Problems with Letter Grades

A grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased and variable
judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery
of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of material."

--Author Unknown

The most glaring problem associated with the use of letter grades is that of grade inflation. Inflation causes upward compaction of grades conferring the appearance of excellence on ever increasing numbers of students. The appearance of excellence is accompanied by a decreased incentive to learn, leading to a decline in knowledge. The escalating GPA erodes incentive to learn. A work ethic toward learning is not established, hence ability to learn becomes increasingly affected. Learning ability improves with practice, in this case the act of studying. Neural Physiology confirms this occurs through the process of longterm potentiation of neural synapses. The most reasonable explanation for the above mentioned correlated phenomena is that of watered down course content. In the words of Stuart Rojstaczer, author of, A's are common as dirt in universities now days because it's almost impossible for a professor to grade honestly. Today's classes, as a result suffer from high absenteeism and a low level of student participation. In the absence of fair grading, our success in providing this country with a truly educated public is diminished. The implications of such failure for a free society are tremendous. Washington Post, January 20th, 2003.

Currently best estimates place the average letter grade at somewhere around 3.1 or B. D and F (in this case E) are rapidly vanishing, as shown by the bar graph below.

Grades are grounded only in subjective interpretation of student performance by each individual instructor. One of the problems is that very few standards are ever discussed. What is a B plus? What is an A minus? It's assumed people will know what to do when grading. But I think that's a faulty assumption now. Derek Bok, former President, Harvard University.

Letter grades lead to grade disparity. Information made recently available by the Alabama Scholars Association shows the problem as one of obvious unfairness to students. Dr. Beito, then President of the association, describes the situation in courses that randomly assign students to different sections and give the exact same readings. In the Spring of 2001, the number of A's awarded ranged from 18.7% to 83.2%. Perhaps the most straightforward method of controlling grade disparity is to adopt the class curve and set the numbers of each letter grade equal to predetermined percentages. This will not do any good as a grade of B could then reflect a performance average of 80% or 70% or some number even lower. The class curve simply replaces grade disparity with numerical disparity. Courses with large enrollments and multiple sections may combine all students in all sections into a single class curve with a predetermined percentage of students falling into each grade category. This will control for disparity between sections, and if enrollments are large enough, fluctuation between semesters is expected to remain low. This is a ranking system which gives no clue to the actual level of course content mastery. The real extent of learning does not appear on the academic transcipt. Nor does use of the class curve versus that of a grade scale. There seems no way out of such discrimination toward today's students. They are faced with one type of disparity or the other.

Grades are converted to the GPA. The GPA is itself deceptive and unfair to students. For example a GPA of 2.5 falls midway between a C and a B. Assuming the use of a strict grade scale of 90%, 80%, 70% & 60% cutoff percentages, a 2.5 GPA indicates a 75% performance average. In reality this is seldom true. The class average can easily move up to the next letter grade without showing up on the transcript. For example, a class with 2 A's, 3 B's, 6 C's, & 1 D will produce a 2.5 GPA. When all students score at the very bottom of their respective grade categories, average performance is 75%. If all score at the very top, average performance moves up to 84.17% or straight B.

Grades do no discourage academic dishonesty. In a permissive environment, no one loses.

Grades are extrinsic motivators. Noted education writer Alfie Kohn repeatedly refers to numerous research studies that point in the same direction; extrinsic motivation removes incentive. In his March, 1999 article entitled From Degrading to De-Grading Mr. Kohn states that grades tend to (1) "reduce students' interest in learning itself" (2) "reduce students preference for challenging tasks" and (3) "reduce the quality of students' thinking." This correlates well with reports that show diminished knowledge acquisition. Lowered incentive to learning prevents the development of a work ethic toward learning. Neural Physiology confirms this.

Grades stand between instruction and learning. Students find themselves in the environment of an escalating GPA. Hence they must focus on higher and higher grades in order to maintain whatever level they find themselves on in respect to average. Students are seldom informed of the large disparities that exist in grade distributions. In fact, they must attempt to accumulate as many high grades as possible simply to stay ahead of the game. This focus on grades is well known throughout higher education. Faculty who attempt to impose standards that are consistent with textbook content find themselves downgrading students for the sake of �rigor.� Downgrading is De-Grading (Alfie Kohn). It produces feelings of anger and frustration. Desire to learn is intrinsic; letter grades are extrinsic. An incongruity exists.

The grade scale does not permit implementation of academic assessment that meets current demands of accountability. Historical performance demonstrates this. "While assessment programs imposed in several states have pressed institutions to develop better measures of student learning, NCPI research has shown that these programs have not been successful." (NCPI report, pg. 14)

Grades are not trustworthy. The following website download clearly shows this. Three external tests are compared with the GPA in five high schools in one district. External tests correlate positively, hence can be considered statistically valid. The GPA shows an inverse correlation making it statistically invalid.

Grade Inflation: The Current Fraud

By M. Donald Thomas, Ph.D. President Emeritus, School Management Study Group
William Bainbridge, Ph.D. President, SchoolMatch Corporation, Columbus, Ohio

One of the greatest frauds perpetrated on high school students is grade inflation. In general, the highest academic grade inflation is in the lowest achieving schools.

In 1987, the authors began to conduct "School Effectiveness Audits" to answer a basic question often asked by Boards of Education: "How effective are our schools?" The audit process compares similar student demographic schools/school districts in the demographic group. School district results which are compared include the following:

  • Grade point average
  • Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)
  • American College Test (ACT)
  • Achievement-norm and criterion referenced tests
  • Average daily attendance of students
  • Teacher absences
  • Advanced Placement test results

After conducting a large number of audits, the auditors were amazed to find that some grade inflation was apparent in most schools. What was unexpected was that the highest amount of grade infaltion existed in the lowest achieving schools. Five high schools in one school district showed these results:

SchoolSATNorm Ref. TestGrade Point
A75035 %tile26 %tile3.6
B90040 %tile42 %tile3.2
C99048 %tile48 %tile2.8
D105058 %tile55 %tile2.6
E112567 %tile74 %tile2.5

It is extremely difficult to explain how the lowest achieving school can have a higher grade point average than the higher achieving schools. Yet, this same pattern is found in most of the school districts in which the authors have conducted "School Effectiveness Audits."

The conclusion can be drawn that in low achieving schools with high grade point averages, expectations are extremely low just the opposite of what research indicates should be done. Having low expectations begets low achievement. The fraud is that the high grade point average gives a FALSE message to the students. Schools which expect little and provide high grades, regardless of the level of academic achievement, are fraudulent educational systems and should be corrected.

The grade scale raises serious questions about its own validity. Some of the more obvious include:

  • Why is 79% a C, worth two points on the grade scale while 80% is worth 25% more?
  • Is a 97% student really the same as a 90% student who suddenly appears to be 25% better than an 89% student?
  • Why are pluses and minuses used? Are they supposed to add greater clarity in making distinctions between students? What are these distinctions then in the form of actual performance scores? Some have suggested expanding the use of + and - to gain even greater clarity. Shown below is an example which takes this line of thought to its current limit:
  • Downloaded from Critical Mass: Blowing Up Grade Inflation, "another approach to dealing with range compression is to increase the number of subdivisions in the upper ranges."

    F -> F (for those cases where an F is administratively mandated)
    B- -> D
    B -> D+
    B+ -> D
    B++ -> D+
    B+++ -> C-
    A--- -> C
    A-- -> C+
    A- ->B-
    A -> B
    A+ -> B+
    A++ -> A-
    A+++ -> A
    A++++ -> A+

    Posted by: Simon Spero on March 31, 2003 06:31 PM

  • If the grade scale is to be a yardstick against which academic performance is measured, why do some instructors use the class curve? Students calibrate their own yardstick.
  • Given a strict grade scale of 90%, 80%, 70%, & 60% cutoff levels, why is everything below 60% treated the same, i.e. F?
  • Why is the grade of C traditionally chosen to represent average performance? Straight C's result in a 2.0 GPA. Any value below 2.0 usually does not qualify for graduation. This can be as close as 1.99. It seems that average is just barely acceptable.

The Educational Policy Committee at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defines the letter grade of B to be "superior mastery of course material." The website shows the average GPA to be 3.09. The report released by the National Association of Scholars entitled Today's College Students Barely More Knowledgeable than High School Students of 50 Years Ago, Poll Shows contradicts the notion that average student performance is superior. By definition, average is average, it is not superior to average. The Initiative to End Grade Inflation (in higher education).

Several possible solutions exist to the problems of grade inflation and grade disparity. One is to resurrect flunk out courses. Given the current economic climate in higher education, this is not likely acceptable. Another is to adopt the class curve in most courses. However, grade disparity then simply changes to numerical disparity as a B could be 80%, or 70%, or some value even lower. Class averages can be adjusted by level of difficulty adopted, but this negates the importance of textbook content as the only meaningful standard for learning in many courses. Still another is to limit the number of A's in any given class, say to 35%. Most classes would then post this number even if they are not earned. Other classes which, through serious academic effort, earn more would not receive them. The latter two have been adopted by some institutions which seem uninterested in treating students in a fair and equitable manner. One has to wonder to what extent American education is willing to go to in order to retain its practice of letter grading.

Stringent measures mentioned above have been adopted by a hand-full of institutions, usually at the department level. The vast majority continue to practice inflated-letter grading. Given that these conditions have been in existence for decades, even generations, we believe there will be no meaningful widespread effort to reform of the so called classic grading system in the foreseeable future.. If such an effort is made, the likelihood exists that it will impinge on the other important activity of higher education, that of scholarship. If and when reform does occur, there is no guarantee of preventing another cycle from starting. In fact, there is no guarantee of success during the current cycle. Given a choice between A, B, C, D, F and scholarship, most people would, we believe, choose scholarship.

Grading is used to depict quality in agricultural products. Grade A milk is one example. Grades B and C exist but are not sold in grocery stores. Chicken eggs are also graded but show no tendency to inflate up to larger categories, hence grading works well with animal products. Why does the evaluation of student academic effort and achievement rely on the same method used by agriculture? Grade C is rapidly disappearing from the academic transcript. Will grade B soon follow? Will higher education become a massive supermarket dispensing only Grade A Graduates?