes to a far greater degree in college than high school, it's much easier to inflate your GPA in college, particularly if you have a degree plan with a lot of electives.

       Core subject professors are some of the hardest graders anywhere IMO.

      Partially because they're in a position to be.  They know students can't just dodge their class.

      As long as high schools use graduation rate as a barometer for success, there's going to be grade inflation, because there's a massive incentive to just pass them.

    •  Your comment about elementary education (0+ / 0-)

      majors not being required to have a major or minor may be true where you went to school, but here in Michigan, elementary teachers may have either one or two majors ( I had a Science major and an Education major), or an Education major and up to three minors. In addition to my 2 majors, I had close to a minor in history. In order to teach in grades 6 to 12, teachers who graduated in the past number of years also had to pass a a rigorous subject area exam in any subject area for which they chose to become highly qualified. The classes I took in my Science major were, as you put it, regular college curriculum courses. I can assure you that there was no grade inflation in the classes I taught. I had a reputation for being a tough teacher - one who thoroughly prepared her students for the classes facing them the following year.

    •  grades at the primary level are pretty irrelevant (0+ / 0-)

      and many schools don't give letter grades K-6.

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Tue Sep 20, 2011 at 10:53:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  All I'm interested in, when it comes to... (0+ / 0-)

    ...teacher education, is whether or not we're putting students into those programs who did poorly in high school.  If so, that's a problem.  

    The Rent Is Too Damn High Party feels that if you want to marry a shoe, I'll marry you. --Jimmy McMillan

    by Rich in PA on Mon Sep 19, 2011 at 12:47:45 PM PDT

  •  SAT scores are over-rated. (0+ / 0-)

    When I went to college, a counselor told me that my scores indicated that I would be lucky to be a C student in college. Well, he was wrong as most counselors that I have met in schools usually are. But grade-point-average in HS correlates a lot.

    As a reading teacher, I discovered that many students assigned to my classes had low scores. But when you treated them as if they were intelligent and capable and told them you knew they could do better, they often did and tried harder. Especially when they were challenged with interesting and real-life materials.

    In today's society, where reading is not encouraged, where fantasy disguises facts and people cannot tell fact and opinion from true or false and everyone wants the easy road pointed out to them rather than discovering the right path for themselves, how can SAT reading scores go up?

    Even email abounds with false information and downright lies and the people who forward that junk on, do NOT research the facts. Truth means nothing as our politicians have proven.

    So, SAT reading samples, need to reflect our time and culture...and use email forwards as examples. It might help, but will it reflect college  success? ---No.

    So much to refute and so little time!

    Character is what you are in the dark. Emilio Lizardo in Buckaroo Bonzai

    by Temmoku on Mon Sep 19, 2011 at 01:21:14 PM PDT

    •  Heh, I was in the 99th percentile in SAT & GRE (0+ / 0-)

      and I ended up with a B+ average at Rice U.  Would have been higher but I came out of the closet partway through & discovered boys...

      New favorite put-down: S/he's as dumb as a flock of Sarah Palins

      by sleipner on Mon Sep 19, 2011 at 01:41:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  An important topic (0+ / 0-)

    Rec'd and tipped!

    A recent study here  notes the following evolution of grades at four year US colleges and universities:

    Purpose of Study: We have collected historical and contemporary data on A–F letter grades awarded from over 200 four-year colleges and universities. Our contemporary data on grades come from 135 schools, with a total enrollment of 1.5 million students.

    Results/Findings:  Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988.

    I subscribe to your method of allowing students to revise their work. In my view, permission to fail is an important part of learning -- at least it has been in my own education and life experience.

    The problematic part for me is that I am constrained by "GPA guidelines" at my university that force me to give the majority of undergraduates C's in my courses. I have been moving this issue to the faculty senate, but it's kind of a sacred cow around here, so I haven't made much progress yet.

    It is clear to me that these kinds of guidelines are unfair to both students and instructors. However, if true, 43% A's does seem a bit inflated. So I do agree it is something of a complicated topic.

    •  incredible (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I am always amazed that universities—filled with well educated people—impose false constraints on their faculty and students. . .

      No way to predict any grade distribution for a class of students. . .In fact, teach at a highly selective university where they still think As are rare. . .I suspect when you admit almost all A students, you should have mostly A's. . .that is if grades mean anything at all. . .

  •  grade inflation in MBA programs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    That's what you throw back at these right wing lapdogs.

  •  My philosophy of grading has taken a major (0+ / 0-)

    shift in the past year.  I am a high school English teacher who never accepted late work from students in the past.  This made my life easier, and it got some students off the hook because they didn't have to write a paper if they missed the deadline.  Now, I will hound students and their parents until I get the paper from them.  I want them to write.  Failure is not an option.

    As far as grade inflation goes, I think many HS teachers allow students to pad their grades with homework grades and extra credit.  I do not grade homework or give extra credit.  You must do the work the first time.  The purpose of homework is practice and should not be graded.  This is very different from how many teachers view grading.

    •  yes (0+ / 0-)

      letting students "take a zero" is a HUGE problem in many classes so I applaud your shift!

      I always told my students that if I were there medical doctor and prescribed meds and they didn't take them, then how would they get better?

    •  Our school has adopted a no zero policy (0+ / 0-)

      You cannot get out of an assignment by taking a zero. It might be worth less and less and less, but the assignment is still due.

      So far, the feeling is that this is a positive change.

      Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

      by elfling on Tue Sep 20, 2011 at 10:52:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  also (0+ / 0-)

        I always separated any grade consequences for being "late" from the response I put on the work. . .

        For example, if the late essay was a "B" essay, I put a "B" on the essay and also kept track of "late" work, implementing any consequences for that for the entire grade for the quarter. . .

  •  Of course, SAT scores are inflated too. (0+ / 0-)

    Anybody else remember when 200 points were arbitrarily added to all SAT scores about 13 years ago? Supposedly to "normalize" the results?

    I'm sure it had absolutely nothing to do with making the testing population happier with their scores and 'feeling better about themselves".

    •  Yes and no (0+ / 0-)

      The SAT recentered for the exact reason I addressed above.

      The "norm" of the SAT has shifted over the decades away from an elite population and toward a normal distribution; the recentering was a proper statistical move, but it also had positive PR aspects.

      Just to be clear, the recentering was what should have been done, and the SAT (although it shouldn't even be administered at all) likely needs it again. . .

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