September 16, 2014

Grade Inflation: What Is It and What Can We Do?

by Brittany Lovko, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Suburban Hospital

Have you noticed that it’s getting easier to get an A in high school or college?  If you are student in (or recently graduated from) a rigorous curriculum like pharmacy, it may not have seemed so easy earning that “A”, but studies show it’s true. Grade inflation, first identified in the 1960s, is a growing problem in public and private institutions, including pharmacy schools.1 One study published in 2003 reviewed grade point averages at the University of Arkansas pharmacy school over a 20 year period and found a significant upward trend.  Grades increased by approximately 1% per year!1  From a teacher's perspective, this might be perceived as a positive sign. Shouldn't the goal be to educate students so that they’re all achieving the highest grade possible? Perhaps. But numerous studies have shown that student performance hasn’t really increased over the past 40 years based on indicators such as standardized test scores and scholastic aptitude tests.2

One might ask why grade inflation matters.  Grade inflation depreciates the value of an “A” and diminishes the meaning of a high grade point average.  How will students be able to set themselves apart if more (perhaps most) students graduate with a similarly elevated GPA? There is also some concern that grade inflation is leading to a culture of academic entitlement.3  Furthermore, graduates may have a false (inflated) sense of their knowledge and skills – and may not be able to delivery the standard of care expected in the health care today.3  So what can be done to curb this growing trend?

Normative vs. Criterion Grading4
There are two main types of grading systems – norm-referenced and criterion-referenced.  Normative grading is based on the direct comparison of a student to his/her peers. Thus, in a class of 20 students, you could decide that 5 would be assigned A's, 8 would be assigned B's, 5 would be assigned a C, and 2 students would get a D (or perhaps an F) based upon how each student's performance compared to the class average.  Normative grades are probably best suited for those courses that do not require absolute mastery of the subject matter.  Criterion-referenced grading, on the other hand, involves comparing the student's performance to a standard set by the teacher (or a standard established by some governing body).  This grading system is the most widely used.  We are all familiar with the percentage-based grading scheme where a score of 90% or above earns an “A”, an 80-89% earns a “B”, and so forth.  However, these cut points may or may not represent “mastery” of the material.  If criterion-based grading is to be used as recommended for courses that require mastery of the material, some experts recommend using a pass/fail system.4

Standardized Tests5
Another way to remedy grade inflation could be by using a well-accepted, national standard, as determined by standardized tests. The Pharmacy Curriculums Outcomes Assessment (PCOA) is a nationwide, standardized pharmacy assessment tool that can be used to measure academic progress of pharmacy students. This 220 question multiple choice test was created based upon the ACPE accreditation standards. The test is given annually to all professional students at participating institutions and the results are then reported both as a scale score and a national percentile rank.  The problem with this tool is that it still has not been widely implemented, in part due to the cost of administering the exam (which must be absorbed by the student or school).  If the PCOA were universally adopted, a new means to evaluate students could be established.   Colleges / schools of pharmacy could potentially move away from the traditional grading scheme and evaluate their pharmacy students in a more meaningful way. 

Numbers Instead of Letters4
Have you ever stopped to consider how arbitrary the traditional cut points are for each letter grade?  These cut points are not grounded in empirical data; rather, they are de facto “standards” merely because individual course instructors have repeatedly adopted them. Thus, letter grades can be misleading.  For example, two students who score only one percentage point apart in the course could end up with two different letter grades.  Some educators have recommended we stop converting these numbers into letter grades. Instead, we should report the class mean on a transcript next to the student's score to allow a more meaningful comparison.  Another normative approach would be to report each student’s class rank on his/her transcript. Both these methods would allow for students to be compared to each other.

Student Accountability for Learning3
For better or worse, the culture in which we live has put undue emphasis on the achievement of high letter grades. Thus, students will seek to achieve high grades and may pressure faculty members to reward them with high grades. This culture of academic entitlement refers to the growing anecdotal evidence that more and more students view their education as a commodity for purchase, meaning that they should be the ones in charge of dictating its path. This attitude can not only lead to grade inflation but also result in decreased faculty morale, disrespectful student behavior, and altered classroom practices. It is important that faculty members encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and professional development and not rely on educators to give them the grade they feel they “need” to succeed.

While grade inflation is certainly not an issue that can be fixed by a single teacher, or even by all teachers at a single institution, these principles are important to consider when choosing how to evaluate students.


  1. Granberry MC, Stiegler KA. Documentation and analysis of increased grade point averages at a college of pharmacy over 20 years. Am J Pharm Educ. 2003;67(3):Article 77.
  2. Rojstaczer S, Healy C. Where A is ordinary: the evolution of American college and university grading, 1940-2009. Teachers College Record. 2012;114(7):1-23.
  3. Cain J, Romanelli F, Smith KM. Academic entitlement in pharmacy education. Am J Pharm Educ. 2012;76(10):Article 189.
  4. Weil RR, Kroontje W. Grade inflation: causes and cures. J Agron Educ. 1977:29-34.
  5. Scott DM, Bennett LL, Ferrill MJ, Brown DL. Pharmacy curriculum outcomes assessment for individual student assessment and curricular evaluation. Am J Pharm Educ. 2010;74(10): Article 183.

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