Why Grade Inflation Is Inevitable—and What We Should Do About It

Recently, at the Toyota service center where I had gotten my car repaired, an employee said that I would be getting a survey via email asking me to assess the quality of service I received. “Anything less than five is terrible,” he told me. “It’s basically, like, you’re on your way to being fired.” I looked at the picture of the man’s wife and young kids and assured him that I would give a five.

A few weeks later, after watching an online yoga class on my computer, a window popped up asking me to rate the quality of the class, out of five possible stars. Not wanting to penalize the instructor, I rated the class a five. Was it truly a five, an “excellent class”? I didn’t care; I just didn’t want anyone getting reprimanded or fired on my account.

We have become a culture of assessment, whereby everything we do—from Lyft rides to dentist visits—is judged and rated. Ostensibly, this represents progress, if one believes that assessments lead to better service and more transparency about bad service. However, are these assessments even valid? I wonder if others out there are like me, reluctant to give any rating below five because it could act as a type of punishment.

This assessment mentality has permeated our culture, and I think it explains why most students believe they deserve an A in their classes. I’m kind of old, so when I was in school, a grade of A was reserved for true excellence. It was rare, a privilege for students who were both hardworking and talented. Today, anything less an A is seen as a black mark. It means you didn’t measure up in some way. Students in the current age don’t see a B as a good grade, “above average.” No, a B is a type of failure, a deduction of points from the 5-star scale. This is why it’s hard to ask students to grade themselves, even though we should be moving toward student-generated assessment. How can we truly ask students to give themselves a grade that they see as a penalty?

One might argue that the solution to grade inflation is to re-educate students about the true meaning of the letters on our A-F letter grade scale. I suppose that over time, we could drill it into our students, the idea that an A is reserved for superior work and a B is a “good grade.”

This seems to me to be a sad waste of time and effort. In fact, I would argue that the massive amount of energy our society spends on star- or point-based rating is poorly spent. When I think back to my online yoga class, a brief line of narrative feedback would have been far more useful to the company. I could have said, “The class was excellent, but the instructor could have cued the poses better.” That way, the instructor would get some useful feedback without a penalty. I suppose I could offer that feedback along with the star rating, but when a numerical evaluation is used, we often ignore the narrative feedback and mainly consider the numbers. I can’t tell you how many students told me that they never read the narrative feedback on their essays; instead, they just looked at the grade. However, when I started returning essays with no grade, only narrative feedback, my students did read the feedback and in fact were eager for it.

What’s the solution to grade inflation? I believe the only real solution is to get rid of grades themselves in favor of narrative feedback. If we really want our assessments to help our students grow, we cannot make our assessments into penalties. Grades and other point-based assessments are considered as penalties to our students, despite our wishes otherwise. Such assessments create anxiety, fear, competition, and comparison—the very conditions that are hostile to learning. Narrative feedback has fallen out of favor in recent years because it cannot be compiled as “data.” That’s a bad reason not to use it. Honest comments from a teacher to a student, and from a student to a teacher—this is the simple heart of how we grow as learners. Let’s throw the other stuff out.

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