Why You Should Stop Worrying About Grade Inflation

Kids these days don’t know as much because of grade inflation.

That makes no sense to me. Kids may, or may not, know as much as they use to but what they “know” is a result of the teaching that happens in the classroom. After the lessons, learning and practicing a student is assessed and typically given some number. Whether that number is 70 or 90, the learning has already happened. For a fun experiment, change your student’s report card marks by making everything 20% smaller and next time you see them, see if it changes what they know and don’t know.

I suppose someone might make the argument that an inflated grade makes students complacent with where they are at in their learning. I think this can be alleviated by creating a different classroom culture where students always try their best. My top students, whether their grades are inflated or not, are working extremely hard. I do have students that are complacent with their grades, but these are kids that are in the low B’s and lower and not competing for the best university spots.


Too many kids are getting into university that shouldn’t, because of grade inflation.

Not a chance. If University of Your Grades Are Inflated has 4000 openings for first year students, they’re going to let in 4000 first year students. Whether the average grade of the best 4000 students that they can attract is 90% or 70%, they’ll take the 4000 students. FWIW I haven’t heard of higher failure rates of first year students so I guess universities can’t be that upset about inflated grades.


Grade inflation makes university admissions unfair.

This one has some legs but I think they’re pretty short legs, and maybe even quite hairy. Which isn’t a bad thing. Come to think of it, I just described my legs. But I digress… I have heard of one case where a friend’s son, who basically finished at the top of his IB program in high school, didn’t get into University of Toronto engineering (I think that’s what it was). He is now pretty much at the top of his class in 2nd year engineering at UBC. Presumably grade inflation has something to do with this. How much, I can’t say. There was also a recent article in the paper about how some Canadian universities weight applications based on what high school they are from, because they think they have identified varying degrees of grade inflation. So, if there is a grade inflation issue, perhaps they have a solution. In my own experience, I feel that my top students get the best grades in my classes, and the grades reflect what I think represents their relative achievement. If I’m close to the average teacher, I think it’s reasonable to think that there aren’t many “less qualified” students leap frogging over “more qualified” students. Furthermore, we’re lucky in Canada because of the high equality/parity we have in our universities. There are maybe a few exceptions because of particular fields of study offered by a few universities, but in general I believe that most universities offer a very similar quality education.


Too many students are graduating because they don’t have to do provincial exams and because of grade inflation.

This one gets into the area of what we think is the role of public education in society. I believe that the primary goal of public education is to help create an informed, functioning and healthy society. To this end, I believe that the longer that more students stay in school, the better off we are as a society. I don’t think high school graduation credentials offer any kind of free pass to grand future endeavors and careers. No one is going to leap frog over someone else because they have an inflated average of 58% instead of 49%.


Grades are inflated because teachers get pressured, or because admin change grades.

I suppose this happens to some degree. However, I think that students today have a lot more supports around them and a lot more pressure to produce high grades. When I graduated, I think a 78% average would get you into UBC sciences. School was hard, probably about the same as it is today. However, we didn’t have to worry as much about school as students do today. Think about it… In 1988 a student needed a 78% average among students that ranged from 78% to 98% ish. There’s a lot of room for errors in there. Today a student needs maybe 92% in a range that goes up to 98%. That is super competitive. Grade inflation or not, one bad test is enough to take you out of the running. Let that sink in. In 1988 a kid could have a few bad tests. Today, one test is enough to turf your chances. It doesn’t matter if there is grade inflation, one bad test is enough to sink you.

Back to the supports. Kids may have tutors, options to re-do assessments, more personal awareness and self-reflection on how their learning is going, etc. Of course their grades are going to be higher. I also think that it would be surprising that students actually learn much more than they did 30 years ago. We are creatures bound by our biological and cognitive traits, after all. Most gains made by new teaching methodologies are small and often applicable to only a subset of the student population


This blog is not meant to be pro or anti final exam, I’ve written how I feel about exams elsewhere on this blog.  Furthermore, I am not condoning what I perceive to be a lack of direction from our Ministry of Education and the fact that they have not published any achievement standards in either the new curriculum or our previous curriculum.  I will say this though - if people think that BC’s previous curriculum was vastly better than our current one, I suggest you take another look.  The old IRP documents are lengthy and stacked with boilerplate text.  There were more learning objectives and I don’t think that is a good thing.  What they didn’t have, and still don’t have, are working standards on student achievement.  I never saw any teachers use the IRPs for anything meaningful, other than as a checklist of learning objectives.  The most used teacher resources I’ve seen in action are: passed down work from co-workers and teacher resource kits from textbooks.