Parents Fight for Grade Inflation Despite Warnings

January 30, 2009 12:05 PM
by Christopher Coats
Critics warn that artificially inflating grades could have disastrous effects on students, leaving them ill prepared for the challenges of higher learning.

Increased Emphasis on GPA

As more colleges and universities downplay the importance of standardized test results, overall GPAs become more critical in the admissions process—and parents are taking note. The focus on GPA has stirred debate between those who want to inflate grades in order to avoid the impression of poor academic performance, and those who say inflating grades will lower standards.

The most recent victory for inflation proponents came in Fairfax, Va., where a band of concerned parents and advocates challenged the school district’s policy on awarding an A only to those students who had scored a 94 and up.

In place since 1981, the policy was meant to raise the standards of the district, but parents began to demand a change as news of a decreased emphasis on standardized tests in college admissions began to spread.

The decision, which didn’t change the district’s passing grade of a 64 rather than a 60, was not universally accepted by all involved.

"Do we really want to have a reputation as an easy-A jurisdiction?" Stuart Gibson, a Justice Department litigator serving his 14th year on the school board, told Time magazine. "It doesn't improve their achievement. It just improves their achievement on paper."

In addition to risking a school’s reputation, critics warn that artificial grade inflation provides an unrealistic portrait of a student body’s knowledge, skills and abilities.

Studies have shown that at both the middle and high school levels, cases of grade inflation were found when classroom scores varied wildly from state and standardized testing results.

In Arizona, a 10-month study found that “More than a quarter of middle and high schools in the Tucson area's largest districts are awarding passing grades students may not be earning”.

The inflation of grades can blur the lines between a good and great student, making the field of academic competition not only more level, but also more crowded.

"Under the current system at a lot of schools, there is no way to recognize the difference between an outstanding job and a good job,” former U.S. senator Hank Brown told The Boston Globe. “Grade inflation hides laziness on the part of the students, and as long as it exists, even faculty who want to do a good job [in grading] don't feel they can."

Although schools are pursuing inflation practices for a number of different reasons, including parental pressure and school funding linked to performance reports, critics have warned that whatever the justification, the practice leaves students unprepared for higher education and beyond.

Opponents of grade inflation have also warned that artificial grades are hardly relegated to middle and high schools. Indeed, cases in colleges and universities across the country have been found, with consequences no less detrimental to a student’s academic future. 

Most notable in Ivy League schools, inflation has been alleged and found in several institutions, including Harvard University, which was found to have awarded A’s to 46 percent of their students in 1996—a number that increased to more than 50 percent in 2007.

Although many universities remain private about their grading systems, Princeton University recently unveiled their own way to combat inflation with an approach that some see as active grade deflation.

Enacted in 2004, Princeton places quotas on grades, allowing an average of only 35 percent of A’s across each department.

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Writing shortly before the Fairfax School Board made their decision, The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote that parents were misguided in their push to restructure their school’s grading system, suggesting they were underestimating college admissions offices and their ability to distinguish between school districts.

Despite parents’ argument that the move was intended to offer an equal chance to their children, Fisher pleaded with the district and superintendent to reconsider. “For Fairfax to join other systems in a grievously distorting policy that tricks parents into believing their kids are far better prepared than they really are would be folly,” Fisher wrote.

John Merrow of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching suggests that the debate surrounding grade inflation and whether it exists is not the one schools and colleges should be having. Rather, he insists that the focus should be on the value of the educational experience.

“As Russ Edgerton of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning notes, ‘What counts most is what students DO in college, not who they are, or where they go to college, or what their grades are,’” Merrow wrote.

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