Sometimes, new ideas implemented with the best of intentions end up having lousy outcomes, and sometimes a lousy outcome becomes a standard, and then that standard ends up having far-reaching unfortunate repercussions. I am not talking about my cooking. I am talking about the topic of academic grade inflation. I’ve written about this idea before here, that our overly-PC, infantilized “everyone is beautiful (special, unique, fabulous, genius, gifted, etc.) in their own way” American culture is unrealistic, greedy on all sides, and, in the end, should be held accountable for a corruption that utterly defeats the noble, if gently misguided, kindness the original concept attempted to foster.

I was reminded of this today via this provocative article in the New York Times about a new study on college grade inflation trending from 1940 to the present. Here’s the stat that blasted my brain: 43% of all college grades handed out these days are A’s, which makes an A the most common mark received in schools. Hop on board the Logic Train and ride it down the rails a moment with me. Let’s begin our trip with a traditional definition of letter grades:

A: Exceptional, outstanding quality, showing mastery of and beyond the subject worthy of notable honor;
B: Very good quality, showing mastery of subject with additional qualities of distinction;
C: Good quality, showing subject competence at a level that will allow promotion to the next level of study;
D: Poor quality, with partial competence and/or lacking solid fundamentals to progress in subject. Student is strongly encouraged to re-take class in order to achieve competence or mastery of subject;
F: No competence in subject. Student must re-take the class.

Seems a pretty reasonable set, right? The idea within this sorting of student competence has a important function: honest and meaningful feedback and a standard (and hopefully bias-free and quantitative) assessment on how much a student has learned about a given subject and how well they were able to show that knowledge.


Does anyone think that a full 43% of all students in these 200 colleges and universities in the study are truly doing A-quality work, using the above definition? Nah. That’s not how things work in the world. The grading system, like just about everything else in life, follows a bell curve, which puts most students in most schools where they realistically would perform, at C-level – not horrible, not amazingly great, but good enough, decent, and totally OK. Now, go back to the study and toss in the inflated B-grades to the A-grades and that’s 73-86% of all grades currently given. I’m no math whiz, but I can tell you – that ain’t no bell curve. And this is the tragic consequence: when you give out grades that no longer are tied to any semblance of a real standard, you promote and even celebrate mediocrity or incompetence. Huge numbers of students think that they are better educated than they actually are, and then have to face the real-world face slap of belonging to a dumbed-down populace that believes they are entitled to the best of everything when they do not have the educational skills or abilities to work at an exceptional level, because their schools, essentially, lied to them.

This, is not good. It’s not good on an individual level, and it’s not good on a national level. Grade inflation needs its chained yanked, hard. But how do you begin the process of convincing students, their parents, educators, and school administrators to return to meaningful standards of performance grading? Ooh, babies, this is one hard and nasty task. So much of it comes down to money and prestige, and this seems to be the primary goal of education these days – learning is only valued for one’s increased ability to get the biggest paycheck or better networking contacts, not to increase your understanding of yourself and the world on a deeper level, or to challenge yourself to work to your potential. Teachers who dare to grade “harshly” (i.e., reasonably) will for their efforts receive a crap storm from all sides – livid students and their helicopter parents will insist that you are a monstrous hack and should be fired and totally flamed on ratings, and nervous admins will be worried that their colleges will be downgraded in national ratings from those awful average grades given, and then that students would decide not to attend at all in favor of more lenient institutions. Everyone is afraid to take the first step, and take the backlash.

I suppose, in thinking back to my college career, I also was a recipient of inflated grades. As I was a returning adult student, I think I had a pretty good idea of what “excellence” was, and I also was not interested in wasting one minute of my time, effort, or money on getting bad grades, and for me, anything less than an A was a bad grade. The exception I made for myself was in math; an area of not brilliant former achievement and near-panic-attack fear in adulthood. To simply pass my required math courses would be a gratefully-received miracle.

What did I get? Surprise, surprise…all A’s in everything except math. Those were B’s. Being cold-eyed and dead honest, did I deserve all those A’s? Under my standards and understanding of “excellence,” no. No, no, and no. Ladies and gents, I freely admit that I wrote some real crap papers, filled with fancy adjectives, professor brown-nosing, and lazy critical thinking, and got A’s for them. Did I return the papers to those polished-up professors, indignantly demanding that my lame efforts receive the poorer grade that I would have given them myself? Nope. Of course, I didn’t, but even all these years later I don’t feel good or right about taking an honor that I felt I didn’t earn. It just never helps the psyche to feel like you manipulated your way into a good grade, or that no one cared enough to tell me that they expected more from me.

Should every student expect to get A’s? No, no more than every student should expect to get F’s. Is every student “special” and deserving of honors and accolades? Well, no, not really. But every student is important, and is worthy of honesty and respect. Grade inflation and its sad outcomes tells students that they are so unimportant that they do not deserve honesty from their educators, and disrespects their efforts, no matter their output or abilities. There is nothing of substance to trust in, and nothing left for students to do but take the meaningless grades, slap them on a resume, and board the A-Train to nowhere.