Assessment, Higher Education, The Science of Learning

Grade inflation

The nature of grading has stuck with us despite many findings that it does not seem to be as productive as it is made out to be, with much of the literature pointing to the practice as something that hinders motivation to learn, not being an accurate measure of actual skill as well as promoting an authoritarian environment within learning institutions.

Much of this analysis of the faults within the education system was brought up long before where modern education stands now, with a notable example being Maria Montessori who saw education as something that needed to change with the flow of science.

Although when you look at modern education it has not really budged, though students seem to be doing better in schools. There is a rise in GPA and grade averages, with the A grade being the most popular. This leads to the idea that students now are smarter than those in the past and modern education is serving its population a proper learning experience.

If only it were that simple.

Modern education is serving the student population, though not as learners, more as consumers.

To illustrate this, some data collected by Rojstaczer & Healy is quite revealing:

GPA trends

As can be seen, there is a steady climb in GPA in all sectors of education.

Rojstaczer & Healy chalk this up to the idea that professors in the ’60s and ’70s buffered students from bad grades so students could avoid being drafted into the Vietnam war. These numbers fell shortly after the war but began to rise again in the ’80s with the shift from students as acolytes towards students as consumers. This, mixed with a dramatic increase in the student population, began to make these institutions see the benefits of being capable of producing learners that can achieve these high grades which in turn are valued in the job market.

The number shows inflation over this period as illustrated in the next chart:


The data reveals that though grades have been increasing, these results do not really line up with achievement and the data even points to it, along with performance, as factors that are on the decline.

Essentially, educational institutions have been complicit in this learning stagnation and have been doing so for over 40 years. They have reached a point where the system has become fairly detached from actual student performance.



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