Why Grade Inflation Happens – a Response to WSB’s Investigation into Misleading Course Grades in Douglas County

WSB’s Richard Belcher ran a special investigation (aired April 29, 2018) on Channel 2 Action News into grade inflation in Douglas County’s five high schools. I want to reflect here on some reasons why grades are inflated (meaning that they are higher than what is merited by the actual level and amount of knowledge students have obtained)

Why Grade Inflation Occurs

A lack of clarity about what grades are supposed to represent

This problem was highlighted in Chief Academic Officer Pam Nail’s confused response to Richard Belcher’s questions about the meaning of an ‘A’:

“Is it too simple to say that if you get an A, you really should know the subject matter very well?” Belcher asked.

“I think you should, you should know some of the subject matter very well,” Nail said. “But as a whole, that grade should be reflective of learning.”

“Of excellence? If it’s an A, it should be excellent, shouldn’t it?” Belcher said.

“If it’s going to be a high level A, yes,” Nail said.

Thanks for clearing that up! Now that everybody knows what an A means we can focus on making sure students earn them!

This confused response is consistent with DCSS’s vague grading policy, which only sets numerical ranges for grades, but assigns them no qualitative meaning. Thus, grades are neither clear nor consistent in communicating with the public what students are achieving in their classes.

The less schools demand of students, the less they demand of the schools

Without a clear standard for what an A means and how to earn one, the default tendency prevails, which is to make it easy for students to make ‘good grades’ (As and Bs). This is the default because if students and their parents are happy with their grades, they will demand less: less need for tutoring, less need to improve instruction, less complaints to administrators, less conferences, less phone calls home, etc. Schools have deliberately made it hard for teachers to assign low but honest grades, so most do not.

There is a perverse sense of moral obligation to ‘help’ students by giving them what they don’t deserve.

This is probably the deepest cause, because it is rooted in the consciences of some educators. The thinking goes, “Well I and others made it all the way through college without really having to master our subjects, so why should I deny students of this same opportunity?”

A related justification is an appeal to normalcy: “everyone else is rigging the system to help their students advance and get into college, so it would be wrong of us to disadvantage our students by doing the right thing.” I hope you see that this completely flips morality on its head!

How Citizens Should Respond

This problem will only be fixed if local stakeholders hold schools accountable. These causes provide an outline for how citizens should respond.

  1. Petition the BoE for a revised grading policy that defines clearly what credits and grades represent. This is essential for clarity and consistency.
  2. If your child is not being challenged, and you know her good grade isn’t merited, then COMPLAIN loudly and persistently to the teachers and principal. Schools hate getting complaints; minimizing them is one of their chief goals. But usually they have to deal with complaints about low grades. Imagine if they had to deal with complaints about classes being too easy!
  3. Recognize and show other parents that inflated grades do much more harm than good, long-term. DCSS graduates as a whole do quite poorly in college, for instance: graduation rates are low, and dropout rates are high. Many graduate with debt, but without a degree.

 

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