Myth-busting grade inflation

New studies reveal that straight A's at school don't necessarily translate on the job.
New studies reveal that straight A’s at school don’t necessarily translate on the job.

As the 2013 fall semester draws nearer, the great grade inflation debate shows no signs of waning, with prominent researchers from around the country split on the basic facts of the question, “Are grades going up?” The answer depends on which analyst is looking into the question.

But one prominent study has asked a different question: “If grades are going up, does it really matter?” Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding “no.”

In addition to analyzing data on college-level grades nationwide, the new study — “Is the Sky Falling? Grade Inflation and the Signaling Power of Grades” — looked at what those marks meant to the students that received them. The study found that grades are just as important to students today as they were in the ’70s — both in terms of the effort they reflect and the career advantages they create.

“The big scare behind grade inflation is that grades are losing meaning, and that one day they won’t mean anything,” says Evangaleen Pattison, the lead author of the study. “But our analysis shows that grades are just as meaningful to everyone concerned about them.”

The study looked at all the available data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics on students that graduated high school after 1972 and attended a four-year college. And, by the way, the study did not find any statistical evidence for nation-wide grade inflation, either.

“When it comes to grades, most studies look at the mean, but the mean is sensitive to how you define your population, and that causes a lot of disagreement,” says Pattison. She says researchers need to take a broader view: “If you look at the general population — not just people at select institutions — grades have actually gone down.”

Grades don’t always get the gig

Another recent study on grade inflation — “Whose Fault Is It? Assigning Blame For Grade Inflation in Higher Education” — looked exclusively at grades at the University of North Texas over a 27-year period. The researchers found that there was an approximate 4-percent inflation rate on grades during that time.

But, like Pattison, researcher R. Todd Jewell is not too concerned about the outcomes of inflated G.P.A.’s.

“I think a lot of people who look at this issue sort of miss the point: Grades are not as important as we think,” he explains. “It’s a factor in getting a job, but it’s not the main factor. Employers still have ways of knowing who is prepared for the job.”


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