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Grade inflation is the increase over time of academic grades, faster than any real increase in standards.

It is frequently discussed in relation to U.S.marker education, and to GCSEs and A levels in England and Wales.

Grade inflation is an issue in Canada as well.


Grade inflation is the arbitrary assignment of higher grades for work that would have received a lower grade in the past. The higher grades do not reflect a genuine improvement in standards. It should be noted that rising grades are not necessarily the result of grade inflation. Rising grades can represent improved standards with relation to the past. Only with systematic research can it be determined whether rising grades are a result of grade inflation or a genuine improvement in standards.

The pressure to inflate grades, and thereby reduce standards, which is placed on teachers can come from parents, students, schools and politicians. This is especially true since, if other schools or teachers are inflating grades, any school or teacher that takes a "hold out" stance will place its students at a disadvantage. Some educators may feel pressured to give higher grades for fear of students complaining and receiving bad course evaluations, thereby diminishing their reputation resulting in denial of promotion or tenure, or causing them to face lower enrollment in their classes. Course evaluations produced by the students in a class are often used by committees to help them make decisions about awarding the teacher promotion and tenure. A teacher may improve evaluations by improving their teaching, but the strategy that comes most quickly to mind for achieving better evaluations is to give higher grades for assignments and exams. A comprehensive study by Valen Johnson shows a statistical correlation between high grades and high course evaluations [Grade Inflation: A Crisis in Education, Springer-Verlag, 2003]. In a separate analysis of grades at Pennsylvania State Universitymarker, the onset of grade inflation in the 1980s corresponds with the onset of mandatory course evaluations.

Possible problems associated with grade inflation

  • Grade inflation makes it more difficult to identify the truly exceptional students, as more students come to get the highest possible grade.
  • Grade inflation is not uniform between schools. This places students in more stringently graded schools and departments at an inequitable disadvantage.
  • Grade inflation is not uniform among disciplines.

Princeton Universitymarker took a rare stance against grade inflation in 2004, and publicly announced a policy designed to curb it. The policy states that A's should account for less than 35 percent of the grades for undergraduate courses and less than 55 percent of grades for junior and senior independent work. The standard by which the grading record of each department or program is evaluated is the percentage of A's given over the previous three years.

Arguments against taking action on grade inflation:

  • Higher grades at some schools may reflect better performance than others (although with no national standard, there can be no way to compare one school to another by grades).
  • Although grade inflation doesn't evenly distribute through departments, it is arguable, due to the subjective nature of grades, that interdepartmental grading practices were not even in the first place (e.g. how is one supposed to determine the English equivalent of an A's worth of work in Physics?)
  • Grade inflation may motivate less productive students to keep studying whereas countries with no grade inflation may discourage students from studying by demoralizing them.
  • The US system still allows for students to thrive by offering courses with honours options as well as awarding valedictorians. Many companies in the US also look at GPA while selecting candidates.

Similarly, if one believes the purpose of a school is to better oneself and gain an understanding of the subjects, then one might not care too much if people are getting better grades than before, regardless of the cause. Indeed, it could be construed as a positive development since it might lessen the negative effects that some say grades have (see Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn).

Grade Inflation in the United States

Grade Inflation at the Post Secondary Level

Until recently, the evidence for grade inflation in the US has been sparse, largely anecdotal, and sometimes even contradictory; firm data on this issue was not abundant, nor was it easily attainable or amenable for analysis. A Stanford Universitymarker report in the 1990s showed that grades had been rising since the 1960s; in an effort to stem grade inflation, Stanford changed its grading practices slightly. National surveys in the 1990s generally showed rising grades at American colleges and universities, but a survey of college transcripts by a senior research analyst in the U.S. Department of Education found that grades declined slightly in the 1970s and 1980s. Data for Americanhigh schools were lacking.

Recent data leave little doubt that grades are rising at American colleges, universities and high schools. Leaders from a number of institutions, including Harvard Universitymarker and Princeton Universitymarker, have publicly stated that grades have been rising and have made efforts to change grading practices. An evaluation of grading practices in US colleges and universities written in 2003, shows that since the 1960s, grades in the US have risen at a rate of 0.15 per decade on a 4.0 scale. The study included over 80 institutions with a combined enrollment of over 1,000,000 students. An annual national survey of college freshmen indicates that students are studying less in high school, yet an increasing number report high school grades of A- or better.

Princeton University

In recent years, Princeton Universitymarker had earned itself a reputation for awarding some of the highest average marks among the top American universities. In an attempt to combat this grade inflation and reverse this reputation, Princeton began in the fall of 2004 to employ guidelines for grading distributions across departments. Under the new guidelines, departments have been encouraged to re-evaluate and clarify their grading policies. The administration suggests that, averaged over the course of several years in an individual department, A-range grades should constitute 35% of grades in classroom work, and 55% of grades in independent work such as Senior Theses. To date, the administration has not taken steps to strictly enforce these guidelines, instead opting to rely on departments to apply them. Since the policy's inception, A-range grades have declined significantly in Humanities departments, while remaining nearly constant in the Natural Science departments, which were typically at or near the 35% guideline already.

Success at curbing grade inflation
In 2009, it was confirmed that the policy implemented in 2004 had brought undergraduate grades under control. In 2008-09, A grades (A+, A, A-) accounted for 39.7 percent of grades in undergraduate courses across the University, the first time that A grades have fallen below 40 percent since the policy was approved. The results were a marked improvement from 2002-03, when A's accounted for a high of 47.9 percent of all grades.

Progress has varied by division, with the social sciences and natural sciences largely holding steady for the last four years. During that period, A grades have ranged from 37.1 to 37.9 percent in the social sciences and from 35.1 to 35.9 percent in the natural sciences. In the humanities and engineering, where progress has been slower, 2008-09 brought significant gains. A's accounted for 42.5 percent of grades in the humanities last year and 40.6 percent of grades in engineering, both down two percentage points compared to 2007-08. In the period from fall 2006 through spring 2009, the most recent three-year period under the new grading policy, A's accounted for 40.1 percent of grades in undergraduate courses, down from 47.0 percent in 2001-04, the three years before the faculty adopted the policy. The 2006-09 results also mark continued progress from those reported a year ago, when A's accounted for 40.4 percent of undergraduate grades in the 2005-08 period. In humanities departments, A's accounted for 44.1 percent of the grades in undergraduate courses in 2006-09, down from 55.6 percent in 2001-04. In the social sciences, there were 37.7 percent A grades in 2006-09, down from 43.3 percent in 2001-04. In the natural sciences, there were 35.6 percent A grades in 2006-09, compared to 37.2 percent in 2001-04. In engineering, the figures were 41.7 percent A's in 2006-09, down from 50.2 percent in 2001-04.

Criticism of policy that curbs grade inflation
Many argue that it places students at a disadvantage when they apply for employment after graduating at professional schools because of the comparatively lower marks on students' transcripts. The student body, for the most part, opposes this system of "grade deflation," but the administration stands by it, saying that other schools will soon follow - despite outright statements from other schools that say they have no plans to implement such policies.

Harvard University

Grade inflation is often conflated with lax academic standards. For example, the following quote about lax standards from a Harvard Universitymarker report in 1894 has been used to claim that grade inflation has been a longstanding issue: "Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily ... insincere students gain passable grades by sham work." Issues of standards in American education have been longstanding. However, rising grades did not become a major issue in American education until the 1960s. For example, in 1890 Harvard's average GPA was 2.27. In 1950, its average GPA was 2.55. By 2004 its GPA, as a result of dramatic rises in the 1960s and gradual rises since, had risen to 3.48 .

Professor Harvey Mansfield gives two grades to students at Harvard, an official inflated grade, and an unofficial grade that he feels a student deserves.

The University of Alabama

The University of Alabamamarker has been cited as a particularly egregious case in point. In 2003, Robert Witt, president of the university, responded to criticism that his administration encouraged grade inflation on campus by shutting down access to the records of the Office of Institutional Research, which until that year had made grade distribution data freely available. The Alabama Scholars Organization, and its newspaper, the "Alabama Observer," had been instrumental in exposing the problem and recommending that the Witt administration adopt public accountability measures. The paper had revealed that several departments awarded more than 50% A's in introductory courses, and that one department, Women's Studies, handed out 90% A's (the vast majority of those A+.) The problem had grown consistently worse during the period examined, from 1973 to 2003.

Witt responded to the report on grade inflation by taking steps to censor independent faculty publications on the campus of the University of Alabama, including "Alabama Academe," the newspaper of the Alabama chapter of the AAUP. The Academe had been distributed on campus for more than thirty years. The "Alabama Observer," the publication of the Alabama Scholars Association, was also banned, and strict rules adopted to ensure that criticism of the Witt administration would not reach the public.

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeleymarker has a reputation for rigorous grading policies in some science and engineering classes. Departmental guidelines state that no more than 17% of the students in any given class may be awarded A grades, and that the class GPA should be in the range of 2.7 to 2.9 out of a maximum of 4.0 grade points. Other departments, however, are not adhering to such strict guidelines, as data from the University's Office of Student Research indicates that the average overall undergraduate GPA is about 3.25.

Other post secondary institutions

Other colleges such as Washington and Lee Universitymarker, Swarthmore Collegemarker, Cornell Universitymarker, the University of Chicagomarker and Boston Universitymarker are also known for their rigorous grading practices . However, data indicate that even schools "known" for rigorous grading have experienced significant grade inflation and these claims are simply myths; for example, a study by Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke Universitymarker found that the average GPA at University of Chicago increased from 2.50 in 1965 to 3.26 in 1999, which was about the same GPA as many of its peer institutions. Washington and Lee had an average GPA of 3.27 in 2006 and Swarthmore's graduates had a mean GPA of 3.24 in 1997. "[359034]."At some schools there are concerns about different grading practices in different departments; engineering and science departments at schools such as Northwestern Universitymarker are reputed to have more rigorous standards than departments in other disciplines. To clarify the grades on its graduates' transcripts, Reed Collegemarker includes a card, the current edition of which reports that "[t]he average GPA for all students in 2005–06 was 3.1 on a 4.0 scale. This figure has scarcely changed in the past 22 years. Reed has experienced little or no grade inflation. During that period, only five students have graduated from Reed with perfect 4.0 grade averages."

Grade inflation at the elementary/junior/senior level

Pittsburgh School District

A January 7, 2009 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette used the term "grade inflation" to describe how some people viewed a grading policy in the Pittsburghmarker public school district. According to the article, the policy sets 50% as the minimum score that a student can get on any given school assignment. The article also stated that some students said they would rather get a score of 50% than do the school work.A March 2, 2009 follow-up article in the same newspaper said that the policy had been amended so that students who refuse to do the work will receive a grade of zero, and that the minimum grade of 50% will only apply to students who make a "good-faith effort." A March 3, 2009 article in the same newspaper quoted Bill Hileman, a Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers staff representative, as saying, "The No. 1 problem with the 50 percent minimum was the negative impact on student behavior." The same article also said that the school district was planning to adopt a new grading scale in at least two schools by the end of the month. The article stated that under the original grading scale, the minimum scores required to earn an A, B, C, D, or E, were, respectively, 90%, 80%, 70%, 60%, and 0%. Under the new grading scale, the minimum scores required to earn an A, B, C, D, or E would be changed, respecticely, to 80%, 60%, 40%, 20%, and 0%.

Grade inflation in Canada

Grade inflation at the secondary school level


James Côté and Anton L. Allahar [359035], both professors of sociology at the University of Western Ontariomarker conducted a rigorous empirical study of grade inflation in Canada, particularly of the province of Ontariomarker. Up until the 1960’s, grading in Ontario had been borne out of the British system, in which no more than 5% of students were given As, and 30% given Bs. In the 1960s, average performers in Ontario were C-students, while A-students were considered exceptional. As of 2007, 90 per cent of Ontario students have a B average or above. In Ontario, high school grades began to rise with the abolition of province-wide standardized exams in 1967.

The abolition of province-wide exams meant that student marks were entirely assigned by individual teachers. In 1983, 38% of students registering in universities had an average that was higher than 80%. By 1992, this figure was 44%. According to the Council of Ontario Universities, 52.6 % of high school graduates applying to Ontario universities in 1995 had an A average. In 2004, this figure had risen 61%. In 1995, 9.4 percent of high school graduates reported an A+ average. In 2003, this figure had risen to a high of 14.9%. The average grade of university applicants was 80% in 1997, and this percentage has steadily increased each year since.

In 2004, Quebec's McGill Universitymarker admitted that students from Ontario were given a higher cutoff grade than students from other provinces, because of concerns about grade inflation originating from the fact that Ontario does not have standardized provincial testing as a key component of high school graduation requirements.

Atlantic Canada

In 2007, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies released a report detailing the problem of grade inflation in Atlantic Canada. [359036] Mathematics scores in New Brunswick francophone high schools indicate that teacher-assigned marks are inflated in relation to marks achieved on provincial exams. It was found that the average school marks and the average provincial exam were discordant. When looking at marks for school years 2001-2002 to 2003-2004, it was found that school marks in all 21 high schools were higher than the provincial exam marks. The provincial average for school marks is 73.7 % while the average for provincial exams marks is 60.1 % over the three years. School marks in all 21 high schools were higher than the provincial exam marks.

In the context of provincial exams and teacher assigned grades, grade inflation is defined as the difference between the teacher-assigned marks and the results on a provincial exam for that particular course. It was found that higher grade inflation points to lower provincial exam results. Of the 21 high schools, École Marie-Gaëtane had the highest grade inflation, at 24.7 %. With a provincial exam average of 52.3 % this school is also the least achieving school in the province. In contrast, schools Polyvalente Louis-J-Robichaud, Polyvalent Mathieu-Martin, École Grande-Rivière and Polyvalente Roland-Pépin had the lowest grade inflation with values ranging from -0.7 % to 9.3 %. They were the four top performing schools on the grade 11 mathematics provincial exams. Similar results were found for Anglophone New Brunswick high schools, as well as for Newfoundland and Labrador schools. Despite the high marks assigned by teachers, Atlantic Canadian high school students have consistently ranked poorly in pan Canadian and international assessments.

British Columbia

In 2008, in British Columbia, the University of Victoriamarker (UVic) andThe University of British Columbiamarker (UBC) reduced the number of Grade 12 provincial exams, that high school students were required to write, in order to gain admission to those universities. Prior to 2008, high school students applying to UVic and UBC were required to write 4 provincial exams, including Grade 12 English. In 2008, this standard was reduced so that students were only required to write the provincial exam for Grade 12 English. A UVic administrator claimed that the rationale for this reduction in standards is that it allows the university to better compete with central Canadian universities (i.e. Ontario and Québec universities) for students, and prevent enrollment from falling. Universities in central Canada do not require high school students to write provincial exams, and can offer early admission based on class marks alone. A Vancouver high school principal criticized the change in requirements by charging that it would become difficult to detect grade inflation. The president of the University Presidents' Council of British also criticized the move and said the provincial exams are “the great equalizer”. The British Columbia Teachers Federation supported the change because in the past some students avoided certain subjects for fear that poor marks on provincial exams would bring down their average.

In the fall 2009, Simon Fraser Universitymarker (SFU) changed its requirements so that high school students only need to pass the English 12 provincial exam. Previously, students were required to pass 4 provincial exams, including English 12, in order to apply. This change brought SFU into line with UVic and UBC. Administrators claimed that this reduction of standards was necessary so that SFU could better compete with UBC and UVic for students. The change was criticized in that it leads to “a race to the bottom.”


As of 2007, 40% of Ontario high school graduates leave with A averages – 8 times as many as would be awarded in the traditional British system. In Alberta, as of 2007, just over 20% of high school graduates leave with an A average. This discrepancy may be explained that all Alberta high school students must write province-wide standardized exams, Diploma exams, in core subjects, in order to graduate.

The Alberta Diploma exams are given in grade 12, covering core subjects such as biology, chemistry, English, math, physics and social studies. The exams are worth 50 per cent of a grade 12 student’s final mark. Quebec also requires its students to write Diploma Exams for graduating students. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have similar tests. British Columbia has a mandatory English proficiency test in grade 12, provincial tests in other subjects are optional.

Alberta’s focus on standardized exams keeps grade inflation in check, but can put Albertan high school students at a disadvantage relative to students in other provinces. However, Alberta has the highest standards in Canada, and produces students who are among the best in international comparisons. By preventing grade inflation, Albertan high schools have been able to greatly ameliorate the problem of compressing students with different abilities into the same category (i.e. inflating grades so that a student in the 98th percentile, for example, cannot be distinguished from one in the 82nd percentile).

Grade inflation at the post-secondary level

In relation to grade inflation at the university level, the research of the aforementioned Professors Côté and Allahar concluded that: “We find significant evidence of grade inflation in Canadian universities in both historical and comparative terms, as well as evidence that it is continuing beyond those levels at some universities so as to be comparable with levels found in some American universities. It is also apparent that the inflated grades at Canadian universities are now taken for granted as normal, or as non-inflated, by many people, including professors who never knew the traditional system, have forgotten it, or are in denial”.

A 2000 study of grade patterns over 20 years at seven Ontario universities (Brock, Guelph, McMaster, Ottawa, Trent, Wilfrid Laurier and Windsor) found that grade point averages rose in 11 of 12 arts and sciences courses between 1973-74 and 1993-94. In addition, it was found that a higher percentage of students received As and Bs and fewer got Cs, Ds and Fs.

University of Toronto

A 2006 study by the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium released earlier in 2007 found students at the University of Toronto Scarboroughmarker got lower marks on average than their counterparts at Carleton and Ryerson. Marking, not ability, was determined to be the reason.

University of Waterloo

In 2009, a study was conducted at the University of Waterloomarker to investigate the phenomenon of grade inflation on its campus. [359037]It was determined that grade inflation was occurring there. The study defined grade inflation as: “An increase in grades in one or more academic departments over time”.

From 1988/89 to 2006/07 it was determined that there had been an 11.02% increase in undergraduate A grades, with the rate of increase being 0.656% per year.In 100 level Math for the year 2006/07, the grade distribution of 11,042 assigned grades was: 31.9% A, 22.0% B, 18%C, 16.3% D, 11.8% F. In 400 level Fine Arts courses for 2006/07, the distribution of 50 assigned grades was: 100% A.In relation to increased scores in first-year mathematics, there was no evidence of better preparedness of UW students. A possible source of grade inflation may have been pressure from administrators to raise grades. A case was documented in which a math dean adjusted grades without the consent or authorization of the instructor.

When comparing the 1988-1993 school years with that of the years from 2002-2007, it was discovered that the percentage of As assigned in 400 levels in the Faculty of Arts had risen as follows for every department (first figure is percentage of As for 1988-1993 years, second is percentage of As for 2002-2007 years): Music 65%/93%, Fine Art 51%/84%, Psychology 85%/81%, Sociology 54%/73%, History 66%/71%, Philosophy 63%/69%, Anthropology 63%/68%, Drama 39%/63%, Political Science 46%/57%, English 43%/57%, French 39%/56%, Economics 36%/51%, Business 28%/47%.

Grade inflation in Britain

Grade inflation is occurring in Britain in relation the both the GCSE and A-level exams.


The GCSE pass rate of five good grades rose from 45 per cent in 1997 to 56 per cent in 2007. In 2009, it was reported that thousands of pupils got a grade C in their chemistry GCSE with a mark of only 18 per cent. The marking was revealed in a report by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Nearly 10,700 pupils took OCR's 21st century science higher-tier exam last year. Ninety-five per cent scored at least grade C, having gained only 10 marks from 55. Pupils could score an A* with only 51 per cent of the marks.

In 2009, it was reported that teenagers' maths skills are no better than 30 years ago despite soaring GCSE passes. Rising scores owe more to grade inflation and 'teaching to the test' than real gains in mathematical understanding, it suggests. Youngsters aged 11 to 14 achieved similar results in a standard maths test to youngsters who were set the same questions in 1976.In the early 1980s, just 22 per cent of pupils obtained at least a grade C in maths at O-level. In 2008, 56 per cent gained a C in maths at GCSE. In 2009, it was 57 per cent.

In response grade inflation, a number of leading schools are migrating to tougher exams, such as the International GCSE, or the International Baccalaureate, middle years programme.


As of 2009, the pass rate for A-levels rose for the 27th year running, and was 97.5%, up from 68.2% in 1982. The share of A-grades rose by 0.8 percentage points in 2009 compared to 2008, and stood at 26.7%. As of 2009, an eighth of all candidates scored three A grades, as opposed to a single A in 1982. As of 2009, if the current rate of grade increase continues, within nine years no one sitting an A-level will actually fail the exam, while over the same period the number of A grades will rise to more than a third of all entries (it is already over a quarter). These are the effects of grade inflation that has become endemic in public examinations. A study by Durham University last year concluded that an A grade in 2009 is the equivalent of a C grade in the 1980s. This trend goes hand in hand with the "all must have prizes" ethos that has dominated education in this country for decades, to the detriment of academic excellence.

An educationalist at Buckingham University, thinks grades inflate when examiners check scripts that lie on boundaries between grades. Every year some are pushed up but virtually none down, resulting in a subtle year-on-year shift.

In 2008, Imperial Collegemarker announced that as early as 2010, the college will require applicants to write entrance exams. The college claims that grade inflation has left A-level exam results "almost worthless". The rector of the college said that so many students now achieve three, four or five grade As at A-level it was impossible for tutors for identify true high-fliers. A test covering all courses apart from medicine would be introduced as early as 2010.

See also


  1. Levine and Cureton, 1998; Kuh and Hu, 1999
  2. Archives: The New York Times Article Archive: 1851-1980
  5. ("Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard")
  6. Lewis, 2006
  9. UC Berkeley Undergraduate Fact Sheet – Fall 2004
  10. Freedman, Samuel. Can Tough Grades Be Fair Grades? The New York Times, June 6 2006.
  11. Meredith Meyer, " GPAs get a .76 boost from grade inflation." Chicago Maroon, January 18, 2005
  12. Officials defend grade policy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 7, 2009
  13. City schools amend '50 percent' grade policy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 2, 2009
  14. City schools flunk weighted grade system, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 3, 2009
  15. Ivory Tower Blues
  16. Making the grade, Michael Wood, September 19, 2008
  17. When is an "A" not quite an "A"? University of Waterloo newmedia Journalism, Catherine Tylee
  18. Are we setting up students to fail? Maclean’s, Robert Laurie, June 05, 2007
  19. Universities prepare to lower standards,Vancouver Sun, CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.
  20. Provincial exams no longer required entrance into SFU, Shara Lee, 2008. The Peak Publications Society
  21. [ Tables Expose Truth of Grade inflation, Telegraph, Jan. 12, 2007
  22. GCSE where 18% was enough to get grade C, Tim Ross, London Evening Standard 06.02.09
  23. The test that PROVES maths skills are standing still after thirty years, Laura Black, Dailymail online, Sept. 5th, 2009
  24. Independent schools top GCSE tables, August 28th, 2009
  25. Dumbing down, The economist, Aug.29th, 2009
  26. A-level results: grade inflation is just a cruel confidence trick, Telegraph, August 20th, 2009
  27. A levels are 'worthless', Laura Clark, June 4th, 2008

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