Grade Inflation Commentary

Cory Koedel:

I enjoyed reading Fordham’s recent study by Seth Gershenson on a topic that has always been high on my list of interests: grade inflation.

Grade inflation has a number of important implications for education policy at the K–12 and postsecondary levels, but is notoriously difficult to measure. Some of the more compelling evidence on the consequences of grade inflation include (a) Philip Babcock’s 2010 study showing that students with higher grade expectations give less effort, and (b) Kristin Butcher, Patrick McEwan, and Akila Weerapana’s 2014 study showing that students choose college majors based in part on differences in the grades awarded across departments. These studies show that grade inflation has important implications for how much and what type of human capital is produced in our society.

Gershenson performs a clever analysis to help us better understand grade inflation in K–12 schools. The basic idea of his research design is to benchmark course grades against scores on end-of-course exams (EOCs) in Algebra I. While neither the EOC nor the course grade is a complete measure of performance, both provide useful information.

Course grades are assigned by teachers, whereas the Algebra I EOC is independently scored. Noting that grades are a specific type of performance evaluation, we can draw on the larger performance evaluation literature for insight into the factors that drive grade inflation (e.g., see Kevin Murphy and Jeanette Cleveland’s 1991 book, Performance Appraisal). A prime factor in my view is that human nature pushes us to inflate performance evaluations in socially proximal settings. Another is that teachers likely view grades as a reflection of their own performance, rightly or wrongly.

Related: Seeing the Forest: Unpacking the Relationship Between Madison School District (WI) Graduation Rates and Student Achievement.