The myth of grade inflation is that we should design assessments not to measure criteria but to ensure some students receive higher grades, others lower grades. However, criterion-referenced* classroom assessments can not score students relative to other students, even previous years; they were not designed for that purpose. Skewing assessments to norm or rank students undermines the criterion validity and does little to inform teachers or students about how well they are working towards learning goals.
Telling children they are working toward goals, then surprising them with a competition is so obviously unfair, even children sense this instinctively. As Rick Stiggins explains, “If you want to see students rapidly become hopeless failure acceptors, just set up an environment in which they actually learn a great deal but still receive low grades. In a healthy, success-oriented classroom, if everyone succeeds, everyone receives a high grade” (297).
If the concern is that the assessment was too easy or too hard, the teacher should revisit the curriculum as a whole; then create authentic assessment that is aligned to the goals of the course and the way the instruction was presented. Assessment, instruction, and curriculum should align (Biggs). Simply making assessments harder cheats every child out of real curriculum. The all-too-common problem of an ELL placed in the wrong course with ability-inappropriate curriculum is not fixed by shaming students with bad grades, but rather modifications to curriculum as a whole.
*Note: Norm-referenced tests are the obvious exceptions. Post-secondary assessments could also present exceptions.
Biggs, J. (2012). What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(1), 39-55. doi:10.1080/07294360.2012.642839
Kohn, A. (November 2002). The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 49 (110): b7
Stiggins, R. (2005). Student-Involved Assessment for Learning. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall. Print