When A is for Average: the High Cost of Grade Inflation

Excerpts from https://www.applerouth.com/blog/2013/10/23/when-a-is-for-average-the-high-cost-of-grade-inflation/ (no original content)

If everyone likes it, what’s the harm in grade inflation?

Crowded grade distributions
As GPAs have continued to climb, grade distribution has become a serious concern. It’s getting awfully crowded at the top. In one southeastern private school with an average GPA of 92.8, a student at the 20th percentile of the class is only .2 points away from a student at the 40th percentile of the class. Because of the incredible narrowing of grade distributions, many high schools do not want to release class rank. Without class rank, colleges struggle to find meaningful distinctions between applicants.

Greater emphasis on standardized testing
When grades become less meaningful, college admissions officers must look to other tangible measures to make distinctions. Particularly at more selective institutions, standardized testing will frequently assume greater importance in the admissions process. According to Bill Shane, former dean of admissions at Bowdoin, Vanderbilt and Macalester, this “will penalize the student with merely ‘very good’ testing who might actually be one of the very top academic achievers.”

Seemingly arbitrary admissions decisions
Facing so many students with similar academic profiles, admissions officers will make decisions that seem increasingly arbitrary. In this context, admissions outcomes become harder and harder to predict, a challenge for college counselors, parents and students alike.

Top students getting lost in the mix
Shane is particularly concerned with the impact of rising grade inflation upon the strongest students. “It is not uncommon these days to see more than 10% of the graduating class with the highest average possible. It defies credibility to say all these students have the same level of academic ability.” The strongest students have the most to lose.

Penalizing schools that do not grade inflate
According to Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT, the schools that do not inflate their students’ GPAs will suffer the most in the admissions process. Needing to process more applications than at any time in history, admissions officers no longer have the time to fully differentiate the grading cultures between different high schools. Unless admissions officers understand the nuances of grading norms at each school, students from more challenging grading cultures will be penalized.

Benefits of tougher grading

Another casualty in a culture of easy A’s is the opportunity for students to develop resiliency and grit. According to researchers like Carol Dweck, grit may be the single most important attribute students need to succeed in the adult world. Dealing with a low grade can be a profound learning experience for a student. In my academic life, the single most important grade I ever received came in 8th grade, when Stan Gillespie gave me a 63 on my first English paper. I did not challenge the 63 or look to my parents for a lifeline. I read his critique of my grammatical and stylistic errors and understood that if I wanted an A in his class, I was going to have to earn it. I accepted his challenge and got to work. After 26 years in academia, I can state clearly that no teacher in my life has done more to improve my writing than Mr. Gillespie.


Published by


I am a rhetorical scholar, public speaker, and teacher at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I study speech and contemporary U.S. political culture and teach courses in public speaking, interpersonal and visual communication, speech and media, and rhetorical theory and criticism. I have been featured on RabbitBox Storytelling and TEDx.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s