In 1980, Charles Grim, Vice Provost for Institutional Research Accreditation and Academic Affairs at NYU Abu Dhabi, graduated from Purdue University with a Ph.D. in economics and a desire to do great things. He also graduated as one of the students in the exclusive top ten percent. He had what would now be seen as an average GPA.
“I had a 3.5 GPA,” Grim said. “That put me, easily, in the top ten percent of the students at my highly selective, very demanding university. Now a 3.5 at NYU Abu Dhabi, which is one of the most challenging institutions around the world, 3.5 is slightly below average.”
Now, according to prepscholar.com, the average GPA at Purdue is 3.7. The same is true for the average GPA at NYU. We can see this effect occurring nationally, and not just in universities, but in high schools as well.
The average graduating GPA of high school students in 1998 was 3.25 and has since risen to an astounding 3.4 in 2017. This has caused several issues.
First, it makes it difficult for colleges and prospective employers to distinguish between slightly above average students and high achievers.
“There are certain students that work hard, or are perhaps even more capable than other students, but because of grade inflation they look like they are about on the same level,” Syme said.
This makes it difficult, not only for a school to differentiate between high achievers, but also for colleges trying to accept the right students.
“If everybody has ‘A’s’,” Grim said, talking about college acceptance. “Then how do we really distinguish the students who are super wonderful from the not so super wonderful?”
How does this happen? How does a 3.5 GPA go from getting you into the top ten percent to slightly below average?
“It’s giving students more than what they earned,” Syme said. “out of fear or anxiety that you are going to either going to ruin that student’s life or that some sort of repercussions will come towards you.”
This is Syme’s definition of grade inflation. Grade inflation is what is causing the GPA to rise in schools.
“It’s a misrepresenting of a student’s ability or knowledge of the subject material,” said math and physics teacher Jed Brewer, defining grade inflation slightly different from Syme.
But what causes it? Grade inflation is caused by several things, each unique to the subject and teacher.
“If you were to make a checklist of the top things that are not so much,” said Brewer. “I think [avoidance of confrontation] is part of it.”
Brewer believes that in many cases, grade inflation is caused by teachers trying to avoid confrontation. However, he also believes that grade inflation may not be the issue.
“I don’t know if inflation is what you’re looking at,” Brewer said.
Brewer thinks that more than inflation, the real issue is that students at NS don’t care enough about academics.
“Look at how many AP programs we have. None. None. And we’ve tried over the years, they just never get filled,” Brewer said.
Brewer also points out another problem.
“Here’s where the damage is done,” Brewer said. “If you’re a kid and you really want to be successful academically, you want to go to college, you want to graduate, you want to know what you’re doing. What happens if your grade is inflated? You crash.”
This is proven to us through the average dropout rate of college freshmen in Snow, Dixie and Utah Valley University. It’s evened out at around 38 percent. This means that out of every hundred freshmen at these colleges, only 62 of them go on to become sophomores. The nationwide rate is 72 out of every hundred go on to become sophomores.
This is another great example of issues caused by grade inflation. But the problems don’t stop there. It also makes it hard for students who are high performers.
“You’re taking away opportunities from students who really are scholars and really do work hard,” Syme said. “But because of grade inflation they are put in the same category as students who are less hardworking.”
It means that grade inflation hurts the students at the top, but it also hurts the students in the middle and bottom. It allows them to get decent grades without putting very much work forward. This makes it hard for them to learn as much.
“In some ways, it’s easier,” Grim said. “If you turn in a paper and it’s not very good, but I can’t point to specific things that are bad about it, it’s just not a very good paper, it’s a lot easier to just give you a good grade and not have to try to explain why it’s bad than it is to assess it overall and explain why it’s bad.”
Clearly, this shows that students will often be conditioned by the grades they receive to believe that they can get as high a grade as someone who does twice the work.
Syme thinks that this is just about the opposite of what grades should be teaching students and that the expectations in classes should be raised.
“If we kept our expectations high, people would rise to those expectations and not only would grade inflation not be a big problem, we would also be better preparing our students for college, for the future,” Syme said.
He goes on to say that the most important thing to learn in high school is how to work hard and that you are rewarded for working hard.
“Sometimes you are going to have to work a little bit harder to get that grade, and that, that’s really what’s going to propel you to succeed later on in life,” Syme said. “It’s that work ethic. If you know you have to work hard to earn something, that might be the most valuable thing you learn in high school is that hard work does pay off.”