Does England Have the Solution to the Grade-Inflation Problem?

In America, more and more universities are imposing strict grading curves or abolishing grades altogether. The UK takes an entirely different approach, and it's working.

Students in Brighton, England, receive their A-level results in August 2014.  (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

At the beginning of this school year, Princeton University changed its contentious grading policy. The university had previously limited the number of students who could receive A grades, but rescinded for a variety of reasons, including fears that the lower GPAs disadvantaged Princeton students on the job market and discouraged the top students from applying to the university in the first place.

Grading can feel like the cruelest part of the semester for teachers and students alike. And no one seems to have quite gotten it right. Commentary on grading brings to mind the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Like the porridge that is too hot or too cold or the bed that is too big or too small, grading policies are either too lenient or too harsh. Top U.S. universities have come under fire in recent years for grade inflation. A grades have been the most common grade at Harvard for 20 years, and the median grade there today is an A-. There’s even a website that has tracked grade inflation in American schools and universities over time.

On the other end of the scale, France is currently figuring out how to reform a high school system that gives out overly punitive grades. A 16 out of 20 on a baccalauréat exam is currently an exceptionally high result.

So how do we find Goldilocks’ ‘just right’ for grades? The discussion circles around disagreements about what grades actually mean and who they are for. Are grades signals to students about their mastery of content and the skills of a discipline? Are they ways for professors to establish credibility or purchase popularity? Or are grades meant to send messages to future employers, rather than to the students themselves?

One reaction to this puzzle has been to simply abolish grades altogether. At least 10 colleges in the U.S., including Bennington and Reed, don’t give students letter grades (though Reed records them at the registrar’s office). The schools say they are encouraging students to focus on the intrinsic value of learning rather than the letter they’ll earn at the end of a course.

If abolishing grades seems too much like a relic from the 1960s, there’s also the dual track system. Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, gives students two grades. One grade appears on their transcripts, and the second reflects what Mansfield believes that students actually deserved.

Other schools have taken the opposite approach, implementing a campus-wide quota system. Introduced in 2004, Wellesley’s policy mandated that the average grade in introductory and intermediate courses with over 10 students must equal a B+ or lower. The policy change only affected humanities and social science departments, as grades in science departments were already being given in keeping with those quotas. One study showed that student enrollment fell by 19 percent in courses where the cap was newly implemented. Students were also less likely to major in those subjects than they had been before.

A final suggestion draws inspiration from the country where I pursued my own undergraduate education. Why not simply have fewer grades and accept that the majority of students might receive the same mark? The United Kingdom’s system only has three classes of grades: first, second, and third (although second is split into 2:1 and 2:2). A first denotes work of outstanding quality. In 2012 to 2013, 19 percent of students graduated with a first. An overwhelming 76 percent of students received a second-class degree (51 percent earned a 2:1, 25 percent a 2:2). Only 5 percent were given a third.

The U.K. is not immune to disputes about grade inflation. But it’s telling that the most common grade by far is still a second, not a first. When employers all accept that a second-class degree already provides a stamp of quality, it removes the narcissism inherent in minor differences. There are also fewer incentives for professors to assign higher grades if students recognize that the majority of them will receive the same mark. And sticking to four grades hasn’t harmed the UK’s stellar standings in global university league tables.

This approach might be called the Goldilocks principle of grading. It suggests that students, teachers, and employers can all find their way in a system where grades are not too high and not too low, but just right. And that might mean the majority of students get exactly the same grade.