What is Grade Inflation and Why Does it Matter?
Grades are supposed to provide a standard measurement of students’ learning. They’re a way for students to see what they’ve learned and where they need to improve. They also communicate students’ mastery of key skills and knowledge to outside stakeholders, like colleges or employers. Grades are especially important as an increasing number of colleges are making tests optional, relying on transcripts as their main measure of student preparedness.
Yet across high schools in the United States, what grades actually measure is anything but standard. As educators seek to build student proficiency in key academic, cognitive, and social skill sets, consistency amongst standards and practices matter greatly. In recent years, concerns about “grade inflation” have been garnering more attention as teachers aim to communicate a more accurate description of student learning. But what exactly is grade inflation and how does it impact educators and students?
Grade inflation means giving students the same grades for work that is less rigorous. There can be many reasons for this, such as providing an easier grading system, a decrease in standards, or a desire to keep students from failing a course. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: students may think they’ve mastered material when they really haven’t, and the value of their high school diplomas becomes less meaningful.
The purpose of high school isn’t to graduate students with straight A’s on their transcripts. It’s to graduate students with true mastery of the skills and knowledge they’ll need to succeed in the future. At XQ, we define these skills and knowledge through our Learner Outcomes: concrete, relevant knowledge and skills that students can apply to succeed in a 21st-century context. Rethinking high school means rethinking grading to better serve students’ learning.
Grade Inflation in High Schools
In the past decades, grade inflation in high schools has been on the rise. A 2017 study by the College Board found that between 1998 and 2016, the average high school GPA went up from 3.27 to 3.38. This means that the proportion of students with A grades increased from 38.9 percent of the graduating class of 1998 to 47 percent of the graduating class of 2016. Yet during that same period, SAT averages decreased, suggesting that the rising grades did not correlate with rising student achievement.
This trend has continued. A study conducted by the ACT of more than 4 million high schoolers who took the ACT between 2010 and 2021 showed that, after 2016, the number of A students taking the ACT surpassed the number of B students. Yet as grades rose, achievement fell, with today’s A students scoring lower on the ACT than A students a decade ago. These results are backed up by a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, which found a similar increase in GPA between 2009 and 2019, coupled with a decrease in 12th-grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national achievement test.
When assessments don’t accurately reflect students’ abilities, learning suffers. Because teachers work so much with their students, their judgment and insights about student learning holds a high degree of validity. It is one reason why an index of grades is still one of the strongest predictors of student success in college compared to standardized tests. While this subjectivity can make it easy for grade inflation to occur, it doesn’t disqualify the holistic assessment of students.
But grade inflation—and the underlying issues that lead to it—means that teachers don’t get the most data they need to effectively monitor student progress and give students individualized support. Likewise, students don’t get feedback about what they’ve mastered and where they need to improve.
Our mission at XQ is to rethink high school to prepare students with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to succeed in a rapidly changing world. This means giving all students opportunities for meaningful, engaged learning: challenging students as thinkers and people and building academic knowledge alongside real-world skills.
We also know that setting students up for success means preparing them for college, careers, and whatever the future may hold. When students graduate, they should feel confident their hard-earned grades will hold meaning for colleges and employers. But grade inflation undercuts the meaning of a high school diploma, hurting students’ future job and education prospects.
What Causes Grade Inflation?
Grade inflation can happen for a variety of reasons——changes in teaching approaches, pressures placed on educators, and inconsistent grading standards, to name a few.
In exploring each of these examples, it’s important to note the structural cause at the root of grade inflation: an outdated system of grading that enables subjectivity and vagueness in what students’ grades mean, rather than focusing on specific, authentic measures of learning.
Teachers and schools are increasingly moving away from outdated learning methods like memorization and seat time in favor of more holistic, student-centered approaches. This shift recognizes that the abilities students will need to succeed in the complex 21st century go beyond traditional academic subjects to include skills like collaboration, life-long learning, and original thinking.
However, traditional grading systems don’t account for these expanded capacities. What looks like grade inflation may reflect students being rewarded for skills not previously measured on transcripts. This shift in pedagogies can also exacerbate inconsistencies in grading, another cause of grade inflation.— Iit’s difficult to compare the value of an A from a classroom that tracks students’ individual growth with an A from a classroom focused purely on memorization.
Many teachers also lack the support and training to adapt their grading systems to reflect new approaches to learning and a wider range of student skills. To address grade inflation, teachers need institutional support to rethink the role of assessment in their classrooms and to implement these changes without fear of negative consequences for grading students more accurately.
Inconsistent Grading Practices
Grades are essential for communicating student learning, but educators and administrators face pressure to avoid failure and maintain graduation and college access rates. Superficially raising grades to meet these requirements risks undermining the value of learning. The demands and pressures to showcase consistently high levels of achievement can lead to inconsistent grading practices, which can confuse students and hinder a teacher’s ability to review grades accurately.
One motivation for increasing students’ grades, regardless of their performance, is to prevent students from failing. This rationale became especially relevant during the pandemic. For example, high school students in California were given the opportunity to change their lowest grades from the 2020-21 school year to pass/no pass. In Georgia, the weight of end-of-year tests for the 2020-21 school year was reduced to 0.01 percent; in prior years, these tests counted for 20 percent of students’ final grades.
To accommodate the extreme disruptions students faced in the wake of COVID-19, many schools eased grading standards so that students wouldn’t be penalized for circumstances outside of their control. There’s evidence that these changes led to increased grade inflation: the 2022 ACT study shows a particularly high jump in grades from 2018-2021, with GPAs rising a full tenth of a point as schools shifted grading practices during the pandemic.
While some changes to grading policies during the pandemic were necessary to accommodate unprecedented circumstances, grade inflation had already been a concern.
As Psychology Today noted, wealthy and influential parents may pressure teachers to give students good grades in order to boost their college applications.
The 2017 College Board study on grade inflation found that grade inflation was most pronounced at high schools with majority white, wealthy students. However, The Hechinger Report describes how in the more recent ACT study, after controlling for differences in schools and students, grade inflation increased across every demographic: for Black, Hispanic, white, and Asian students across income brackets, at both affluent and high poverty schools. The bottom line? Grade inflation is widespread, impacting students across a range of backgrounds.
How Does Grade Inflation Affect High School Students?
The impulse behind grade inflation may be to support students, or to honor students’ efforts even when their performance on assessments falls short. But without rethinking grades on a larger scale, merely giving out higher grades does a disservice to students’ current learning and future outcomes.
Evidence shows that more rigorous grading practices lead to better learning. In a 2020 study of the outcomes of all 8th and 9th grade Algebra I students in North Carolina’s public schools from 2006 to 2016, researchers found that students learn more from teachers with higher grading standards. These impacts were enduring: the study found that rigorous grading practices also improved student performance in math classes up to two years later.
Many studies on grade inflation rely on contrasting students’ transcripts with their scores on standardized tests, which we know can paint an incomplete picture of students’ aptitude. But these findings are borne out when students get to college. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly 42 percent of students starting college have to take at least one remedial course. For students starting at two-year colleges, that number is 65 percent. Despite rising grades, students are showing up to college unprepared.
Grade inflation can give students a false sense of accomplishment, leading them to think they’ve mastered material when they really haven’t. One of our XQ Learner Outcomes is learners for life: students who are self-directed and curious, who set goals, and respond to failure with creativity and resilience. This attitude towards learning prepares students for the rigors of college, and for a job market which increasingly requires workers to adapt and learn new skills. Grade inflation keeps students from seeing where they’re falling short, taking ownership of their learning, and making a plan to improve.
The real costs of grade inflation for students are clear in the number of students enrolling in remedial courses once they get to college. Graduating high school with good grades should be a good indicator of college preparedness. Yet a report from the Education Trust shows that transcripts are not a good predictor of college success. Many students earn high grades in high school only to enroll in remedial courses. These courses are expensive and generally don’t count toward a student’s degree. Studies have also shown that enrolling in remedial courses increases the time it takes students to earn their degree and decreases their likelihood of degree completion.
How to Avoid Grade Inflation
Grade inflation is a problem for students—but the solution isn’t a simple matter of “harsher” grading. Instead, educators and schools should look at the root cause of grade inflation: a system of grading that doesn’t account for the individual needs of students and doesn’t support the way learning actually happens. To avoid grade inflation, we need to rethink grading systems as a whole, to provide a more rigorous, accurate account of student learning and performance.
Teachers can begin by reevaluating assignments and learning experiences to ask: is the goal of this experience for students to collect points and complete tasks or to promote deep learning and understanding of a skill or concept? Teachers can also think more deeply about the data gained from assessments by asking:
- How am I using the data from assessments to improve student learning?
- How can this data help me monitor students’ individual progress and personalize learning?
- How am I involving students in this process?
- Does my interaction with the data match with the school’s overall mission?
- Do my colleagues and I treat our assessment data in the same manner?
These shifts in thinking are most powerful when they occur at a whole-school level. One of our XQ Design Principles is a strong mission and culture—a clear set of values that unite the school community in a common purpose. Addressing grade inflation at the community level helps ensure consistency in new assessment standards so that grades have meaning across classrooms and schools.
Further, establishing a more student-centered classroom can help guide teachers who are rethinking how they are implementing their learning experiences. Student-centered learning focuses on placing students at the hub of the learning process, increasing opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning and collaborate more often with peers. By prioritizing student-centered learning, teachers promote a more authentic approach to education where students take ownership of their learning and are assessed based on actual learning outcomes rather than inflated grades.
Finally, competency-based education is one powerful way many schools and teachers can deepen learning and make assessments more meaningful. In competency-based education (CBE), students progress based on mastering a defined and transparent set of core content and skills rather than the time they’ve spent in class. CBE gives students the opportunity to move at their own pace and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways beyond traditional tests.
Instead of relying only on letter grades, rubrics in competency-based systems are often more detailed and descriptive, breaking down the skills and knowledge targeted by a given task or assessment, evaluating how well the student has mastered those targets, and giving students the opportunity to improve.
At Grand Rapids Public Museum School (GRPMS), an XQ School in Michigan’s Grand Rapids Public Schools district, educators put competency-based learning into action. Students are not assessed on points or letter grades but rather on achieving proficiency through the competencies. Projects and daily learning involve students completing a hierarchy of tasks, leading up to a culminating “performance task” where students showcase their mastery and reflect with educators where they’re at. Depending on how students perform, that assessment is translated to match the district’s grading system, which is a common letter-point grade system. Students achieving proficiency translates into a high B (by traditional measures); however, students are able to revise and retry as they pursue mastery or a higher score if they are below proficient.
This system gives teachers the space to provide students with rigorous feedback without the pressure to fail students who may need more time to master the material. It also reframes learning for students: instead of viewing learning as simply getting an A, students are encouraged to take risks and to see failure as a natural part of the learning process. Under this framework, GRPMS students take on ambitious real-world projects that spark meaningful, engaged learning—like working on projects that tie them deeply with their local community.
To implement competency-based learning in the classroom, teachers can:
- Consider the needs of your students. What skills and knowledge do they need to master?
- Create competencies around these identified needs. Competencies might include academic goals, like mastery of content, as well as more real-life skills, like critical thinking.
- Construct rubrics around competencies.
- Involve students in evaluating their learning and making a plan for how they will move forward.
Teachers can explore our comprehensive resource on implementing CBE in the classroom.
Grade inflation is a symptom of a larger problem: an outdated system of assessment that focuses on superficial, one-size-fits-all measures of success, rather than authentic student learning. By moving towards more meaningful measures of learning, like competency-based education, teachers and schools can use assessments to support students.
For ideas on how to create more authentic learning experiences and more equity in schools so all learners are prepared for the future, check out these resources:
Ensuring All High-Schoolers Have a Chance at College: How Rhode Island Enacted Historic
What Is Student-Centered Learning and Why Is It Important?
What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?
How to Promote Equity in High School Education
Photo at top by Chris Chandler