The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Deflating the potential for grade inflation

I’ve argued elsewhere that we should begin to treat students as customers, not products, of the system. This invariably raises questions about grade inflation – “if students are customers, and have the ability to take their money elsewhere,” the argument goes, “then they’ll use that newfound leverage to demand higher, undeserved grades!”

And you know what? Based on the way the system has been managed to this point, that’s exactly what would happen. In fact, it’s already happening: this article, for example, highlights the widening gap between reported grades and NAEP scores, while this one showcases the gap between reported grades and performance on state tests.

But it doesn’t have to be that way; in fact, one simple change has the potential to flip the entire dynamic to make the most challenging schools the most desirable.

That change is independent assessment.

In the current, grade-based system, there’s no independent verification of learning: the person who teaches is the same person who assigns grades. And, since assessment is subjective - there’s no external evidence of achievement – it’s easy to game the system. There’s no way for anyone outside the classroom to know what kind of learning went on. If you got a high grade, was it because you excelled in a rigorous class, because you stayed awake in an extremely easy class, because the teacher liked you and gave you those mysterious “extra points for effort,” or because the teacher grades on a scale, and you were the best of the worst? There’s no way to know – and that opens the door wide open for demands for undeserved higher grades.

And of course we have to give a hat tip to the administrators who override those teachers who are trying to maintain standards. While I’ve not seen hard data, there are innumerable anecdotal stories about this (see here for a particularly compelling story).

Of course, it’s not like this outside the classroom. Where there is independent assessment of some sort, the equation changes from “give me the best grade” to “teach me to excel” – a profound difference.

The football team isn’t judged by the coach; it’s judged by its performance against other teams, and therefore the players and their supporters want preparation to be as rigorous as possible. The dance teacher isn’t the sole judge of a student’s progress – they hold performances so others can see how well students are doing, giving teachers and students an incentive to prepare. And karate students aren’t evaluated by their sensei – they participate in competitions and demonstrations to work for new belts, an independent evaluation that forces them to strive to meet a predetermined standard.

And so it can be in formal education. If we build an external measurement model that’s respected, allows for comparison across schools and states, and that has some weight (such as being a graduation requirement, and offering comparative scores that are looked at by colleges for admissions purposes), it won’t be possible to game the system. I don’t care if it’s a national test or an independent review panel, as long as the evaluator is an independent entity and the standards and assessment method are known, objective, and uniform.

At that point, since evaluation is out of the hands of the instructor, the conversation will have to change from “give me an A” to “help me become capable of getting an A.” And I believe that simple change in dynamic would revolutionize public education as we know it.


  • While I agree with the notion of over-inflated grades, I disagree with the independent assessor due to the following: 1) to date, no national or state assessment seems to be doing a good job of this already; 2) there is no standard curriculum across the nation, although we are getting closer and could do it state by state; 3) the who-how-when-where of this seems insurmountable, although with the technological advances today are lessening.

    By Blogger Ms. Q, at 9:27 PM  

  • I, too, agree with the fact that there is serious grade inflation. However, I have a problem with referring to students as customers. They are learners. With all due respect, I tire of the perception of schools as businesses. They are not. A school is not Wal-Mart, and students don't make purchases. A customer purchases a product. A student does not, regardless of whether she is at the Pk-12 level or in higher education.

    As far as your proposal for there to be independent assessment, again, comparing education to athletics is not intelligent. Yes, students are assessed on what they know and are able to do, but they are also assessed on how they got there - the process.

    Rather than look to some sort of independent panel as the answer, what needs to happen is for teachers to assess students more honestly, and where this begins is at the k-6 level. If students are taught how to learn, and how to be accountable for their learning, there may be less need to inflate grades. We also need to create substantive forms of assessment, rather than projects which do nothing to determine what a student actually knows and is able to do. Not that all projects are bad, but there are too many which stress the fun and the actual substance of what it is the student was taught.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:48 AM  

  • The way to decrease grade inflation is for administrators to force teachers to use entirely performance-based grading systems, with no "participation" or "effort" components. That won't get rid of grade inflation, since the teacher can always give easy exams and quizzes, but subjective criteria are the major mechanism for grade inflation, so it would decrease it.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 8:00 AM  

  • “Blog for Grade Inflation”

    Grade inflation will effectively better our current educational system. Students wish to get into competitive graduate schools and employment opportunities. These institutions use grades in their admission and hiring practices. Educational administrations are funded by the students, their customers. In an effort to please the students, educational administrations provide teacher evaluation forms. Teachers are rewarded or punished due to the outcome of the evaluation forms. Positive evaluations correlate with large amounts of high grades awarded. Teachers, in their best interest, give higher grades in general. That is how grade inflation occurs. It is beneficial because as grades get higher and less interpretable, graduate schools and employers will put less emphasis on grades in their admission and hiring practices, allowing grades to serve their original and truest purpose, to point out the flaws of the students so that the student can learn and grow from his or her mistakes. This work contains 166 words.

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