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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Grade inflation is troublesome

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:02am

There is a brilliant moment in the brilliant Pixar movie “The Incredibles” in which the villain, Syndrome, talks about how the weapons he concocted have given him powers equal to that of any superhero.

“And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers,” he says. “Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super … no one will be.”

That might sound familiar; I wrote those words in a column a decade ago. The point then was that Americans had managed to institutionalize mediocrity; and the point now is that such mediocrity has not only taken root but has covered our society like so much kudzu.

At least, that was the thought with the latest report about American education. A story from The Seattle Times that was published at Columbian.com under the headline “Grade inflation is hurting Washington students” details how everyone is super in today’s academia. Which, of course, means that no one is.

According to researchers, schoolwork that in the past would have earned a B or a C grade is now worthy of an A. The change has been years in the making, and it has been exacerbated in the wake of the pandemic.

This is nothing new, of course. Nor is it limited to Washington, or to high schools.

A decade ago, a college professor penned a column for Huffington Post under the headline “Grading Time: I Give Up, You’re All Exceptional.” As Rebecca Schuman wrote at the time: “The ugly truth is that to get below a B+ in my class, you have to be a total screw-up. If I graded truly fairly — as in, a C means actual average work — the ‘customers’ would do their level best to ruin my life.”

The result? According to a survey conducted by The Harvard Crimson, 91 percent of the university’s 2022 graduates reported having a grade-point average of 3.5 or better. The other 9 percent, apparently, just weren’t special.

Getting into Harvard and managing to graduate does, indeed, require some exceptionalism. But for the rest of us, the grade-inflation pandemic is troublesome. While scores on standardized tests for high school students remain below pre-COVID numbers, the educational system too often is content to pat students on the head and say, “You’re doing fine.”

Probably more important, parents have come to expect that. A survey from Gallup and Learning Heroes last year revealed that 90 percent of parents believe their children are at or above grade level in academic attainment.

As Cindi Williams, co-founder of Learning Heroes, wrote for FoxNews.com: “In contrast, the actual percentage of students working at grade level … is about 50 percent at best. This ‘awareness gap’ between parent perception and student performance is a massive problem.”

Indeed, it is. And it is not limited to education. Driven by an everybody-gets-a-trophy ethos, we have devolved into a society that celebrates mediocrity at the expense of true excellence. We have become a society in which far too many parents think a “My child made the honor roll” bumper sticker is a point of pride.

According to research at the University of Google, the nadir of this trend appears to have been in 2014 in Dublin, Ohio. That is where one high school proffered the honor of valedictorian to 72 students. They all were uniquely special, we can be assured.

As Schuman, the self-professed grade-inflator, wrote years ago: “There’s no real solution here, short of a standardized, universal, scorched-Earth approach that brings back the curve — a real curve, where the average grade really is a C.”

The need for this is clear. As Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington told The Seattle Times: “I would want school systems to hopefully do more to use grades to make clear how much kids actually know. Because that really does forecast a lot about their post-K-12 likelihood of being successful in college or the workforce.”

And that is where they might find out how special they truly are.