High School Grade Inflation: It’s Complicated

A new study suggests that grade inflation is on the rise in American high schools, and the news is making the rounds in the media.

“The same breed of people who think third graders getting participation trophies is a genuine problem are latching on to the report as more evidence of the decline of American education with headlines like “Everyone Is Special” and “Is Our Children Learning?”’ according to James S. Murphy, writing in Inside Higher Ed. He is director of national outreach for the Princeton Review, and challenges the study from the College Board.

The article gets into methodological problems with the study, even a possible conflict of interest for the College Board. The issue is complex. Please have a look at the piece for details.

As community college educators we have all encountered students who purportedly had good grades in high school, but are woefully unprepared for collegiate work. Sometimes, the student is blowing smoke: “But I made all A’s in high school!” However, transcripts don’t lie and it’s not hard to find kids with fine grades in high school math, for instance, who must get placed into developmental mathematics in college—perhaps not even close to a credit-bearing class. College algebra is a misty dream for some freshmen, even after two years of algebra in high school (which is not required for everyone).

Unfortunately we have two officially sanctioned metrics for student preparedness: standardized exams and previous grades. Each has obvious flaws. But high school grades may at least indicate a student’s resilience, which is important for subsequent success.

Now here’s the weird part. A community college teacher can probably tell quickly what a student can do. In mathematics, a few equations are sufficient to see if they can cut it in a credit-bearing class. With English, writing a long paragraph based on a reading assignment can say a great deal to an instructor of a gateway course.

It’s unfortunate that we can’t find a way to make this happen for all students.