“A” is for “Acceptable”

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Academic grades aren’t what they used to be. Grade inflation doesn’t tell us as much about student performance as it does about our motivations and fears.

It’s one of the perks of parenthood: bragging about your kid. My dad did it with me (sometimes to my embarrassment), and when I found out my son had moved from A/B performance to straight A’s, I was all set to crow — until he uttered one additional piece of information.

“But, Dad, most people in my class get straight A’s.” That didn’t stop me from being proud of my son, but it reminded me that academic achievement, as measured by grades, isn’t where my focus needed to be. I can see just by observing him that he is articulate, inquisitive and creative in ways that are hard to capture in the A-B-C-D grading scheme. I’m proud of my son, not my son’s grades.

And yet the incident set me to thinking: why is there grade inflation? What drives averages towards “perfect A’s” and who is affected by this skewing? Grade inflation stems from the desire make every student above average. Students have always been motivated to be above average, even though roughly half of all students are below average.

In the past, the pressure to be an above-average student came primarily from parents. But now the push comes from multiple directions. Higher education is becoming less of an advantage and more of a prerequisite for gainful employment. But qualifying for higher education is becoming more difficult, as is paying for college. The answer to both questions is often being well above average. So being above average (or at least appearing so) is a survival skill and not just a nice-to-have.

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Here in Georgia, students have the opportunity to earn HOPE scholarships which pay some expenses towards a college education. But in 2011, the GPA requirements were tightened. You had to be even higher above the supposed average to stay in the game. Recently the entrance exam guidelines were reduced from 85th percentile to 80th. Still, the hurdles are by and large being set higher and higher, and the stakes for falling short are becoming more and more dire.

Teachers are also under pressure to have classes where, in the words of humorist Garrison Keillor, “all the children are above average.” Since implementing performance standards, Georgia teachers feared losing their bonuses or even their jobs if their students underperformed. This led to a titanic cheating scandal where teachers were caught changing students’ answers in order to look better in the statistics. Yet even for honest teachers, the pressure to raise performance could lead to unwitting grade inflation. What seems particularly perverse to me is the requirement for teachers to raise their students’ performance year-over-year. What differences could justify the class of 2014 scoring significantly higher than the class of 2013 on the same test? They are both tested at the same age, drawn from the same places. While educational technique surely improves over time, I find it unrealistic to expect that improvements in teaching make enough difference year-over-year to be heard over the noise of random events.

No parent wants to confront the fact that their son or daughter might be below average. Indeed the vast majority of people rate themselves above average, which simply cannot be. This “illusory superiority” phenomenon is widely observed and well studied. Believing we are superior, even when we are not, preserves self-esteem and may defend us against depression.

We know who gains by maintaining the illusion that everyone is above average: teachers who keep their jobs, politicians who can point to “higher” test scores to justify their policies, and parents like me who get to brag about A’s. But who loses? The ultimate losers are the students, even the ones with perfect 4.0 GPA’s.

From a student’s perspective, if grades are inflated, then the highest grade stops being excellent or outstanding, but merely acceptable. For the students who can make top grades with relative ease, then there’s little motivation to go further in their learning. But for the students who can’t make that hurdle, everything less looks like abject failure. If you happen to be a B student in a school full of (heavily grade-inflated) A students, it feels like failure. Grade inflation devolves into two tiers: top marks (A is now merely acceptable) or less-than-top-marks (bad or awful). By deleting excellence from the grading system, we de-motivate our best students and demoralize the rest.

If we were to care about learning more than we do about protecting egos or educational politics, we’d restore a grading system with two important attributes that would help answer two important questions. First, it would cover the entire range of human performance, from substandard to world-class in fine-grained steps. If A was acceptable, there would need to be A+, A++ and A+++. In fact we’d need as many different gradations as could reasonably be detected. This would give exceptional students something to aim for beyond “A.” It would give every student enough feedback to know when they’re moving in the right direction. Second, acceptable would be, by definition, something most students could achieve. Acceptable, in grade-level terms should mean “knows enough to move ahead to the next grade.” Acceptable, then, stops being a class ranking and starts being a metric for when students are ready to move up the educational ladder. Not everyone can be above average, but nearly everyone can learn enough to progress to more challenging material.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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