Is grade inflation just a bunch of hot air?

I suspect that almost everyone has heard the “it was better in the good ol’ days” claim …if we haven’t even used it ourselves from time to time.  I would suggest that we have an academic version of this claim at Augustana.  The claim argues that there has been substantial grade inflation over the past several decades.   Apparently, this claim has carried some weight over the years, because we have created multiple mechanisms to prevent grade inflation – or at least stem the tide.

Luckily this is a claim we can test.  But before looking at the data, let’s make sure we share an understanding of this claim.  An assertion of grade inflation boils down to two points.

1)      Grades have been creeping upward.

2)      This is because faculty have shifted expectations for performance downward.

Grade inflation doesn’t just make an observation about changes in GPA; it also attributes the change to the failure of colleagues to hold the line on academic rigor.  In the context of a small college, it’s sort of a less physically damaging version of a circular firing squad.

So, testing this claim turns into two questions.  First, have grades gone up over time? And second, can we conclusively attribute this change in GPA to faculty grading practices?

Have grades gone up over time?    


From about 1991 to the present, the average GPA of each class went up by about .15 of a grade point, whether you look at each entering cohort’s end-of-year grades from the first year to fourth year or you look at each subsequent cohort’s end-of-year grades from 1991 to the 2010.

Can we conclusively attribute this change in GPA to faculty grading practices?


First, the increase in average GPA for each cohort from first to fourth year is predominantly explained by the departure – voluntary or otherwise – of students who struggled academically.  If you slice that group off the bottom of a class at the end of each year, and you recognize the likely influence of maturity and motivation for the students who remain, we would fully expect that the average GPA of a particular cohort of students would go up over time.

Second, from 1991 until 2010 the average ACT score of our incoming students improved by a full point – from 24.5 to 25.5. Since the ACT remained constant during that period, we can test whether the increase in GPA might be explained by the increase in students’ incoming academic ability.  It turns out that this increase in average test score explains virtually all of the change in GPA over the twenty year period in question.

The Verdict:

Faculty grading behaviors may well have changed over time – maybe for worse, maybe for better.  But we have little evidence to suggest a relationship between those behaviors and an increase in overall GPA.  In addition, we have better evidence to suggest that a change in our students’ pre-college academic ability might have influenced this change in GPA.  Interestingly, if faculty grading behaviors had changed in the way that the grade inflation claim suggests, ACT scores would have likely not been as powerful a predictor as they turned out to be.

So the next time you hear someone mention the good ol’ days in the context of academic standards and grades, you might remind them that there are other – and maybe better – explanations for this phenomenon.  You might also remind them of the relative trade-offs of a circular firing squad.


Make it a good day,


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