Grade Inflation Is Bad

I believe that grade inflation hurts everyone- admissions committees, faculty, and parents.  But, most importantly, it hurts students.  To understand why, we have to examine the purpose of grades and what grade inflation is.

Why Grades?

There are two types of assessments.  Formative assessments are designed to provide feedback to the student so they know what they need to learn/improve on.  Summative assessments are designed to measure the student’s performance against a certain benchmark to determine if they can do (or know) a certain thing.  A grade is primarily a summative assessment.  Although a student who earns a C on an assignment may intuit that there is something that was missing, it doesn’t provide them much specific feedback, so it doesn’t really help the student improve.  So the grade is illustrating if the student’s performance is adequate or not.

We need both summative assessments and grades in order to determine if students learn the material and, most importantly for your professional progression, to be able to compare student academic performance with other students.  It is assumed that a student with an A grade is more academically competent than a student with a B grade.  This does not mean the A grade student is smarter, worked harder, or knows the material better!  Any academic worth their salt knows that assessments are imperfect and really only measure one thing: how well the student could perform on one particular assessment.  However, there is some decent evidence that GPA correlates with successful completion of veterinary school, and performance on certain standardized exams also predicts future success.

So, we need grades to compare students, so we can select the ones most likely to be successful.  One of the worst things for any vet school is to have a student be dismissed because of poor academic performance.  Ideally, that student shouldn’t have been admitted in favor of another student who could successfully complete the program.  This required the admissions committee to know who is likely to be successful, and grades are an important (but certainly not the ONLY, and probably not THE MOST important) way to determine that.  What happens if every applicant has gotten all As and has a 4.0 GPA?

Grade Inflation

Students want to earn higher grades, because it is an external validation of their abilities (which every human likes) and because it makes them more competitive for future position applications.  So, if they don’t get the grade they believe they deserve, they grumble.  To their parents, to the faculty, to administration.  In the face of that grumbling, faculty members have two choices.  Stand firm, continue to assign the grades they believe the students earn, and continue to get student evaluations which are poor ONLY BECAUSE OF THE GRADES BEING GIVEN.  Or, give in to the grumbling and give students higher grades, often resulting in “easy As”.  

The students are happy- they get to have the grade they think they deserve.  Parents are happy- their beautiful snowflake IS a wonderful student!  Administrators are happy because students and parents aren’t grumbling to them.  The faculty member collects decent student evaluations, but perhaps there is some nagging feeling that they aren’t actually being an educator, just a rubber stamper. Problem solved.  Or is it?

Grade Inflation is a Problem

Believe it or not, humans like to be challenged.  According to self-determination theory, three things motivate humans: autonomy (the ability to do what we want; freedom), competence (getting better at skills; mastery), and relatedness (interaction with others; socialization).  Let’s look at the competence piece.

Why do people learn to play musical instruments?  There are surely a variety of reasons, but I doubt one of them is “because it’s easy.”  Why do people play competitive sports?  Nearly no human pursuit which requires a degree of skill is pursued because it’s easy.  Why would a student pursue an academic course that’s easy?  What sense of satisfaction would that student have?  If every course is an easy A, does the student feel accomplished for earning that 4.0 GPA?  Maybe some students do.  Maybe they want the easy path.  But every year I get student evaluations along the lines of, “This course was hard, but I learned a lot, and I appreciate it wasn’t just a walk in the park.”  Some students, at least, recognize the value of hard work and earning their grade.

There are some vet schools where the #1-10 ranked students in a class all have a 4.0 GPA.  How does that help internship programs which use GPA as a selection criteria?  Are they really ALL equally good at academics?  How come this happens year after year at the same vet school, but doesn’t happen at other schools?  This is an example of systemic grade inflation.  The faculty have caved over the course of years and decades to the whims of the students, and now the GPA has lost any utility in distinguishing student ability.

Grade inflation removes a genuine challenge for students, makes the point of grading obsolete, and undermines the whole academic system.


What about pass-fail courses?  Do students brush those off because they don’t get a grade?  Well, it depends.  Are the other courses they are taking that semester graded?  If yes, then they will ABSOLUTELY brush off the pass-fail course so they can focus on the graded courses.  What about if the whole institution is pass-fail?  Now you’re starting to move into the realm of competency-based veterinary education (CBVE), which is a terrific direction to go in.  In CBVE, the main question is CAN THE STUDENT DO THE THING?  It’s a yes-no variable, just like pass-fail.  This gets away from grades and towards the question of competency, which I think is a good idea.

What about courses which are TOO hard?  We all know courses where the average on the first exam is 50%.  I think this is up to the instructor to set clear expectations.  I typically tell students that a B grade is an average performance, a C grade is below average, an A grade is dramatically above average, and a D or F indicates they did not learn the material.  The problem is, most applicants to vet school are above average.  Compared with undergraduate students.  Once they get to vet school, the average resets.  Now an average vet student is expected to earn a B (according to my rubric).  But, guess what, those students aren’t accustomed to feeling average and are accustomed to getting As and so rail against getting a B or, god forbid, a C.  Is my class “too hard” or are their expectations of their performance not aligned with what I describe as my expectations?  If every student in my class earns an A, fantastic, I believe they have earned it.  That is statistically unlikely, but not impossible.  I don’t think grading on a curve is appropriate.  Set the expectation so the students know, then they perform to that expectation.

“I think the work I did was worth an A!”  I hear this all the time.  Often there are complaints that the exam questions were too hard, or weren’t related to the material, or there was too much to study, etc. etc.  Here’s the unfortunate truth.  As I mentioned earlier, grades do not evaluate how much work you do, how smart you are, or how well you learn the material.  They ONLY evaluate how well you do on the assessments.  Some students are “good test takers” so will perform better than students who are not good test takers.  There’s nothing to be done about it.  We can’t do an fMRI of everyone to see the neural connections being made when they are contemplating a problem.  Assessments measure what they measure, which is the student’s ability to answer the question the instructor created.  This is one reason we use OTHER metrics to evaluate applicants.  The GPA is imperfect.  It doesn’t perfectly predict a student’s future performance, it maybe only predicts ~20% of it.  The rest is not captured by grades. My wife has a theory that some students who routinely get As on exams have memorized the material but don’t necessarily retain it long-term, whereas students who make Cs may have really learned 70% of the material and will retain it for longer, because the portion they did learn they learned well. 

What To Do

To students: accept that your grade may not reflect your actual ability.  I did terribly in the preclinical courses in vet school.  I was on the cusp of the bottom 25% of my class rank.  But when I got to clinics, I could answer questions most of my classmates could not because I learned what was clinically relevant rather than the ridiculous minutiae which comprises most vet school exams.  I stayed in the clinic later than most of my classmates, volunteered to take their call shifts, and otherwise worked hard and got fantastic letters of recommendation for my internship.  I rinsed and repeated through my internship and residency.  You can be successful without amazing grades.  Focus on actually LEARNING the material rather than memorize and dump.  And you really can’t do anything about how the professor grades.  Focus on your circle of control and let it go.

To faculty members: stay strong and create clear expectations.  Maintain high standards- the students actually DO want to be pushed to learn.  Explain to them on day one that you are fighting grade inflation and expect them to have to WORK if they want an A in your class.  Make sure you are on their side and not opposing them.  Be prepared for the students to grumble.  Believe that, nonetheless, you are making the world a better place.

To parents: let your children be independent, self-actualized human beings and stop trying to live their lives for them.  Maintain interest and inquiry and encourage them and be supportive, but don’t go to bat for them.  They are adults, they need to learn how to handle life without you holding their hand. Some of the most confident adults I know learned early on that, as long as they did their best, they didn’t need to worry about their grades. They learned not to rely on external validation for their sense of self.

To administrators: realize that some faculty members probably need some coaching in setting and maintaining clear expectations (that is, some of them may WANT to fail a majority of the class and need guidance on that).  If a course is difficult, but the students perform well grades-wise nonetheless, be sympathetic to the students and validate their feelings without necessarily validating their beliefs that the course is unfair.  Be supportive of faculty who are trying to do the best thing for the students, and provide guidance if the faculty aren’t sure what the “best thing” is.  Particularly be supportive of efforts to combat grade inflation.  Maintain high standards, set clear expectations.

I can’t remember what inspired me to add this topic to my list of blog ideas, but I obviously feel passionately about it.  I do get frustrated by students who seem to focus only on the grade rather than learning the material.  In an ideal world, if they learned the material, their grade would reflect that.  I suppose I could do a 2-hour intensive oral exam with every student…  that would probably solve the problems with the assessment not accurately measuring their knowledge.  But I doubt most students would consent to that, and I don’t have the time to do that for 130 students. 

Grade inflation is a systemic problem, like racism. It can’t be solved with a single individual, or a single institution. This isn’t an ideal world, and never will be.  So we need to acknowledge the problems with grade inflation and work to prevent it.  Otherwise, one day, an A won’t mean anything at all.

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