What causes grade inflation, and what might fix it

What causes grade inflation, and what might fix it

In the few days, two national op-ed pieces about grades and grading in higher education have appeared. Corinne Ruff wrote this piece for the Chronicle (paywall, sorry), and then Mark Oppenheimer wrote this Washington Post op-ed provocatively titled "There's nothing wrong with grade inflation". The fact that these appeared within a few days of each other possibly signals that there is a growing sense that something is wrong with grades in higher education, and it definitely affords opportunity to raise awareness about alternatives like standards based and specifications grading (SBSG).

The WaPo piece is about grade inflation, specifically about the pointlessness of trying to combat grade inflation any longer. Oppenheimer points out that all the major efforts to combat grade inflation in the elite schools have ended up causing more problems than they solve. And so, as Oppenheimer says, "Our goal should be ending the centrality of grades altogether. For years, I feared that a world of only A’s would mean the end of meaningful grades; today, I’m certain of it. But what’s so bad about that?" He goes on to point out many of the failings of traditional grades that I've mentioned here: grades promote extrinsic motivation and surface or strategic learning at best, they don't always measure learning accurately, and they don't measure certain important kinds of cognition at all.

Oppenheimer says "We need to move to a post-grading world. Maybe that means a world where there are no grades — or one where, if they remain, we rely more on better kinds of evaluation." He then proposes a system of "nuanced transcripts with comments" and gives several examples of schools taking this path. This proposed system of "transcripts with comments" will remind some readers of this article I posted in September where I proposed basically the exact same thing.

He points out that this "nuanced transcript" approach is being used at elite institutions and small schools, and that this can't necessarily be replicated by larger universities or by contingent faculty who don't have the time or resources for investing hours of time in writing detailed letters for each student's portfolio. His answer to this is that maybe the larger schools can make small steps toward change, for example by abolishing the use of the SAT for admissions and doing something about transcripts. To someone who might have been nodding in agreement along with this op-ed up to this point, that conclusion must be disappointing. Isn't there something that can be done about grades if you're not tenure-track at a small or elite institution?

Let's cut over to Corinne Ruff's article in the Chronicle. The article asks a question (Why do colleges still use grades?) but never seriously attempts to answer it. Instead Ruff, like Oppenheimer, raises the concern that grade inflation is so bad that grades themselves have becoe meaningless. Ruff also mentions a potential fix for this problem in the form of competency-based education as practices by institutions such as Western Governor's University. But like the Oppenheimer piece, Ruff's article ends on a somewhat negative note. Quoting Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation president Arthur Levine, the article makes meaningful reform of grading in higher ed as something far off in the future:

"This isn’t all going to happen next week," [Levine] says, adding that most institutions still haven’t taken steps to move away from grades. "We’re talking about an evolution over time."

If the situation is so bad, then isn't there something that can be done about grades in higher ed that doesn't involve a wholesale revolution in higher education itself that would take decades, and quite frankly isn't likely to happen at all if it's framed as something that requires a revolution?

If you read this blog on any kind of basis you know that my answer to this question is "yes", and that the answer is SBSG. I think SBSG addresses the core concern of both of these articles -- that grades have become or are becoming meaningless -- and implements the actions implied by both of these articles (we need to replace traditional grading with something else) in a way that gives individual instructors and students control over the process, so that the change is closer to the ground and requires only some careful planning and marketing, rather than wholesale revolutionary change.

If grades have become meaningless -- and I think that they are getting to that point, if not already -- then it's because grades have become decoupled from demonstrable student learning. What does a "B" in Calculus actually mean about what a student knows or doesn't know about Calculus? It might mean that the student knows considerably more than someone who has a "D" in the course. But beyond that, it's impossible to say. Even if we knew the assessments used in the course and the sorts of work that students were asked to do, it's impossible to say. Without having grades tied to concrete accomplishments of specific learning goals done to clear specifications of professional quality, we simply don't know what a grade means.

What about grade inflation? Oppenheimer suggests that the inflation of grades has caused, or is causing, grades to become meaningless. But it might well be the other way around -- that the meaninglessness of grades, by which I mean the inability to deduce information about learning from the grade itself, could be driving grade inflation. If professors and future employers don't believe that grades have meaning, why shouldn't we give students high grades for poor quality work, and let the "real" grade become -- as Oppenheimer suggests -- letters of recommendation and the like? On the other hand, if grades really did have meaning, then perhaps we'd be less likely to inflate them and give high grades for poor quality work, both out of a sense of professional ethics and also because the system that delineates what grades mean wouldn't allow it.

This is where SBSG comes in. In SBSG, we have

  • Specific learning targets that undergird the whole course that spell out exactly what learning targets students need, eventually, to show proficiency towards.
  • Assessments that ask students to demonstrate specific evidence that those learning targets were met.
  • High standards of professional quality for what constitutes acceptable evidence on each assessment.
  • Opportunities for revision and learning from mistakes, so that the assessments of learning are less prone to false positive or false negatives.
  • A course grading system that is tied specifically to the quantity and quality of evidence that students provide of their learning, relative to our targets and standards.

In short, in SBSG, grades mean something. When a student earns a B in my discrete structures course, I know what it means: the student demonstrated proficiency on 20 out of 20 learning targets that address core competencies; the student was able to demonstrate additional evidence on five of those 20 targets; that the student completed six short projects throughout the semester that met standards of quality for such work; and that they maintained an 80% completion rate of all course preparation and homework tasks. If needed, I can produce the quality standards and the learning targets themselves. And all of this is spelled out in the course syllabus -- it's not occult knowledge or a subjective opinion. Even if I wanted to give high grades for poor or insufficient work, the system itself works against that.

Last semester when I was teaching this discrete structures class, it turned out that around half of my class earned grades of A or A-. I was worried, to be honest. I felt that perhaps I had made the course too easy. But then I went back and looked at each student's track record in the course, and every student who earned those grades did so because of a concrete, specific body of work that they had worked hard to produce over the semester. I could point to specific work that showed that the students had given acceptable evidence -- acceptable on my terms -- that they had satisfied the learning objectives of the course at "A" or "A-" level. If the specifications for acceptable work themselves aren't too lax -- and I felt like they weren't in this case -- then this is not an instance of grade inflation. It's an instance of large-scale student success, something to be celebrated and not stigmatized.

And to reiterate, SBSG is not something that requires a massive systemic change to get started, as would be the case if a university wanted, say, to transition to the "nuanced transcript" system. We don't have to wait for our system of higher education to "evolve". SBSG is something that individual instructures and students can begin to use as early as next semester. We keep the usual way of reporting grades using the ABCDF system (although I would love to get rid of that, too someday) -- just set up a backend for assessment that makes these letters actually mean something. I like the chances of SBSG being successful in the short term a lot more than those of competency-based or transcript-based "grading" simply because it's simpler, and especially because it's more organic. These kinds of changes are best done from the bottom-up, where it enjoys the support of faculty and especially students.

So perhaps the answer to the problems raised in these articles is right under our noses and is a lot simpler and closer than we think. What do you think?

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.