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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 19, 2024

When an A+ means nothing

Grade inflation is destroying the public education system and is a symptom of a larger problem.

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An 8th grade report card is pictured.

The U.S. public education system has long been one of the country’s proudest institutions, yet that same system is now on the edge of collapse. It is well established that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating to American learning, but the underlying problems have been lurking in the background for many years. From staff shortages to absenteeism to a lack of federal funding, it seems that the public education system has become dysfunctional for everyday Americans, leaving students less prepared for higher education. One of the key symptoms of this broken system is the phenomenon known as grade inflation.

In simple terms, grade inflation describes how students have been receiving higher and higher grades and GPAs throughout their academic careers. Isn’t this a good thing? American students are getting smarter! Truthfully, no. While GPAs have risen, on average, by 0.11 points between 1998 and 2016, the average SAT score during that same period dropped from 1026 to 1002. What is worse is that grade inflation soared amidst the pandemic while ACT scores fell. The Class of 2023’s scores were the lowest in three decades.

While it pales in comparison to violence in schools and the epidemiological challenges of the pandemic, grade inflation is a sign of a larger problem. Giving out As like Halloween candy does no favors to students, teachers or the nation. For students, the constant stream of As creates a false sense of mastery. While some 47% of students now receive A averages, more and more students are reporting they feel underprepared for college-level work. Students are graduating while failing the basic academic standards, which simply kicks the problem down the line.

For teachers, this type of grade inflation is also taking its toll. In a society hyper-focused on achievement and earning a college degree, no one is willing to tolerate a B. All this pressure is passed down to teachers. It doesn’t help that parents often hound teachers day and night if their kid isn’t rubber-stamped with an A on every assignment. This lack of student accountability has left many teachers ready to call it quits, further exacerbating the teacher shortage.

This comes to a head as students head towards higher education or the workforce. This overflow of As and 4.0 GPAs means nothing when the students behind those scores are underprepared and struggling. The purpose of public education is to prepare the next generation for the future. Along the way, students learn the importance of skills like critical thinking and problem-solving that allow for social mobility. Grade inflation, however, throws all of that out the window for neat-looking graduation rates and pristine GPAs. How can we expect kids in seventh grade who read at fourth-grade levels to think critically about the problems facing our society today? 

Increased levels of education foster more open-minded political engagement and lead to less polarization. When the scope of the crisis is unmasked, it’s evident why we’re so polarized.

In theory, public education should provide a ladder for social mobility where less well-off students are well-prepared for higher education, something that is shown to be a launchpad, of sorts, up the social ladder. That goal now seems way out of reach. If most kids have a 4.0, then what metric can schools use to measure their academic ability? As schools have increasingly dropped standardized testing, the focus has shifted to personal essays and extracurricular activities. While this shift was initiated as an attempt to reduce inequality, it has brought no tangible gains but, in fact, decreased social mobility, as studies have shown essay content as being even more strongly tied to family income compared with SAT scores.

This tangled web of obstacles points to an education system in crisis. Not only is the system supposed to produce critical thinkers and problem solvers, but it is also supposed to be one of the primary drivers of social mobility. Yet, in this age of grade inflation and the necessity for As, it’s time to pause and think about how the system became this way. For students and parents, don’t be afraid of a B or a C. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or won’t get into college. It is supposed to be honest feedback for you to improve yourself and perform even better next time. For teachers, times are tough and it’s hard to argue with that. However, the next time you have a red pen in your hand, ask yourself if a B might be more helpful than an A. To the universities and school administrations, in this climate of grade inflation, maybe it’s time to use alternative metrics. The public education system is in crisis and it is high time we address it once and for all.