Grade Inflation: The Real Reason Rubrics Are Unpopular

Feb 5, 2020

While I believe there are good reasons for teachers to not use rubrics when grading student work, I also believe there are bad reasons, and I suspect that many people find the bad reasons more persuasive. What are the bad reasons? Simply put, rubrics make it much harder for teachers to inflate grades, and un-inflated grades are profoundly offensive to modern sensibilities.

When a teacher does not use a rubric, he is free to put whatever percentage he likes at the top of the paper, and provided the percentage is sufficiently high, he will not really need to explain himself. Having been a teacher for fifteen years now (and having rarely used rubrics myself), I can well attest to the fact that no one ever angrily complains that a 98% has been “arbitrarily” awarded an essay. “Arbitrary” and “subjective” are not complaints prompted by arbitrary or subjective grades, but by low grades.  

In a social context wherein inflated grades are the only polite grades to give, not using a rubric means the teacher only has to flatter the student once. A teacher can read a paper and say, “This work is really quite good. I am going to award this essay a 92%,” even when he knows in his heart that the paper is mediocre and deserves far less. If the teacher does not use a rubric, a single act of flattery allows him to place a 92% at the top of the essay.

Rubrics make grade inflation far more unsavory, though. A rubric might have 9 or 10 categories, thus requiring the teacher to make 9 or 10 separate judgments of student work. Points are awarded for neatness, clarity, brevity, arrangement, style, accuracy, and so forth. Thus, if a teacher knows that a 92% is the only polite grade he can award a certain essay, in order for a rubric to produce this percentage the teacher will have to lie to the student about the quality of their work 9 or 10 times. Flattering someone 9 or 10 times in a row is far harder to stomach than flattering them just once.  

But when the quality of student work is so low that a teacher decides to award it a 50%, he will often receive complaints that the grade is “not objective,” and then come the pointed questions about why a rubric was not used. Of course, if a rubric had used, not only would that 50% be a 25%, but many of the inflated, arbitrary A’s and B’s given previously would be C’s and F’s. When a rubric produces a low grade, the conversation shifts away from questions of objectivity and subjectivity, and back to the standard reasons teachers are asked to raise grades: college transcripts, hurt feelings, a longstanding history of better grades, and hard work.  

My own children are lucky enough to attend a good school wherein grades are not given during the elementary years, but I have already begun speaking with the secondary principal about the possibility of my children not being given grades once they hit high school either. I would like to tell their high school teachers, “I want no percentages or letter grades at the top of their work. You are free to write whatever you like in your gradebook so far as my daughters are concerned, but only if you must. I will not inquire about these grades and if I find out someday after they have graduated that they got nothing but F’s, I swear to you that I will not complain a word. If this seems an unlikely promise, I would even be content for us to agree right now that they will receive nothing but F’s.” But this is nothing other than my confidence in the school they attend, my confidence in their teachers, in old books, in the beauty of mathematics, in their church, in the music they listen to and the movies they watch, and in myself and my wife.

I want my children to be competent and nothing in the world of education makes this desire more unlikely to come to fruition than inflated grades.   

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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