A few weeks ago I discussed grading at Loomis Chaffee and mentioned that I would tackle the thorny issue of grade inflation in a later blog. Well, here it is. Many universities as well as independent schools have struggled with this issue. (You can read a thoughtful discussion on the topic at Yale, here.) Grade inflation is a fact—over the long and short terms—here at Loomis and elsewhere, both at the high school and university levels.
Undoubtedly earning an A grade today at Loomis is much easier than it was 30 or 40 years ago or even just five years ago. This inflation may have happened for a variety of reasons. We may be enrolling stronger students today; some alumni I meet tell me that they could not get into the school today, even though I am sure they could. Our teachers may be more effective at their craft and, therefore, our students may be more able to reach a higher standard of excellence. Our teachers may have adjusted their grades upwards in keeping with a trend that is apparent at most schools—that standards at Loomis and elsewhere have simply changed.
I suspect that all three possible reasons help to explain the trend. Competition to get into Loomis is intense—our applications have increased by 55 percent over the past five years alone—and certainly faculty today spend a considerable amount of time thinking about what they are teaching and how best to assess whether their students have absorbed the information or skills being taught. The faculty-wide conversation this year on grading encouraged just such a focus. Finally, the changing standards at Loomis absolutely reflect changing standards everywhere, and for Loomis to buck this trend to the detriment of our students makes little sense.
On a purely practical level, grade inflation compresses grades at the top end of the scale, which, in turn, makes it harder and harder to distinguish the very best students from the merely bright or hardworking and diligent students. Although the Loomis grade distribution is not restricted to the B to A range, very few students earn a D grade and the “Gentleman’s C” is, in so many ways, a thing of the past. This compression may disadvantage exceptional students, but resisting grade inflation would undoubtedly disadvantage other students, too. Grade inflation is an industry-wide problem, and the solution cannot rest on any one school. To maintain the standards for getting an A from 30 years ago would not be fair to today’s Loomis students, when all of our peer schools have moved to an easier standard. An A grade at Loomis must be roughly equivalent to an A grade at, say, Deerfield, Hotchkiss, or Choate.
As I noted a few weeks ago, the primary purpose of grades is to provide a form of feedback to the student, preferably coupled with a commentary of what they can improve, but they also serve to differentiate among students both internally and externally. A few years ago, Princeton University attempted to halt the gradual increase of grades, and even to encourage grade deflation, by asking faculty to restrict the number of A’s students earned in any course. While this tactic did indeed reduce grade inflation, it may also have disadvantaged Princeton students in the job market, as well as in applications to graduate programs, and now the school may be backing away from the policy.
But is the rate of increase sustainable and will it, at some point, render grades meaningless? I suppose that it could—that we could soon be giving students A grades and making ever finer distinctions between an A++ and an A--. One positive result may be more of an emphasis on teachers’ qualitative comments, which will only improve student learning. And, as for the external use of grades, colleges and universities may have to rely more on comments and teacher recommendations rather than numerical scores and GPAs to differentiate among their applicants. In that sense, the problem will take care of itself.