In my past decade as an educator, I’ve noticed the trend towards inflating grades. I don’t see it stopping any time soon, but I think it’s important to be aware of how grade inflation affects learning, as well as do what we can to make sure the next generation grows up literate and numerate.

Transcript

In my last video, I talked about how an incoming student got a B in her math 9 class but an independent assessment showed otherwise.  A fellow tutor commented “It’s true that grades are often inflated and don’t accurately reflect a student’s ability.”  So I thought that today would be a great day to talk about GRADE INFLATION.  In this video, I will focus on how grade inflation affects students and what I do as an online math tutor to stop its effects.

What is grade inflation?

Has grade inflation been shown to occur in high schools?

You bet it has.  The most comprehensive article I managed to find to date was this one from Edweek.   It shows that grades for American grade 12s keep rising, but scores on standardized tests are at the same time, falling.  What’s important to note here is that grade inflation has always been happening, but COVID schooling made the rate of increase, increase.

I looked around for Canadian data.  It’s harder to find since we got rid of provincial exams, so all class marks are determined by the teacher.  But I did find this story coming out of the University of Waterloo in 2018.  It’s very interesting.  So basically the engineering department at Waterloo started comparing high school marks to the marks students actually got in engineering school.  From this data, they figured out which schools’ marks could not be taken at face value because they were inflated.  You can find the list of adjustments they make to marks from different schools and regions online actually.  I guess this is what happens when marks aren’t standardized to anything.

How does grade inflation occur in practice?

Kevin Costley of Arkansas Tech University, wrote an article titled Ten Suggestions on How to Fight Grade Inflation.  The suggestions give us an insight into what can happen with formal assessments in schools.  I’ve listed the ones that I’ve seen more commonly amongst my students: 

  • Dropping the lowest test score in the course
  • Raising grades due to good behaviour
  • Allowing students to re-submit assignments with the main purpose of making a higher grade
  • Giving students really easy assignments

Why do teachers give inflated grades?

I’ve done some of those things in the above list myself when I was a teacher.  It wasn’t because I thought it was best practice.  I just couldn’t see any other alternative solution.  Teachers have no control over the situation they inherit, after all.

One of my university bound grade 12s summed up what it was like to have your teacher being that teacher trying to fight grade inflation.  His English teacher who will scrutinize students’ essays, award deserving grades.  Although he didn’t exactly word it that way, she sounded like a teacher who is critical of your work in order to help you improve your writing.  I asked my student what he thought about her approach to grading, and I’m paraphrasing what he said:

“One teacher cannot turn the tide of grade inflation. I would be OK with stricter standards if all teachers were doing it, but at this point in life, it’s more important for me to get accepted to my school of choice, and I will hone my writing skills later.”

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We had a discussion about that, but…If teachers are made to feel that they are only holding kids back from going to the school they want to go to by giving them real grades, then how is grade inflation not occurring?

Effects of grade inflation:

1) False confidence

So what?  Isn’t increased confidence a good thing?   I’m in no way suggesting that we hold confidence levels back, but if a student feels like they can do something, it should be because they can actually do that thing.  If not, the intervention should be about helping the student gain the ability to achieve the goal (note: this is hard to do), not moving the goal post (note: this is much easier) and call the problem solved.

2) Students come to expect the grade they need no matter what.

Students can always “talk to their teacher” and see what they can do to bring up their grade if half the semester has gone by and they’ve neglected the coursework.  I can see situations in which giving students another chance is in the interest of student learning, but a lot of the time  it just communicates to students that they don’t need to take things seriously the first time around. 

3) Students end up in classes they are totally unprepared for.

In education, there is something called a zone of proximal development.  It is the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. 

For real learning to occur, especially in those cumulative courses like math, chemistry, physics, and languages, the skills in the yellow layer should get absorbed into the red layer.  If that doesn’t happen, they can’t go on to learn what’s in the blue layer because it’s too big a jump. 

So when kids get repeatedly passed up regardless of skill level, these students eventually end up in a course where they can’t do anything.  They’re the ones who have to show good behaviour and initiate the song and dance with the teacher about what they can do to bring up their mark.  Not only that, but they are cheated out of the opportunity to master the skills that have them stuck in the first place.

What do I do about the effects of grade inflation?

As I mentioned, no single teacher can improve the situation with grade inflation, especially when they are handed a student population with diverse learning needs.  No single tutor can either.  But what I aim to do is build up every student I work with.  Sometimes students do come through for math classes they really shouldn’t be in.  I do whatever I can for them, but it is always better if the material they’re working on is within grasp, and the student has the time and motivation to improve the situation.  

As I’ve said before, summer is a great time for skill building.  Students don’t have the stress of grades.  

The student that I talked about in the beginning of this video has done 6 sessions now.  In the first couple sessions we were working on multiplication strategies because that was what I assessed to be in her ZPD.  Because she’s been motivated to improve, she’s raised her speed and accuracy in 4 topics so far.  We haven’t even begun high school material yet, but at least now she’s experienced success and seen the result of practicing.  No one can take that away from her.  She’s still got a long way to go but I hope there will be a success story coming out of this.  If she had just waited to start in September and presented the situation to me as needing help with Math 10, it would not have been a salvageable at all.  

If you’re a parent, I think you know if your kid has been cruising through math class in the past couple years and getting higher grades than expected.  I would take a look into things to see if this situation is in the making.  The problem is a lot easier to fix when it is small.  If your investigation does lead you down the path of looking for a math tutor, I am here to help. 

Email me any time at info@claratong.com.  Thank you for watching.  Like, comment, and subscribe if you find my content helpful.  

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