There is now consensus that grade inflation is occurring, although not at every high school. That inconsistency across schools makes it hard to know what an A on a report card signifies and whether high school graduates are ready for college.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Grade inflation on the rise: Everybody gets an A. 

In 2015, Montgomery County, Md., decided to stop giving final exams in its high schools. Parents in the high-achieving district were frustrated with testing, maintaining it narrowed curriculum and inhibited creativity.

But the elimination of final exams produced a result that is now troubling some parents and teachers -- soaring grades.

As the Washington Post reported this fall

New data show the percentage of A’s across core math courses nearly doubled from the first semester of 2014-2015 to last school year, rising from 16 percent to almost 32 percent. B’s rose more modestly while C’s, D’s and E’s dipped.

“It is grade inflation. I don’t know how you frame it any other way,” said Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers union. “I don’t think the grades in high school classes shift like that. The shift was really around this change in policy and in how grades are computed.”

Since I reported on a new study on grade inflation a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading the research. In the past, research focused on grade inflation in college, but new studies are looking at what’s happening in America’s high schools.

Grade inflation -- often as measured in disparities between classroom grades and standardized test scores -- is on the rise in private schools and public schools in affluent areas, suggesting part of the problem may be pressure from parents. 

(A friend who transferred her child to a pricey private school explained it this way to me: The high tuition at the school was essentially paying for As.)

Private schools and public schools serving wealthy communities realize how much college admissions mean to parents. I suspect pressure to ensure students qualify for the HOPE Scholarship plays a role in any grade inflation in Georgia. 

I watched a recent panel on grade inflation that included three researchers who studied its prevalence.

The recent major study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined the transcripts of North Carolina high school students for an 11-year period and found gaps between the grades students earned in algebra and their scores on the state’s end of course test. The study also looked at cumulative grades and ACT scores.

For example, most students earning a B in algebra did not meet the  college and career readiness standard on the state exam. In fact, a third of them failed the state exam.

“The first thing we can take away from this study is that grades can be misleading,” said Adam Tyner, associate director of research at the Fordham Institute

At the same time GPAs in North Carolina high schools have been climbing, so has the graduation rate. But any rejoicing over higher graduation rates has to be tempered by questions over whether students are graduating truly ready for college-level classes.

In Georgia, you will find districts with increasing graduation rates yet declining scores on state end-of-course exams, a discrepancy that deserves inquiry.

There is now consensus that grade inflation is occurring, although not at every high school. That inconsistency across schools makes it hard to know what an A on a report card signifies.

In an editorial last month on Montgomery County’s increase in students earning top grades, the Washington Post warned: 

Softening of standards is sadly not unique to Montgomery County. Controversy about No Child Left Behind and a national backlash against testing have led to a retreat from accountability. Witness Maryland’s adoption of a school-accountability system that restricts the use of student achievement data and its plans to jettison (along with much of the country) the rigorous Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) for some yet-to-be-devised new test. The grade inflation in Montgomery County should be a wake-up call about the need for meaningful measures of student learning as schools promise to prepare children to succeed in today’s competitive world.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.