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Answer Sheet: Is the New Handwringing Over Grade Inflation Inflated?

Earlier this year, the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet, published a piece by J.W. Traphagan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, about what happened when he decided to stop taking attendance and grading students in a course on Zen. Conventional wisdom assumed students wouldn’t show up and they would all get A’s, which isn’t at all what happened. Attendance was very high, he wrote, and students, asked to do self-evaluations, often underrated their own performance. He said:

… this experiment has forced me to think about intellectual rigor in the classroom. Is a system designed to generate stress through piling on work and being “hard” — whatever that means — rigorous?

Or is rigor about creating an environment where students enjoy the learning process and, as a result, willingly engage in broadening their horizons and thinking about their lives?

I think it’s the latter.

An ultracompetitive emphasis on grades accomplishes little more than generating high levels of stress, which in turn lowers the quality of education. In traditional classrooms, students are rarely encouraged to think creatively and critically, and good grades are given to those who are experts at conforming to the expectations of those in authority.

Yes, this was one experiment, but according to the authors of the following piece, current hand-wringing about grade inflation is off the mark for a number of reasons, including what Traphagan found as he de-emphasized grades in his Zen classes.

The piece below was written by Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt. Schneider, an education historian and policy analyst at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is executive director of the Beyond Test Scores Project, co-editor of the History of Education Quarterly and co-host of the Have You Heard Podcast.

Hutt is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose research examines the historical and contemporary use of measures to assess schooling.

They are the authors of the 2023 book “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings and Rankings Undermine Learning (But Don’t Have To).


By Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt

There’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing lately about grade inflation. In the New York Times, teacher Tim Donahue recently argued that “it’s time to tighten the belt.” Doug Lemov, author of “Teach Like a Champion,” warned that the “everybody wins” approach is creating a “national security risk.” And education policy analyst Rick Hess opined in Forbes that “grade inflation is not a victimless crime.”

The argument, in a nutshell, is this: Once upon a time, we held students to a higher standard. But now, it seems, nearly everyone gets an “A.” Instead of motivating young people to work hard, inflated grades tell students that they’re fine as they are. And the policy prescription is for leaders at the state and district level to get tough — creating new rules and guidelines that systematically let the air out of inflated grades.

As it turns out, however, merely “tightening the belt” will actually create more problems than it solves. That’s because grades serve several purposes in our educational system.

The most obvious purpose of grades is motivation. Students are compelled by law to attend school, and grades are used as a way of encouraging them to work hard. In short, grades serve as tokens to be cashed-in at the end of the schooling experience.

But grades also serve a communication function in our school system. Teachers, for instance, use grades to communicate with students and their families. An “A” or a “B” means that a student is on track, whereas a “C” or a “D” indicates that there are problems that need to be addressed.

Grades also communicate to more distant audiences. As we all know, grade-point averages are a fundamental component of every college application and some professional résumés. When we talk about the so-called permanent record, we’re really talking about this kind of long-distance communication.

Finally, grades serve a synchronization purpose. In our decentralized system, with no national curriculum or ministry of education, there is a demand for common reference points. Assessment technologies, such as grades, create something akin to a common language across a highly fractured landscape.

These different functions — motivation, short-distance communication, long-distance communication and synchronization — evolved separately, meeting the various needs of our growing system. It was only over time that these practices became a seemingly natural part of the educational landscape — what scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Now we rarely think much about why we give grades; it’s just what schools do.

This lack of attention can lead us astray when it comes to reform efforts, because the multiple purposes of grades interact in complex ways. And this makes solving a problem such as grade inflation more challenging than crafting new district- or state-level policies.

Consider, for example, how the motivation function interacts with the long-distance communication function.

Policy leaders might hope that teachers will motivate students by dishing out “C”s and “Ds” for less-than-stellar performance. But because low marks will communicate well beyond the family, impacting students’ fundamental life opportunities, they function more like a weapon than a tool.

Though some determined students might work harder as a result, many will do the opposite. After all, for those at the bottom end of the distribution, bad grades pile up quickly and future prospects can begin to look quite grim.

Or consider how synchronization and motivation interact to distort student learning. Students and their families are well aware that the title of a course — not necessarily its rigor — is what unlocks extra grade points.

This, then, leads to the oft-repeated advice to students to pick the easiest Advanced Placement or honors class they can. Such advice is about gaming the system, not about advancing student learning. And it is likely to get more intense, not less, if policy leaders mechanically adjust grading scales.

This is not to say that grade inflation isn’t a problem. Surely, it would be much easier to communicate about the quality of student work if we could use the full spectrum of the grading scheme. When there are “too many As,” grades become a meaningless differentiator. That can lead colleges or employers to make decisions based on other factors, such as school prestige, which correlate more strongly with race and family income.

But instead of simply seeking to wrench grade distributions back into the shape of a bell curve, we need to think about smarter policy solutions that consider the various functions grades actually play in our system.

If we want to restore more grades in the A-F scheme, one way to do so without clumsily weaponizing the process of grading is to develop the infrastructure — at the district or state level — for making grades “overwriteable.”

This means creating opportunities for students to replace low marks in the grade book as they develop relevant competencies, replacing old information with new. This clearly isn’t feasible for every assignment. But with a little nudging, districts could identify cornerstone assessments that students would be able to retake as they acquire new knowledge and skills.

Similarly, districts and states easily might leverage digital technologies to make student transcripts “double clickable.” If one of the enabling factors of grade inflation is that both students and teachers know that no one will ever get to see the work behind the grade — allowing for students to lobby for higher grades or teachers to look the other way on poor performance — then creating a new kind of diploma, which includes not only the grade but also examples of student work, would go a long way to solving that problem.

Better yet, it might do so without resorting to the most commonly proposed solution for this challenge: introducing more standardized tests.

These aren’t the only possible approaches, of course. But any realistic and enduring solution will have to do more than encourage educators to “get tough.” Instead, policy leaders will have to account for the multiple, interacting roles that grades play in our system.


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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Jack Schneider

Jack Schneider, Ph.D., the Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a historian and policy analyst who ...

Ethan Hutt

Ethan Hutt is Associate Professor and Gary Stuck Faculty Scholar in Education at the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. His re...