Chris Blattman

Why we should give into grade inflation (and graphs of the day)

First, some data:




Original source. Hat tip to the always excellent James Choi at Yale.

I don’t really have strong feelings about grade inflation. I find it very straightforward to sort work into four or five piles, by quality, and it makes little difference to me whether I call those A+, A, A-,… or A, B, C, …

Of course everyone wil scream “negative externality”. This is not a gross societal ill so far as I can tell. It’s not clear to me that anyone ever looks at your grades for the rest of your life.

Well, grad schools and some grant competitions will. Here students who come from schools with lower GPAs probably have a slight disadvantage. All the times I have sat on admissions committees, I haven’t a clue whether a school is inflated or not. There are too many. And we do look at GPA. But because I know there is heterogeneity I don’t take it too seriously, which is why I think the advantage is narrow.

In this light, the trend is unsurprising. Schools have every incentive to move to the highest four or five piles possible. Eventually they all will. Then grade inflation will stop because, barring someone inventing the A+**+^ (which I would not put past some private schools), there will be nowhere to go. We will all have the same four or five piles.

So why resist the new equilibrium?

And that, folks, is your poorly considered opinion of the day.

39 Responses

  1. Grade inflation is not just a phenomenon of schools. Have you ever been to a concert, play, or ballet recently that didn’t end with a standing ovation? I imagine that this is a general human phenomenon, with its own Parkinson’s Law.

  2. The problem is that the inflation isn’t just changing piles. Aside from the fact that there are fewer piles – I doubt that anyone ever thought of the A, B, C, D, E piles as equal. Everyone took the interesting distinctions among those who were doing decent work to be in the A-C range. So distinctions between A and A- or B+ were really important. We are now getting a far higher concentration in the top pile. Once upon a time, A meant something distinguished. But if you are using A for everyone that used to get A, A-, B+, B – which seems to be the standard in some places, including some departments at my university, one of which gives over 80% A/A- – there is no way at all to indicate genuinely excellent work with a grade. Now personally I’d like to abolish grades altogether. I think grading is contrary to pedagogy. (Let employers who want to measure accomplishment administer tests on what they think people should know.) But if I’m forced to grade, I’d like at least to be able to distinguish excellent from mediocre work, and that is becoming increasingly hard to signal with a grade.

  3. The problem I’ve had with this as a teacher is that if very good but not brilliant work gets an A, you have no way to give the brilliant student a better grade. The British and French grading systems deal with this via a tradition whereby the top 25% of the grading scale is seen as inaccessible to mere mortals. So a student who gets 75/100 in the UK is considered excellent and is makes his/her parents beam with pride.

  4. ‘Of course everyone wil scream “negative externality”. ‘ Everyone? Wow, Chris, you’ve obviously got wonkier friendship groups than I have. And your anti-spam filter is illiterate. It insists that the answer to ‘is fire hot’ is not ‘yes’ but ‘hot’………

  5. I agree with the sentiment, but the idea that ‘A+**+^’ isn’t already upon us is a lie. GPA historically used to be on a 3.0 scale, someone decided to bump it to 4.0, then we saw 4.3 scales, 4.5 scales, 5.0 scales…

    Still, probably not that big a deal.

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