On Grade Inflation and Accountability for Student Learning

There is a lot of fuss about grade inflation at colleges and universities, but are we correctly identifying the problem or just a symptom?  I think that the real question we should be asking ourselves as educators is: What is the best way to measure and assess student learning?

Stanley tape measure

So what is grade inflation, exactly?  Hu (2005) defines grade inflation as “the increase of grades over a specified period of time with higher grades being awarded for the same quality of work” (p. 15). Faculty members, who may be under pressure to demonstrate effective teaching in part through successful students or in an effort to boost student evaluations of their teaching, have incentives for inflating grades.  The implications of grade inflation are that faculty members are assigning higher grades to students with less regard to their differing levels of performance. This may lead to grade compression, or a lessening of differentiation in assessing students’ abilities (Hu, 2005).

A hidden assumption under all of this, however, is that grades are a measure of student learning and ability. I question if these measures remain useful indicators of student learning (or if they ever were).  In 2006, The Spellings Commission Report called upon colleges and universities to develop more defined and meaningful measures of student learning. Specifically, it stated that faculty and institutions should define “educational objectives for students and [develop] meaningful, evidence-based measures of their progress toward those goals” (US Department of Education, 2006, p. 24). The report also suggested the use of standardized instruments for assessing student learning such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress (US Department of Education, 2006).

Again, the question remains, what are we measuring and how can we measure it?  There have been numerous attempts to answer this question through standardized tests, degree competencies, and alternative certification systems (such as badges), but no one has gained significant momentum or currency.  What does student learning certification look like in the digital age?


Hu, S. (2005). Reframing the college grading problem. Beyond Grade Inflation (ASHE Higher Education Report, Vol. 30, No. 6). New York, NY: Wiley Publications.

US Department of Education. (2006). Test of leadership: Charting the future of U.S. Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/final-report.pdf

Image Credit: William Warby