Grade inflation

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Definition

Grade inflation refers to a phenomenon (real or perceived) where higher grades become easier to attain over time. There are two ways of thinking about grade inflation.

Grade inflation from a norm-referenced perspective

In the norm-referenced assessment sense, grade inflation refers to a phenomenon where the proportion of students receiving grades at or above a certain level increases with time (another way of putting this is that the grade distribution undergoes a first-order stochastic improvement). In particular, the mean and median grade increase with time.

Grade inflation from a criterion-referenced perspective

In the criterion-referenced assessment sense, grade inflation refers to a phenomenon where the absolute competency level needed to acquire a particular grade in a particular course (that allegedly teaches and tests for the same competency level) declines over time.

Comparison of the two kinds of grade inflation

Assuming that there is no change over time in the extent to which students acquire competency in the course, grade inflation from a norm-referenced perspective is equivalent to grade inflation from a criterion-referenced perspective. However:

  • If the competency acquired by students increases over time (i.e., later cohorts of students acquire more competency than earlier cohorts of students) then it is possible to have grade inflation from a norm-referenced perspective without having grade inflation from a criterion-referenced perspective. At any rate, the extent of grade inflation from a norm-referenced perspective would be greater than the extent of grade inflation from a criterion-referenced perspective.
  • If the competency acquired by students declines over time (i.e., later cohorts of students acquire less competency than earlier cohorts of students) then it is possible to have grade inflation from a criterion-referenced perspective without having grade inflation from a norm-referenced perspective. At any rate, the extent of grade inflation from a criterion-referenced perspective would be greater than the extent of grade inflation from a norm-referenced perspective.