As cultural issues and free-speech battles dominate headlines, another fundamental problem infects America’s schools: the watering down of academic standards. During the pandemic, grade inflation ballooned in both K–12 and higher education. Even after students returned to in-person learning, lenient grading persisted.
Recently, the New York Times reported that 79 percent of grades given at Yale are As. Yale is no outlier. Earlier findings out of Harvard similarly showed that in the 2020–21 academic year, 79 percent of grades awarded were in the A range.
At the K–12 level, things are even laxer. Last year, ACT documented a growing divergence between high school students’ grades and their performance on the college-readiness exam. Kids’ grades held steady, even as their results on the test cratered.
Student-level data from North Carolina last year suggest that this kind of divergence isn’t confined to the ACT. Researchers Tom Swiderski and Sarah Crittenden Fuller compared student performance on the Tar Heel State’s “end-of-course” math exam with math-course grades. Before the pandemic, “the percentage of students who earned an A or B in math was the same as the proficiency rate (54%). However . . . by 2021–22, the proficiency rate had fallen by 11 percentage points (to 43%) while the percentage of students earning As or Bs [in their math courses] had fallen by just 3 points (to 51%).”
How did we get here? Forty years ago, the federal government’s A Nation at Risk report sounded the alarm on the growing mediocrity in America’s schools. Books like The Shopping Mall High School and even comic classics like Fast Times at Ridgemont High showed that many teachers and students were striking bargains that degraded the high school diploma. So long as students showed up and didn’t cause major problems, teachers would help them graduate, even if they failed to achieve in rigorous courses.
In the decades that followed, politicians in both parties sought to restore rigor to the high school diploma. Many states toughened academic standards and course requirements. A bipartisan group of education leaders—from liberal union leader Al Shanker to Ronald Reagan’s conservative education secretary Bill Bennett—supported an agenda to make schools more accountable for results. But during the 2010s, after some conservatives formed an unusual alliance with teachers’ unions to repeal No Child Left Behind, many states and localities used their newfound autonomy under the Every Student Succeeds Act to weaken the old standards-based reforms. Then the Covid pandemic created a perfect opening for anti-testing advocates to push for a permanent end to high-stakes testing. Many postsecondary institutions followed suit by eliminating standardized tests in college and graduate-school admissions.
It’s important to understand that the causes behind grade inflation in K–12 and in postsecondary institutions are distinct. Research shows that grade inflation helped boost college graduation rates. This may seem like an unambiguous positive to some, but others highlight the problematic tradeoffs involved. “Grad school seats, jobs at top firms are still scarce,” explains Ohio State professor Vlad Kogan. “When all grades are the same, hiring and admission criteria will change—and probably hurt [the] disadvantaged.”
Policymakers need to fix these incentives—not easy to do in the university realm, where the tenured professoriate and administrators resist accountability reforms. Such reforms are especially urgent given tuition-dependent colleges’ incentives to maintain enrollments and churn out more graduates. This dynamic will only worsen as colleges compete over a smaller applicant pool, resulting from demographic changes and a projected decline in demand for degrees.
At the individual level, professors have perverse inducements to dole out undeserved As and avoid failing students, no matter how little those students do. Instructors on the “tenure track” often need good student reviews to get promoted, and research shows that student evaluations are driven largely by the ease of getting an A.
These troublesome incentives are another reason why colleges and graduate schools must maintain some objective (test-based) measures in admissions. Recall Kogan’s concern about diminishing equality of opportunity. When employers and graduate schools have access only to inflated grades, they will inevitably rely on holistic factors like essays, extracurriculars, and social and family networks—factors more easily gamed and more accessible to wealthy students. In addition to maintaining testing requirements, universities should also reform faculty-evaluation procedures so that excellent but “tough” instructors don’t get penalized for setting high expectations for students. Making course evaluations such a significant part of faculty performance assessments has encouraged instructors to grade softly.
At the K–12 level, the problem is less about incentives and more about a lack of information. As pandemic learning loss persists and chronic absenteeism shows no sign of slowing down, many parents are unaware that their children are behind the learning curve. Though the problem is nuanced, grade inflation is at least partly responsible for leaving parents in the dark. An October Gallup poll found that nearly 90 percent of parents believed their child was performing at grade level in reading and math, which makes sense when you consider that these same parents (79 percent) received report cards showing their kids were earning Bs or better in those subjects. State assessments indicate that proficiency is far lower, however—suggesting that grade inflation is at least partly responsible for parents’ misperceptions.
For kids, grade inflation has tangible consequences. Some research shows that it can worsen chronic absenteeism by creating the illusion that missing class has little effect on student learning—a belief belied by a recent White House Council of Economic Advisors report, which finds that “absenteeism can account for up to 27% and 45% of [students’] test score declines in math and reading.” Grade inflation also leaves standardized tests as the last objective benchmark of school performance. (Predictably, teachers’ unions are coming after those, too.) Removing objective measures of success makes it harder to gauge student performance—and harder, in turn, for parents and political leaders to demand higher standards for teachers.
With Democrats so tied politically to teacher unions, public desire for reform presents an opportunity for Republicans. While much of Bush-era conservatism has lost favor among Republican officials, the GOP should reach further back and recall the three Cs that characterized Ronald Reagan’s education agenda: character, choice, and content. In particular, returning to a focus on content will help solve grade inflation.