A Grade of 80%: The New “Fail”

Sep. 18, 2016

Prof. Zipora Libman is the President of the Kibbutzim College of Education, Tel Aviv, Israel. Her research interests center on assessment and research methodology in education.

Current studies indicate that the requirements of academia in recent years have been low and that students today devote significantly less time to learning than in the past. The problem, however, is that despite their continuously declining investment, student pressure to receive high grades continues to rise. In other words, the name of the game today appears to be high grades at sale prices, making 80% the new “fail.”
This disconcerting phenomenon, known as “grade inflation,” can be defined as an upward shift in grades without a demonstrated increase in the knowledge-based performance of students.

What are the results of grade inflation, and why is it so dangerous?

First of all, by rewarding students in the absence of significant effort on their part, higher education is in effect betraying its own fundamental principles, causing concrete damage not only to the level of education of the students but also to the reputation of academia as a whole.

Grade inflation inspires a culture of mediocrity, superficiality, and even manipulativeness, as everyone quickly learns the easiest ways to get high grades which, unfortunately, have nothing to do with in-depth learning.
This trend is also detrimental to the student’s sense of self. When almost everyone receives high grades with minimum effort the result is a disruption of the student’s realistic self-image, which we can think of as “ego inflation” – that is, students’ belief that they are naturally excellent students without having to do hard work. From an educational perspective, this is a particularly troubling message, as only when these “excellent” students venture forth into the real world will they learn that they were mistaken and that they actually possess no valuable assets.

What are the causes of grade inflation?

The first cause of grade inflation is the application of a business ethos to the management of education systems. Education systems have adopted market principles. Just as the success of business corporations are assessed according to the profits they earn for their stockholders, educational institutions are also assessed according to their ability to generate achievements. This approach reflects the consumer strategy of trying to get the most for your money, with students seeking a valuable return – that is, a high grade – in exchange for minimal investment.

The second group of explanatory factors focuses on the changes that have stemmed from the massive increase in the number of students and the opening up of the gates of academia to diverse populations. This measure was not a planned cynical process aimed at bringing about a decline in standards but rather an effort to extend access to worthwhile higher education to a large portion of the public, to enrich human capital, and to effect a gradual change in perspective and adoption of the liberal rationale that justifies the phenomenon.

The issues discussed above must be considered in conjunction with the point of view of university lecturers and professors. In light of the heavy load they bear and the immense pressure to devote time and effort to their own research and personal advancement to which they are subject, most college and university lecturers and professors prefer to invest less in teaching and to compensate students by awarding them high grades.

Instructors are subject to institutional and individual pressure to compromise on acceptable academic levels and to favor the lowering of requirements in order to attract students to take their courses.
It is also important to highlight the direct impact of grade inflation on the motivation of lecturers and professors. Instructors who experience only student pressure to ease requirements, and innumerable compromises in exchange for awarding good grades, ultimately get used to it.

What’s the solution?

Without a doubt, the first step in contending with the problem is raising the awareness that a problem exists. Understanding the causes and effects of grade inflation requires, first and foremost, education professionals to conduct a discussion on the organizational level regarding evaluation within their respective institutions. In-depth discussion regarding the institution’s expectations of their students, and the meaning of the grades awarded by different instructors, can be helpful in making decisions regarding policy changes.

A decision to introduce fundamental change to the manner in which grades are awarded within academia also requires the study of and specialization in the advantages and disadvantages of different means of evaluation. There are also methods of calibration and standardization that can address the problem in the short term, such as the enforcement of a mandatory grading curve to be used by all instructors and a decision to award the grade “excellent” to no more than 2% of the student population.

The professional level of evaluation is of particular importance in colleges of education due to the key impact of personal example in such institutions. Every lecturer in a college of education is a model for emulation for the teachers of the future and plays a role in shaping the character of the adult student and his or her identity as a teacher. For this reason, colleges of education must provide a good example of quality teaching and proper professional evaluation.

Updated: Sep. 18, 2016