Occurrence and Frequency

Grade inflation is the increase in the number of high grades over time. Grade inflation is often conflated with lax academic standards. For example, the following quote about lax standards from a Harvard University report in 1894 has been used to claim that grade inflation has been a longstanding issue: "Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily ... insincere students gain passable grades by sham work." Issues of standards in American education have been longstanding. However, rising grades did not become a major issue in American education until the 1960s.

The evidence for grade inflation in the US was sparse, largely anecdotal and sometimes contradictory until recently. Hard data were not abundant. A Stanford University report in the 1990s showed that grades had been rising since the 1960s; in an effort to stem grade inflation, Stanford changed its grading practices slightly. National surveys in the 1990s generally showed rising grades at American colleges and universities, but a survey of college transcripts by a senior research analyst in the US Department of Education found that grades declined slightly in the 1970s and 1980s. Data for American high schools were lacking.

However, recent data leave little doubt that grades are rising at American colleges, universities and high schools. Leaders from number of institutions, including Harvard University and Princeton University, have publicly stated that grades have been rising and have made efforts to change grading practices. An evaluation of grading practices in US colleges and universities written in 2003, shows that since the 1960s, grades in the US have risen at a rate of 0.15 per decade on a 4.0 scale. The study included over 80 institutions with a combined enrollment of over 1,000,000 students. An annual national survey of college freshmen indicates that students are studying less in high school, yet an increasing number report high school grades of A- or better.

The debate on grade inflation has moved from assessment to causes. Are grades rising because standards are being lowered or because students are producing better work?