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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grade Inflation 101: How to Inflate Grades

The school district’s curriculum committee requires students to learn the presidents of the U.S.A. as part of the high school American History curriculum. One history teacher (#1) gave a test that included the following question and 99 additional questions of a similar difficulty level:

The third president of the U.S.A. was
A. John Adams
B. John Hancock
C. James Madison
D. Thomas Jefferson

Another history teacher (#2) in the same school district gave a test that included the following question and 99 additional questions of a similar difficulty level:

The third president of the U.S.A. was
A. George Washington
B. Thomas Jefferson
C. Bill Clinton
D. George W. Bush

Which teacher is likely to get a higher average percentage correct among his/her students?

Using the conventional grading method (90-100%=A; 80-89%=B; 70-79%=C; 60-69%=D; 0-59%=F), the #1 teacher’s students are apt to get a normal distribution of scores and grades, with the class average in the 70s. The #2 teacher’s students are likely to get a skewed distribution of scores and grades, with the class average in the 90s.

Right away, you can see that one teacher will give many more “A”s than the other if we assume that both groups of students are of similar ability levels.

Suppose #2 teacher made a practice of giving an extra credit question at the end of each test that is something like this:

For 10 extra credit points, who is your favorite president
in American History? Please explain why you chose this president.

Of course, almost any answer could be given the full 10 points since the question asks only for the student's personal opinions. In this way, students in #2 teacher’s class could conceivably get 110 points on the test, and when all tests for the year are averaged together, it would not be surprising for some students to have an average that is higher than 100%.

If all students and their parents were surveyed to find out their satisfaction with #1 teacher and #2 teacher, it is quite probable that the students who received “A”s, and their parents, would give the most glowing feedback. It is probable that the teacher who gave more “A”s and fewer “C”s, “D”s, and “F”s would get higher consumer satisfaction ratings. It is also probable that, in the future, based on both teachers' reputations, more students and their parents would ask for placement in #2 teacher’s American History class. If you were to ask the two teachers’ principals, which one is the better teacher, it is very possible that they would choose #2 teacher.

Of course, the similar inflation of grades can be done when grades are given for term papers, essay tests, science projects, and in-class oral presentations. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of inflating students’ grades?

Advantages of Inflated Grades

1. More students and their parents are happy with the grades.

2. The teacher’s bosses get fewer complaints about the
grade-inflating teacher.

3. In subsequent years, more children want to be in the teacher’s

4. Inflated grades result in inflated student self-esteem.

Disadvantages of Inflated Grades

1. Students have inflated perceptions of their own skills
and knowledge.

2. Accustomed to inflated grades, students are easily upset
by future teachers who do not inflate grades.

3. Students are unprepared for more difficult colleges
that do less inflating of grades.

4. Tests and assignments tend to be so unchallenging that
students no longer need to read, study, or even attend
class. Reading skills, critical thinking skills, and
study habits are not developed or atrophy from disuse.

5. Engineering, pharmacy, and medical schools must either
fail the many students who are unprepared for their
more demanding expectations or engage in grade inflation
to keep their students happy.

6. Private for-profit universities attract increasing
numbers of students, give inflated grades to keep
their students/customers happy.

7. More inadequate people slip into engineering, computer science,
medicine, pharmacy, nursing, paramedics, etc.,
resulting in more medical errors, computer system failures,
power grid crashes, and NASA space mission disasters.

8. Competent teachers and professors quickly become disillusioned
and leave the field of education while
incompetent teachers get good ratings
and remain in the field.

9. Children in schools in the USA perform poorly on PISA
(Program for International Student Assessment), ranking 24th
in math, 21st in science, and 15th in reading among school
children in all the world’s developed countries.

As an adjunct professor who has taught graduate-level courses in psychology over the last 40 years, I have given tests with both kinds of questions demonstrated above. The vast majority of my students liked the easy questions and gave me feedback that they considered these tests to be very fair. When I gave tests with the more difficult kind of questions, especially those requiring them to use reasoning to figure out the answers, I usually got complaints, describing these tests as “too hard,” “ambiguous,” and “tricky”. Several have complained that they were in danger of getting a “B” in the course, and it would ruin their perfect straight “A” record. They often asked for special deals in which they could either do-over an assignment or do an extra assignment (that no other students would know about or have access to) to raise their grade. It was obvious to me that many students were accustomed to getting these sorts of special deals in previous courses they had taken, even after their final course grades had been posted. How did I cope with the moral and ethical dilemma? Stay tuned.


  1. Ambiguity! Ambiguity! The first man to be President was Peyton Randolph, then it was Henry Middleton, and the third man to serve as President was John Hancock! He served from May 24, 1775 to October 29, 1777. You didn't specify whether the "President" served under the Constitution of 1789 or could have been the President of the Continental Congress! I demand equal credit for my answer of "John Hancock!" If you don't give me credit, I'm complaining to the dean!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. My comment above was made with tongue firmly in cheek. I hope that was obvious.

  4. OMG, I've disrespected those students who actually learned more than required in this class!!!!! For those of you who read only the Xeroxed PowerPoints and not the text, let this be a lesson to you. Please check my facebook page for a list of all questions that might possibly have been misleading or ambiguous. Everybody in the class gets full credit for all of those questions, even if you answered George W. Bush for 3rd president of the USA. I pray that you will still be my friends.

    Transplanted lawyer/Burt- I already know your great sense of humor- don't ever give it up! I was LOL again.