Grade inflation

Having been a nearly straight-A student in both high school and university (math was always my downfall), I had quite a shock when I took my first Portuguese language class at the University of Algarve and came away with a final grade of 14 out of 20. To me, that looked like flunking. Well, it looked like a C — a completely average grade of 70% — which for an A student is pretty much the same thing as flunking.

I dragged myself home and, when asked by my wife how I’d done, shamefully admitted that I’d only managed a 14.

“You did? Congratulations!” she said with a big grin. “That’s good!”

It was? What the hell was she talking about?

Seeing this confusion, my wife showed me the final grades she was just handing out to her own students (she also teaches at the university level). I scanned the list and saw a bunch with 11 or 12, a few at 8 or 10, and just a handful that were 14 or higher. None had more than 18.

This was when I learned that the grading system in Portuguese universities is a lot different than what I grew up with. A grade of 20 is as rare as…well, as rare as a perfect grade should be. The idea of being a straight-A student, of always getting the top grade possible, doesn’t really work here. When I later earned a 17, I was quite happy about it. In American grade terms it was only a B, but it meant a lot.

Which is why this chart caught my eye.

grade chart

From the accompanying NYT article:

Most recently, about 43 percent of all letter grades given were A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. The distribution of B’s has stayed relatively constant; the growing share of A’s instead comes at the expense of a shrinking share of C’s, D’s and F’s.

…[The authors] attribute the rapid rise in grade inflation in the last couple of decades to a more “consumer-based approach” to education, which they say “has created both external and internal incentives for the faculty to grade more generously.” More generous grading can produce better instructor reviews, for example, and can help students be more competitive candidates for graduate schools and the job market.

It’s worth reading the whole article, which is not long. Among other things, it notes that the study authors expect this inflationary trend to get worse, not better.

(Via the Dish.)

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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11 Responses to Grade inflation

  1. Inge says:

    I agree with the system that a perfect should be almost impossible to achieve. Why strive for the best if just doing mediocre will already get you ‘great’ scores?

    Besides in the business they know pretty well which universities/high schools just hand out high scores and for which ones you actually have to work your ass off. They take that into account when looking at your CV. (i was taught to do so by a colleague when grading CV’s)

  2. JR says:

    I’ve stayed out of the discussion, but if you want to read what several of my colleagues have to say about the article, you can do so on Chronicle of Higher Education fora (,80488.0.html). The discussion wanders for a bit (a lot) on page 4, then comes back to the original topic of the thread.

    I teach in a humanities/social science field with very few objective exams. I’m not sure how I would compare the grading for the review of a final design project in an architecture studio to the grading of final exams in a science or mathematics field. I also couldn’t compare the grading process for what I’m teaching now–history and theory–to the one I used when I taught design, drafting and construction methods. Different processes, different agendas, different means of evaluation. At any rate, I don’t think I’ve ever inflated grades across the board, although I do know our department expects a certain average and distribution of grades over time.

    • oregon expat says:

      JR, that discussion was interesting and a bit alarming. Much of the input seems based around money: “Pay your fees, get your Bs,” viewing students as a revenue source and doing what it takes to keep them in the class/major, etc. And there seems to be quite a bit of personal anecdotal evidence that higher grades => better student evals => continuing employment of instructor.

      Recognizing that different schools (and departments/colleges within those schools) have different cultures and financial situations, overall I get the impression that in many segments of academia, money is talking louder than ever. Which puts me in mind of a colleague of mine, whose tenure protected her job but not her office and lab space — she lost both because she wasn’t bringing in enough grant money. Hard to get those grants when your study subject isn’t sexy or exploitable. Whether it’s research or teaching, seems the bottom line is not quality. It’s money.

      • JR says:

        Well….I suppose. Certainly various departments on campus are competing for students, as enrollment = money, and I can see how that could lead to grade inflation, particularly in the large freshman-sophomore level survey courses. State schools in particular are fighting for funding, more dependent than ever on tuition dollars, and are desperate to keep enrollment numbers. That being said, if it was all about money, and keeping the customer happy, why is this alleged inflation more rampant in private schools? I had an interview at a private school a few months ago, and the dean told me that not only was the institution left untouched by the downturn in the economy, it saw its foundation monies grow.

        If it is the money, it goes both ways–not only are universities trying to attract more students, many students bring “the customer is always right” mentality to campus with them. “Pay your fees, get your Bs” is a student expectation, not a faculty practice.

        I’m more tempted to read this furor over grade inflation as (unintentionally?) disguised anxiety over the democratization of education in the U.S. “We’re not holding to our standards” is a gloss for “I wish we didn’t have to deal with open enrollment and students from public/poorly funded high schools.”

        • Inge says:

          “I’m more tempted to read this furor over grade inflation as (unintentionally?) disguised anxiety over the democratization of education in the U.S. “We’re not holding to our standards” is a gloss for “I wish we didn’t have to deal with open enrollment and students from public/poorly funded high schools.”

          That is an utter shame, if that is the explanation. But (i’m asking as a non-american) is this a recent change? Meaning, did your educational system make a difference between public and non-public students when selecting who enters? (btw do they select or does the student choose?)

  3. M. says:

    I have the feeling that in the long run American way of giving A-s so easily is better. You see, it makes people more confident and happy in general. This is not good for the ego when you are reminded every day of your student life that you are only average, because there is this perfect score only a few will ever get. The result is… oh well, now you know why Europeans earn less than Americans 😉

    • Inge says:

      Getting a result shouldn’t affect how you view yourself the rest of your life. It is what you make of it.. If Americans (as you imply) carry that along their whole life.. pffww. I see why they need A’s all the time.

      Also the height of your pay check, doesn’t make happiness. In Europe (at least where i come from, i can not speak for everyone else really) they have chosen to work less (standard week for most is about 35 hours while in the USA, the work week is usually above 40 hours; in Europe everyone gets a ‘lot’ of holidays.. around 40/year. In the USA this is far less.) and enjoy life more.

      But all that has little to do with the original point, of getting A’s and not getting them in Europe. Speaking for me, i actually quit a class where i had gotten all A’s. There was nothing left to learn so it became boring and i quit. Simple as that.
      Now i’m following a class where it’s challenging to get passed. I tend to learn and retain much more from these kind of classes. In the end these are the ones i love, because getting a good grade really means something.

      • Inge says:

        Okay there should have been a 😉 on the end of the first paragraph. Sorry about that.

      • M. says:

        Oh My 🙂
        Now, I must emphasize, that I can’t see any dependence between high grades and low level of a class. I understand that when there is a class of the same level in the US and EU, the best US students will get A while the best EU students will get less for the same results, because “only God knows enough to get A” 😉 So your example with ‘too easy’ class is something else.

        Of course there are zillion reasons why Europeans earn less, including high taxes, shorter working time (although here it seems I live in more ‘Americanized’ Europe than you :D), cheaper education (what causes smaller salaries for teachers) and so on, but what I meant was Europeans earned less because often they just didn’t ask for more (and not because they’re less educated!).

        And maybe the reason that they don’t ask for more is because from a kid they’re taught that ‘more’ is something much above average, only for a few chosen, like the perfect score for indigo kids. 😉

        Of course the height of your pay check doesn’t make happiness, this was just an example of self-confidence in use.
        We have this saying “praise adds you wings”, and believe me, it works.

        • Inge says:

          Mhh, we have a different understanding, it seems, of what is above. When i look at the graph i see that the ‘top’ 45% of an american class get an A. Which means that the best of the USA are thrown together with the lesser good ones. In Europe you see the best because they have the highest points/percentage on the exams. The best in Europe still get an A, or as on my university a high distinction and the slightly less get a distinction and so on to utter failure.

          To get in a higher group, you pulled out everything you got. You strive to get that distinction because it means something. What is the difference between an A and an A?

          As to the asking.. a lot of Europe’s wages are kind of regulated, so to speak. Whole industries (unions and employers) agree on the max rise wages can make in their industry. The only ones who ‘escape’ this are the manager-levels (i do not know the right word in english, but i mean the non-manual labor parts of a company) because they can actually negotiate individually on their wage.

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