Why Grade Inflation Affects All of Us

college campus-grade inflationWe recently posed the hypothetical question of a high school senior who earned a 78% at report card time in late October. “Kevin C” requested another chance to get his average to 85 or greater so he could qualify for an Early Action decision from his first-choice college. He wants spend the weekend writing a research paper to boost his grade. It’s Friday and your grades are due Tuesday.


Should you agree?


I tried to shorten this post, but it may be the longest I’ve written about teaching. I view this as a crucial question that cuts to the heart of our values about not only teaching, but about the nation as a whole and how we think about performance.


What happens if you say no


Most teachers have been in this spot. Being a teacher means dozens of daily decisions. You worry about the precedents you’ll set. Do it for one student, and the floodgates open next time. To defend the integrity of your programs and the probity of your grading, you may feel compelled to say no, Kevin didn’t earn what he is seeking.


When questions like these are just theoretical or remote abstractions, they’re easier. When real flesh and blood people are involved and the consequences personal, it’s tougher. In the hypothetical, it’s the teacher’s third year in district, typically the tenure year. The board will be voting in the spring on whether you keep your job or are separated from it. In theory, this should not matter.


But in the day-to day realities of your life, you likely need the salary and health insurance and want to keep your job. The post premises that Kevin’s mom is socially close to several board members who’ll vote on your retention. If you refuse Kevin, will she badmouth you to them? The way she sees it, Kevin earned top grades in every course but yours. To her, this is prima facie evidence you have inflicted an injustice. She may set out to convince others that you are “inaccessible” and that you refuse to help kids. Dismally, this scuttlebutt is certain to reach the ears of your bosses.  School officials are plugged in to the parent grapevine regarding teachers.


Can you live with the relational pain of being the bad guy who denied him the college of his dreams? He may resent you and sulk and withdraw. He may exert only minimal effort for the rest of the year. To say no to Kevin is to harm him today, something the humanitarian impulses of all teachers resist.


You know Kevin’s best interest is important. But that’s nearly impossible to define. You make this decision only with great soul-searching and the knowledge that you have competing, even contradictory, responsibilities.


You may see it as your duty is to help him go to the college of Kevin's grade inflation problem is yours toohis choice. And if Kevin does complete the extra research paper, did he not earn the grade boost? Did he not learn in preparing it? Besides, you have other battles. You may opt to concede on Kevin’s grade and move on to your next task.



Grade inflation: short term win, long run loss


If you agree to boost Kevin’s grade, you can tell yourself that you helped a kid fulfill his dreams.


Grade inflation is easy. There are no immediate consequences, and everyone walks away happy. All of the negatives are deferred; no one will ever seemingly be hurt. Everybody apparently wins: Kevin wins his college spot, his parents are happy, school officials are pleased that the parents are satisfied, and you keep your job.


But in the end, the entire nation loses.


We can kid ourselves about what our students are achieving but we can’t kid China. By protecting students from failure, we guarantee they’ll be unable to cope when life does dish out setbacks.


Suggestions for declining Kevin


Teachers: Are you looking for ready-to-go lesson plans that will engage and make students reach higher? We can help.


I wish I could offer a definitive answer but the circumstances matter. I have been in this situation many times, and I’ve gone both ways. Here are the tools I’ve assembled.


  • Do not answer Kevin by yourself. “No” is much harder when you are alone. Instead, assemble a group of colleagues, counselors and school officials to deliver the decline in a formal meeting. It is harder to beg and plead with a committee than with one person. When the teacher is on her own, tremendous emotive pressure can be brought to bear. Imagine when the tears come. In a group of professionals, it is the institution that’s refusing, not the individual teacher.


  • Assemble samples of Kevin’s written work before any meeting that will show its quality. It will be hard for his parents to contest the decision or declare injustice with examples of obviously weak work right on the table. Bring (anonymous) examples of top shelf work to illustrate the difference. Tell Kevin that this is what he must shoot for next time.


  • Check the district policy manual on grading standards and protocols. It may contain something specific or iron-clad. Again, it would be the institution refusing the request, not the judgment of one teacher. Grade inflation is a collective phenomenon so resistance by individual teachers is hard. Most policy manuals contain wriggle room with phrases such as “at the discretion of the classroom teacher,” but it’s your duty to consult and follow it.


  • Carefully assemble Kevin’s attendance and participation records before any meeting. Consistent absences reveal a lot about what Kevin has earned and define his level of commitment. Are there disciplinary referrals that would cause you to question his school citizenship?



Grade inflation promotes shoddy teaching


Easy grading promotes apathy; tough grading promotes better work. A consequence of grade inflation is students get by with shoddy work and teachers get by with shoddy teaching. Easy A’s are like candy: pleasant in the moment, harmful in the long run of life. But we don’t live in the long run, which is why Kevin’s request is such a can of worms today.


We hear a lot about American competitiveness in the global marketplace. Grade inflation is like all other kinds of inflation. It devalues the original currency. A size 8 dress today is much bigger than an 8 dress a generation ago. We change the definition and we think nobody is the wiser.


But is kicking the can of achievement down the road a good idea, both for Kevin and for the nation?


If you are a teacher, or know one, or just want to talk about the nature of American schools today, I hope that you might debate Kevin’s request with others. Only when we test and challenge one another’s convictions can we arrive at enlightened public policies.


I’d love if if you shared this post, or wrote in the comments section, or in any way continue the debate with others. This affects everyone.