MAXWELL:  Grade inflation cheats students

6/30/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In 1969, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles conducted a national survey of the grade point averages of about 300,000 entering college freshmen. The survey has been done each year since.

In the first sample, 13 percent of the students reported receiving an A average in high school, and 33 percent indicated a C average. In 1996, however, the numbers had nearly flip-flopped, as 32 percent boasted an A average and 15 percent a C.

But during these years, student scores on the two college national entrance exams have remained about the same. Why, if grade point averages have risen so dramatically?

The problem, argues SchoolMatch, the Ohio research firm that recently studied grading in Jacksonville’s high schools, is wholesale grade inflation _ the awarding of unearned high grades to students. According to the firm, grade inflation is a problem in all of Jacksonville’s 17 high schools. Not surprisingly, the practice is worst in the nine schools declared “low-performing” by the state Department of Education.

Most experts say teachers nationwide, including many in Tampa Bay, inflate grades mainly to boost students’ self-esteem. Instead of helping, though, grade inflation hurts students by discounting their abilities, denying them the opportunity to achieve and by making mediocre or inferior work acceptable.

Many teachers in Jacksonville said, for example, that in addition to test scores, they raise grades for student effort, participation and improvement. But why should students get extra credit for these factors, which are integral to learning and should be demanded of students. Without them, neither effective teaching nor effective learning is possible.

Grade inflation _ instant self-esteem in a package _ is an adult cop-out that cheats students in the worst way. Genuine self-esteem is the direct result of real accomplishments. It must be earned.

The case of Raines High School principal Milton Threadcraft typifies the dilemma many of his colleagues nationwide face. Condemned as a “low-performing” school, Raines has some of Jacksonville’s worst grade inflation. But even with this inflation, the school’s average GPA remains one of the district’s lowest. Threadcraft said that because Raines has such a low average GPA, giving lower grades would worsen the already-high dropout rate.

The concern of educators such as Threadcraft is laudable. But they are wrong to give students false self-esteem and a false sense of achievement in a technological world that is increasingly demanding excellence in the workplace. As the national education agenda moves forward, we should make eradicating grade inflation a priority. We must stop cheating our young people.

Bill Maxwell is a Times editorial writer and columnist.