Grade Inflation and its Impact on Quality in Higher Education

by Dawid Wosik

Grade inflation in teaching – more precisely – in assessing student’s learning outcomes seems to be a day-to-day practice in higher education (e.g. Millet, 2010; http://gradeinflation.com/, 2013; Pressman, 2007). What kinds of grades do most of students receive? What can you see on graduates’ diplomas? Is it most often an “A” or “B”?

Considering that having inflated grades is nowadays a common practice, it’s worth reflecting what the consequences of such a situation are, as well as what sort of impact it has on quality in higher education.

There are many perspectives to take into account while analyzing possible effects of grade inflation. One of them is the student’s perspective and to which extent the grade inflation has an impact on his/her engagement in learning and gaining knowledge. There is no doubt that the engagement of a student in learning will depend on how the assessment strategy, and grades accordingly, reflect his/her actual academic performance (Asante, Al-Mahrooqi, Abrar-ul-Hassan, 2012). Will the student engage further if (s)he gets an “A” without putting too much effort to obtain it? What about the best of the best in the class? What sort of influence will it have on their morale if they receive the same grades as those who simply don’t deserve it?

The employer’s perspective indicates potential difficulties in recruiting graduates. Just imagine 100+ candidates with an “A” on their diplomas? Who is in fact the best candidate among all the applicants? An employer would be confused and would not be able to make a decision based on the overall Grade Point Average (GPA) as there is no distinction between the quality of candidates (at least in an academic sense).
The state, accordingly, recognizes the quality of the degrees with its authority and an emblem printed on the diploma. Often the quality of the degree (measured by the final grade) is not necessarily the quality which the program GPA demonstrates.

“Students should be assessed using published criteria, regulations and procedures which are applied consistently” (European Association for Quality, 2009). These criteria, regulations and procedures need to be communicated effectively among all interested parties.
What does it mean that a student gets an “A”, “B”, “C”, etc.? Does a “C” mean that the student has met basic course requirements – course learning outcomes which are defined in the course outline? Do “A” and “B” mean that a student has exceeded the course requirements?

Assessing students is one of those processes in higher education which unquestionably has a significant impact on the overall quality of a university. The lack of requirements and regulations in this matter as well as the lack of specific quality measures result in a false image of students’, and consequently, graduates’ academic ability.

What needs to be measured then and what kind of information needs to be disseminated within an implemented and maintained quality assurance system? Is there anything that needs to be taken into consideration while evaluating the performance of a teacher? Grade distribution (not necessarily having the Gaussian distribution as a standard to follow), the difference between the course work and the final exam results, common examinations (Bond, 2009) are only the examples of measuring grade consistency.

There are many practical solutions to this matter. Their efficiency will depend on a particular context which a university or a college operates in. There is no doubt though that this aspect of the learning process is critical while managing an overall academic performance. This implies, accordingly, the necessity of having implemented sufficient mechanisms to manage quality of the assessment process.

References:

[1] Asante C., Al-Mahrooqi R., Abrar-ul-Hassan S., The Effects of Three Teachers Variables on the Use of Motivational Strategies in EFL Instruction in Oman, “TESOL Arabia Perspectives”, Vol. 19, No. 1, January 2012, p. 12-22.
[2] Bond, L. (2009). The Case for Common Examination. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Retrieved January 23, 2013 from http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/perspectives/case-common-examinations.
[3] European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, 2009, 3rd edition.
[4] GradeInflation.com, Grade Inflation at American Colleges and Universities, retrieved January 23rd, 2013 from http://gradeinflation.com.
[5] Millet I., Improving Grading Consistency through Grade Lift Reporting, “Practical Assessment Research & Evaluation”, Vol. 15, No. 4, May 2010.
[6] Pressman S., The Economics of Grade Inflation, “Challenge”, vol. 50, no. 5, September/October 2007, pp. 93–102.

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