Call it high-grade high school. When it comes to letter-grade earning power, high-schoolers are rich indeed. Grade inflation is real and it’s inequitable, padding the GPAs of wealthier students faster than others. Such are the findings of a Fordham Institute study that tracked grades in North Carolina public schools for over a decade. Increasingly, A is for average — and affluent. 

Are students simply smarter? Ah, if only that were true. Economist Seth Gershenson, author of Fordham’s study, found test scores can’t corroborate GPA growth. Just one in five students earning an A in Algebra scored in the top range of the Algebra End-of-Course exam. More than a third of B students were not even proficient. National assessments are similarly deflating. Scores on a trifecta of tests — SAT, ACT, and NAEP — have stagnated, notes Fordham.   

What about economic advantage? Controlling for test scores, Fordham found disproportionate grade inflation in affluent public schools. Median GPA rose from 2.73 to 3.00 between 2005 and 2016. In less-affluent schools, median GPA increased from 2.42 to 2.59.   

Grade inflation is occurring at public and private schools alike, according to College Board data analysis by Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee. In 2016, nearly half of SAT test-takers graduated with an A average, compared to 39 percent in 1998. Grade inflation in private schools grew at triple the rate of public schools. 

Will college provide a reality check? Probably not: The most common grade is an A. This marks a shift from prior generations. In the early 1960s, A’s made up 15 percent of grades, according to Fordham. 

Why care when A’s abound? Grade inflation has high and hidden costs. Undeserved good grades obscure knowledge deficits. They dilute excellence, making it tougher to target true talent. Easy A’s discourage dogged effort — the kind that precedes the hard-earned A, which, in turn, fuels a sense of personal accomplishment. The easy A is the academic equivalent of sports’ participation trophy. What’s special about a distinction that’s no longer distinctive?    

Some schools are “reinventing” high school by ditching grades entirely. Their solution: a digital Mastery Transcript that reports proficiency instead. Spearheaded by the Mastery Transcript Consortium, the movement counts 219 public and independent schools as members.     

Launching in 2019-20, the Mastery Transcript relies on three principles: no letter grades; “no required standardization of mastery credits;” and a consistent format that allows for a two-minute review by college admission officers.   

The Mastery Transcript sounds promising. It piggybacks on the growing popularity of digital portfolios that retain students’ best work year-to-year. But here’s the problem: The Mastery Transcript movement implies that grades lack value. Despite their shortcomings, high school grades remain the best predictor of college outcomes. Colleges know this. In the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s new 2018 State of College Admission report, colleges reported high school grades as the top factor in freshman admission decisions. 

Is it time to reinstitute more grading rigor? Absolutely. It’s also right to scrutinize pressures causing schools, however unwittingly, to perpetuate inequity. Ignoring this is wrong and could prompt outside corrective action. Fordham notes, anecdotally, that some colleges already “take into account” that A’s come easier in affluent schools.   

Cultural shifts warrant attention, too. Parenting, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, is increasingly a “meritocracy” in which children are praised and honed “to an unprecedented degree.”  More kids are becoming what educators call “fragile thoroughbreds,” whose sole purpose is to perform. Insulated from failure, they’re delicate, not sturdy.  

For now, all those A’s go down easy. But they delay inevitable life lessons. And those get harder.    

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.