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UW-Madison's Grodsky challenges the definition of grade inflation

October 06, 2013
by Paul Baker

Grades are the fundamental currency of our education system. They signal academic achievement and student effort to parents, admissions officials and prospective employers.

Over the years some educators and news stories have lamented “grade inflation.” They argue that grade point averages keep rising even while schools demand less from students than ever before. They conclude that grades no longer provide useful information to or about students because of a growing mismatch between student achievement and grades awarded.

Eric GrodskyBut UW-Madison’s Eric Grodsky, who is a researcher with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and an associate professor of sociology and educational policy studies, cautions that this is a misperception.

Grodsky’s research examines trends in grade averages over several decades at the high school and college levels. He says it’s important to think about grades in a more multifaceted way, by considering what he calls their “signaling power,” that is, a grade’s ability to provide information to and about students.

In recent research Grodsky and colleagues Evangeleen Pattison and Chandra Muller (University of Texas) studied grades awarded at high schools and colleges from 1972 to 2004. Their analyses of these nationally representative samples showed that, in the decades following 1972, grades did rise at high schools but dropped at four-year colleges, particularly at “selective” four-year institutions, which are those that Barron’s ranked as “highly competitive” or “most competitive.”

But even an upward trend in mean grades awarded does not in itself imply devaluation, Grodsky says, and the signaling power of grades has weakened little, if at all.  

Grodsky, Pattison and Muller reached that conclusion by examining the relations between shifts in mean grades, the distribution of grades, relation of grades to achievement test scores, and students’ occupational outcomes.

Their study constructed high school GPA by weighting core academic course grades (reading, math, science, and social studies) by the number of credits students earned in each course. The study constructed four-year college GPA by weighting course grades by the number of credits students earned in each course. The GPAs were then compared with achievement test scores and to student reports of effort.

Students’ postsecondary outcomes were measured with attention to: attending a four-year college within two years of expected high school graduation date; attending a selective four-year college; and completing a baccalaureate degree within 8.5 years of expected high school graduation date. “Occupational outcomes” included the prestige of the respondent’s most recent occupation and his or her logged annual earnings.

Grodsky and colleagues found that connections among student grades, test scores, and student effort remained consistently robust for the cohorts of high school seniors observed (1982, 1992, and 2004). If anything, the relation between test scores and high school grades may have become stronger over time, particularly between 1982 and 1992.

Although the study cannot say with certainty that the signaling power of grades has increased, the results fail to support the thesis that high school grades have lost signaling power in the decades following 1982.

The study found mixed evidence regarding the ability of grades at selective four-year colleges to serve as accurate signals about students. The association between selective four-year college GPA and occupational prestige declined slightly over the time period examined, whereas the association between selective four-year college GPA and logged earnings remained relatively stable.

Grodsky sympathizes with the argument that educational institutions should perhaps award A’s less readily and should hold students to a higher standard. But he cautions that his study does not, and cannot, purport to identify an ideal relationship among grades, achievement test scores, and occupational outcomes; those are value judgments.

In any case, Grodsky does not see any reason to believe that grading standards are any different now than they were 40 years ago.

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