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Grade grubbing: When parents cross the line

Advocating for their child, some parents lobby the teacher for good grades. Could your hard-working student's grades be nullified by her peers' grade inflation?

By Carol Lloyd

A friend who teaches English at a high performing high school in Silicon Valley recently took me out for a glass of wine to help her brainstorm a new career. This didn't make sense. After all, she adores kids and literature and seems to spend every waking moment devising new lesson plans to extract teen-friendly meaning from Robert Frost or Jane Austen. But long hours, she told me, were not why she’d begun eyeing the exit sign.

I probed for the root causes: rude kids, pushy principals, paltry pay checks?

“Actually, it’s the parents,” she confessed with a wince. Then she launched into a story about one father who recently planted himself in her classroom during one of her lesson planning periods to complain about his son’s mediocre grades.

“He just kept saying over and over: 'In our family, that’s not acceptable.' I didn’t know what to say to him. I showed him the work that his son did and I showed him my grading rubric and explained that his son was doing C work and wasn’t trying. He wouldn’t leave – he just kept saying ‘In our family a C is not acceptable.’ ”

Grade grubbing. It’s been a perennial pet peeve in the ivory tower for decades. A college student – stricken with the letter chosen to represent his work – petitions his professor during office hours. Do you know what a B minus will do to my law school admissions/honor roll/resume? Have you no mercy?

Why all children are above average

Some professors stick by their guns, refusing to budge from the original grade or warning that re-grading may result in an even lower one. But some experts suggest that over the years the culture of grade entitlement has taken its toll on standards in the form of widespread grade inflation. According to, a site begun by former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer, between 1920 and 2006, the average grade has gone from just above a 2.3 (C plus) to 3.0 (B). He believes grade inflation as a result of professors internalizing student expectations. These days, in some elite colleges, anything less than an A minus is a sign of pending academic failure.

According to teachers, grade grubbing isn’t limited to our institutions of higher learning, but occurs in high school, middle school, and even elementary school. But it’s not students wheedling for a higher grade, it's their parents. Why are parents so frantic about their children’s grades — not just in high school but when the child is still making mud pies and playing with dolls?  At a time when many high schools are regarded as less than adequate and there are fewer spots in good colleges (and fierce competition for scholarships to cover rising college costs) parents feel pressure to get their child on the right educational escalator as early as possible. It may not be just or even rational, but even grades from a child's early school years function as a tollbooth by which she gains access (or not) to honors programs, specialty schools and enrichment programs.

When push comes to shove, the child loses out

“Some parents seem to feel that even after final grades are posted, they have recourse to change them just by talking to the teacher,” says one third grade school teacher who requested anonymity. She recalls a particular case when she repeatedly talked with a mother about her daughter’s reading issues, without success. But once the girl's low grade in reading was posted, the woman went ballistic.

“[The mother] came to my room when I was alone and tried to physically intimidate me into changing her child’s grade,” the teacher recalls. “When I showed her the grade books and reminded her that I’d been trying to talk to her about her daughter not meeting grade-level standards, she took my grade book and put it in [her] bag, with me trailing behind her [as she] marched down to the principal’s office to prove me wrong. Luckily, the principal was supportive of me, but my relationship with the parent deteriorated after that. It made it very hard to work with the little girl, who was sweet, but wasn’t learning to read.”

Indeed, for many teachers the pressure to change grades is so uncomfortable that they cave in to parent demands. “A lot of teachers I’ve spoken to say it’s more trouble than it’s worth to argue with parents, so they just change the grades,” she says. “I don’t know how many of them understand that grades are up to them and they don’t need to back down -– and that most education codes and unions will back the teacher.”

Kids' grades, parents' bragging rights

Charity Preston, who teaches elementary school students in Sandusky, Ohio, says she’s seen the issue crop up most frequently with parents of gifted children. “Many parents expect their child to get an A, period,” says Preston, who adds that in schools where there’s an honor roll, it becomes a matter of social competition among parents.

She once overheard a parent ask another teacher: “Why isn’t my child getting an A? That’s your job.” In response to such misconceptions, Preston says she takes great pains to educate her parents that she doesn’t give grades at all: The children earn them.

Is this just further evidence of the culture of entitlement that's swept the nation? Certainly, in some cases. But Lee Jenkins, a former superintendant in Redding, California, says that many parents are genuinely confused about grades –- and they have good reason to be. As a superintendant, he issued a survey asking teachers the following question: If a student aced all their projects and tests in a given class but never once handed in their homework, what grade would you give the student? “I got answers from A, B, C, D and F,” he explained. “In other words, there was no consistency.”

“At the very worst, grades are a form of currency — you get this if you do this,” said Jenkins. “But ideally, they are perfectly correlated with learning –- giving kids and parents a picture of what the child knows. Too often, points are deducted for decorum, when grades should [reflect] learning.”

Other educators note that grade grubbing is a natural extension of helicopter parenting: parents try to manage every aspect of their childrens' lives. Julia Simens, a school counselor based at an international school in Thailand, says she often hears parents complain about their children’s grades, when in reality they need to allow their children to experience failure. “As a parent, you cannot help your child learn to be responsible unless you let them take responsibility in their own educational process.”

How to get answers about your child's grades

This doesn't mean parents shouldn't ask about their child's grades if they have questions. Every teacher we spoke to said they welcome the conversation, as long as the focus is on clarifying the assignment and grading method, as well as helping the child improve. It's also possible that the teacher made a mistake, and a tempered conversation will allow the teacher to rethink her decision.

“It's important for parents to go to the teacher with an open mind for an honest conversation,” explains Preston. “Don't be on the attack, fuming and screaming about the grade. Sometimes, kids don’t give parents a complete picture, so first talk to the teacher. And in the end, the teacher and the parent need to come up with a plan together. And the parent needs to follow through to make sure Johnny gets his homework done. That’s the area where the parents have the most power to change things.”

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"I agree the grades is up to a teacher althought, I stongly agree that a teacher should not retailate on a child if the parent wants better for there child and not change gardes in the book for a child to fail the academic course. "
"It is unfortunate that teachers have lost credibility in their grading methods. My freshman son received his final grades today, and he worked to the best of his abilities he "EARNED" three A's and three B's. As parents, with access to Jupiter grades we were able to monitor his progress. All of his teachers enjoy his contribution to class discussions. We questioned a few grades early on in a n english class and the teacher took a week to reply and when she did she committed to following up.....she never did. The same teacher, when asked by my son what he needed to do to get an A in the class let him know he needed to score an A in final and final project. Not so, he scored an A in both and still he "Earned" a B! You better believe we will be making calls and sending emails .This teacher would also share her unhappiness with the world, always ranting about her husband and how many times he had been laid off. I'm sorry, I think she needs to leave that at the door. "
"Oh waaaaaa. Poor teachers. Sure, there are parents that are aggressive lobbyists for kids that don't deserve good grades, but I believe teachers that grade unfairly and subjectively are far more common and cause more damage. Instead of whining about it, maybe the good teachers should come up with ways to make grading standards more black and white so even the bad teachers can't screw up. "
"This article is SO true and also SO sad. Parents DO overstep their bounds and try to "demand" grade changes for their children instead of making their child "work harder" or helping them BEFORE the grades come out. I have taught in both public and private school and parents are the same. The attitude is either "My taxes pay your salary" or "I pay tutition here"!! In both cases, some parents feel it is their child's RIGHT to make an 'A' whether or not the A has been EARNED. I am not one for backing down. I send out progress reports weekly, send memos and emails to parents and take in makeup assignments on Mondays. By the time grades come out, students and parents have been fully informed about where a child's grades stand...and STILL...I will get 3 or 4 parents who want to "negotiate"!! Its gotten to the point where I've had a T-shirt made that says (I do not GIVE grades...Students EARN them), and I wear this shirt everytime report cards go out!! I also pass out report cards at the END of the day and then I go home!! I am not available for comment, or negotiation or discussion on report card days...I do not take messages or answer my cell. After a few days, I send out a notice/email reminding parents of my expectations and what they can do to help their child EARN a better grade. In contrast, I do NOT contact my own children's teachers about their grades at all...unless my child has been absent and I have to clarify a due date. Parents need to CHILL OUT!! Especially in elementary school. IT DOESN'T EVEN COUNT UNTIL HIGHSCHOOL...REALLY??? "
"Wow, reading the posts of many parents here scares me from going back into teaching. I once taught dual credit and AP English classes but quit because I was tired of the stress of dealing with helicopter parents. Desperately, I wanted to teach “at-risk� students so I wouldn’t have to deal with parents who dropped in during my lunch hour to harass and intimidate me. However, the only teaching positions offered to me were for dual credit and AP courses due to having a MA +30. I usually put in 70 hours a week planning and grading for my 200 students. While my colleagues were sleeping at 3:00 am, I was up grading essays; but, we all took home the same pay. What I found with some of these parents is that they never hold their child accountable. Everything is blamed on others. This is a terrible lesson to teach our children...our future. I had a student who cheated on an in-class essay exam. The students were given the essay prompts a week prior and the cheating student brought in something he copied off the internet. It was obvious the writing was not his and when I did I quick web search I found the article he plagiarized. Later, the parents came in to scream at me for giving their son a “0� on the test and blamed me, saying their son did not cheat. I’m writing about this event because this same boy, the following year, died from a drug overdose. On a memorial message board, the father gave a long sermon blaming drug dealers. It was a very sad event and I will never forget that boy. However, I cannot help but think that if more is done to teach our children and hold them accountable for their actions they will rise to th! e occasion and become mature adults who make good choices. "
"Writing as a parent who had two special needs children, I was always pleased at the efforts made by teachers and administrators to work as collaboratively as possible to educate our children. The success of those efforts varied according to each teacher's own capabilities, resource constraints, and our own success at contributing positively. One thing we always tried to do was separate out our children's unique educational needs from their responsibility learning. As long as we felt that the express or implied contracts we had--teacher, student, parent--were mutually agreed upon, all were responsible for keeping up their part of the deal, with consequences that were understood by all. This process has continued to work--not perfectly, but reasonably well--because we communicate regularly with teachers and other school staff and they communicate with us. When I talk to other parents--and, frankly, when I read many of the comments to this blog--who blame teachers or schools for their children's learning deficiencies or unfair grades--I sense that whether their negative assessments are accurate or not, quality communication wasn't there to signal issues might be arising. It's easy for parents to blame individual teachers or entire school systems for their children's grades It's also easy for teachers to become cynical when parents seem more concerns about grades than learning. It will become even easier if we don't try to walk a mile in each other's moccasins now and then. And that doesn't help our kids in the long run. "
"Yep, some K-12 teachers assign grades without using a formula. A friend that taught AP Biology once said she "glanced over their grades" and assigned what it “felt like� they had earned. No formula, no weighting, no math. The superintendent in Redding is correct: There needs to be consistency in grading and the students need to understand what is included and how grades are derived. And the students need to ask...we need to teach our kids to be responsible for their education. I get students in my university classes that cannot calculate their grades, even when it is as simple as 80% for the final and 20% for the paper. These students receive a D on the final and a B on the paper, and expect a C in the class. They whine and talk about what they earned. They misrepresent their grades to their parents, who threaten to sue. (They are the reason that I, and most teachers, now carry professional liability insurance.) They cry that the one grade will keep them out of med school, which is unfair since they are A students. But there is something that most of us teachers know: Students that ignore problems and wait until final grades are posted weren't A or B students. The real “A� student will go to the teacher/professor at the first sign of trouble. They will approach the problem in a proactive manner and will take steps to improve. They will not blame the teacher initially, but first try to find a solution. And, when that fails, they calmly go to a supervisor and ask for assistance. They do not demand, shriek, cry or yell. (And from my experience, “A� students are more successful at getting their problem addressed.) Yes, there are both bad teachers and bad parents out there. That's why parents need to teach kids *now* to go talk to the teachers, find out what is included in their grades, how the grades are derived, and what to do if they are having problems. And if the teacher can't tell them that info, then you meet with the teacher and confirm that there is no formula. That will give you far more to work with than just saying that the teacher is unfair. "
"This term my 11 year old son will receive a C in Social Studies. He has earned perfect scores on every assignment, quiz, and test. His grade has be reduced to a C because the teacher does not like the way he takes notes and organizes his notebook. "
"The problem for parents is that, in the constructivist world of modern education, the grading rubric is largely subjective. In addition to "summative" assessment (tests), modern teachers include "formative" assessments, which include things like class participation and group work, and use "authentic" assessment tools, which are meant to be real-life activities. They essentially can assign any grade they like for these types of assessments and average it in with test scores, homework, etc. The whole system is so subjective that parents have no trust in it anymore. "
"Our child is at a magnet school for our town that runs an IB program. One teacher seems out to destroy the kids GPA. Most kids get a C grade, even as they get SAT scores in the 700 or higher scores. He's an English teacher. To many colleges, a C grade and 750 SAT is a sign of a lazy student. In this case, it's just a bad teacher. The administration knows of this problem, but can't get around the union to fix the problem. "
"I haven't talked to my child's teacher about any grades but after reading this article perhaps I should (?) Are parents who don't "speak up" doing a disservice to our kid's chances of getting into a top tier college by not fighting to get the highest GPA possible whether or not it was "earned" if teachers are willing to grant higher grades to the proverbial "squeaky wheels" against whom our children will be competing for precious few slots? "
"I believe that it is important to remember that not all teachers are fair and teachers make mistakes like anyone else. It is important for parents to stick up for their child if they think they may have been treated unfairly. For example, one of my children did a project and the teacher graded it completely subjectively. It was a social studies project and the teacher graded it apparently on artistic ability in middle school (cutting and pasting not neat enough etc) and had no grading rubric. It was not graded on academic ability or knowledge and the students had no idea what the criteria would be due to no rubric. "
"A well respected colleague at my site is currently being stalked by a set of (clique) of parents who want to challenge her grades. Ironically her grades are the highest on the respective reports, and honestly she has erred on the generous side. All 3 students should be getting lower grades according to her very rigerous assessment system. I have been disgusted by some of the vicious series of emails that have been directed towards her. Grades are federally protected, and don't leave it until senior year and May before you want to check assessment. "
"Honestly, what scares me more than anything are the grammatical and spelling errors from posts here from TEACHERS who are grading children. Unbelievable!! "
"Its not just the school system. It spills over into anything related to kids. I am an healthcare professional and parents are warned pre-warned post-warn during warn etc. Extensive amounts of explanations with demonstrations and to the extent of drawings and asking if they understand. I will say most are appreciative but the high demand of taking care of a household, different parenting skills between two adults ( marriage, couples, or God forbid parents who are separated and don't get along already) all of this affects anyone working with kids!!!!!! I am a single parent and I love my kids school. They attend a school where they are the minority but the PRINCIPAL AND EVERYONE under her approach these kids with fairness and deep concern. I know my kids and I will not right them when they are WRONG!!!!! We are living in an age where traditional families are NON-TRADITIONAL! It is expected behaviors of kids that I work with 90% behavior is affected by the PARENT! A child to transition from a broken home is devastating and will take great tolls on kids grades, behavior, attitude...etc! Thank GOD I am in a situation to be here for my kids. Most parents spend extensive hours just to make ends meet. Its so many variables and this little people are affected TREMENDOUS by decisions we as parents make! "
"Hopefully these teachers are not changing grades because of the parents ,that would be unfair to the rest if us who don't complain ! "
"Amen! We have a hotline for Students being Bullied...When are we going to do something about Parents Bullying Teachers? "
"Stick to your guns... N-E-V-E-R negotiate after final grades are posted. Parents who do this are actually harming their children, as the child has no clue how much work yields an "A". The child moves to the next grade, usually my class, and it is like hitting a wall. The can't figure out what they need to do to EARN an "A". It usually takes 9+ weeks to straighten them out. Sometimes, they just fail my class... Yes, I said FAIL. No work=Fail, Shoddy work = D, average effort= C... Minimal effort = Minimal grade. It is because of these parents who challenge, cajole, beg, insistent, that concrete micromanaged documentation is necessary. Down here, I have allowed students to EARN many a minimal grade...but usually they figure it out. When I meet with parents (I am a documentation junkie) the argument is squelched immediately. They are left speechless, usually apologize for taking my time, and leave. "
"Students earn grades and that is all there is to it. To get the outcome you would like, you need to put in the effort required to achieve the result. Teachers set out the grading policies at the start of the term and clearly spell out how much homework assignments, projects, papers, presentations, class participation, and exams count toward the final grade. Miss a pop quiz, then you get a zero. I also recall a grading policy in my high school whereby 3% was deducted from the paper's grade for each class period the term paper was late. If it was going to be late, then it better be phenomenal because 4 class periods late meant at best an 88%. That was the policy, end of story! Apparently, some schools still hold to this. i know a grade grubbing parent who grumbled to a physician colleague of mine about such a policy that took her child's term paper grade down to a D+. My colleague responded that there are no do overs in medicine given that patient death is rather fina! l. "
"My complaint with a few teachers (particularily in high school when grades really count)is that they rely on a formulaic grading system without any subjective analysis. Example, after studying and getting a 98% on a final exam, my son will get an final grade of 89.7% (which is a B+ or a 3.0) due to a poor "group project grade" of a C or B-, which is the reason for the .3% difference between an A- or a 4.0. Where is the logic in that? Unless a parent complains, the student is stuck with a 3.0. I know that the teachers think that I'm "helicoptering", but when they don't even "reply" to my emails or calls until I copy the school counselor or prinicipal, I find the teacher's unprofessionalism very troubling. "
"As school and schooling play such an important role in our life. Why wouldn't you believe it would become something to fight about. As schooling become more about grades and test score. Then just like my child has to work hard for each grade or score. I will fight that he/she gets the best grade possible for the work they did. If that an A- and not a B+. It the student job to work hard and the parent right to fight for them (student)."
"what do you do when a teacher so as to prove her authority looses a childs hw assignments,(the child is religiously doing his/her part) does not inform the parents,they find out when the progress report is posted. should such teachers be in this field ? should our kids be trusted in their hands and of course the principal is on their side so you can keep fighting a lost battle and watch your child get more and more frustated with the system . what is a parent to do?"
"When I was growing up, grades were both a reflection on what the child was capable of learning and the effectiveness of how the teacher was teaching. Each class is different. We were were given no bell curves - county wide. We were told what portion of our work accounted for what portion of our grade. AND, if the class as a whole did poorly on a test, the teacher re-taught the material in a different manner. However, in no case did the bell curve bring up the entire class's grade to make the lowest grade an A. Your only recourse was to study hard and do well on the next - extra test on the material. BTW...this is one of the best school districts in the country. No confusion on why! I was shocked when I went to college to find out how wimpy the grading was. Grades are what you earn and a measure of what you learn. Period. "
"What about the other side? I repeatedly have to talk to our child's teacher about poor work that gets an A or 100%. I constantly find work that my sons have turned in with terrible punctuation, numerous spelling errors, wrong answers in math, yet the teacher gives my sons A's and 100%'s. A lot of this work is done at school where I have no way to review it. I always check homework done here, and have to battle my kids to spell things properly, capitalize properly, start/end sentences correctly, use paragraphs, use a dictionary, use a calculator, etc. It's really frustrating and I think detrimental in the long and short run because my kids are not being called on poor work. They are in seventh and eighth grade and I cringe at what they will find out in high school. I also don't like the way the teacher gives them at least two chances on tests to make corrections before grading. They will not get second chances on standardized tests! I feel once something is handed in, the grade should reflect that effort. How are they going to learn to correct and self-edit before handing stuff in in high school or college?"
"I recently had a situation where the teacher actually entered the wrong scores from my child's ITBS scores. Of course we had a meeting and she realized she had entered half of the classes scores incorrectly. She felt horrible and the situation was corrected. Mistakes happen, as a parent you really have to be involved."
"Excellent article, I agree that parents have the power to help improve grades by following up on homework, communicating with the child daily about class goings-on, including upcoming tests/quizes, and having tempered conversations with the teachers, all for the benefit of the child."
"This is a terrible issue but on the other spectrum, I have a fourth header that is being pushed through school with great grades and I see her struggling to read at second grade level. After 3 years of fighting with the schools I paid privately to have her tested at 2 different facilities to find out she has a auditory processing disorder and dyslexia. The schools told me they can't help her and now I must provide private therapy to correct her reading. This has been frustrating and expensive. I don't understand how she gets the grades she gets but an reminded by the school that because she has no behaviour problems they see no reason to test her. Help! We do the schools do this?"
"My son has been an honors student at LAUSD for 9 years, this year the school failed to give any of his accomadation for 6 months. After letter writting, meetime*, I got tired of fooling around and filed a Civil Rights Complaint. That go everyone's attention! Quick! One teacher still refused, forgot he failed to teach 2 chapters and thumbed his nose up at the system. He took early retirement and the found 3 years of IEP's tossed in a drawer. He gave my son a C. Do I just sit back and say ok- or do I appeal? I appeal and what a joke it is. They knew due to his sickness he should no be teaching, yet since he was past president of the teachers union- everyone is scared of him, I am on my last appeal- then I am Filing a civil rights suite against LAUSD- one of the most screwed up school system in the country. To big to know what the other hand is doind."
"As an elementary music teacher, I grade mostly (3/4) on participation. I would rather not give grades at all because this is too subjective in my opinion. So I tend to give higher grades than the children deserve. Even if they are not putting out more than minimal effort, I will give them a B if they aren't disrupting the class. And yet, I have had two parents (one a principal!) bully and threaten me over a B. The principal actually made a veiled threat to take me to court over the B!! In both cases, my own principal (two different ones) strongly suggested that I just change the grade. In both cases, the grade was probably better than the child deserved. In both cases, I reluctantly changed the grade The worst thing about it was the message that was sent to the don't have to do the work because Mama will bully the teacher into just giving you the A you don't deserve. Pathetic!"
"The teacher is telling a story where the first paragraph reveals her mistake. She goes to trouble in proving to the parent that the student is turning in mediocre work while hoping he would leave. A good teacher would immediately schedule a meeting with the parents and make a plan with them to help the student improve their effort. This teacher SHOULD find another career."
"My husband who is a teacher has had this experience but the administrator did NOT back him up! What did that mom think she was teaching her kids, yes there were 2 of them in separate years!"
"I am a high school social studies teacher in a midwestern school. I have found that there is a relationship between a students ACT score and there grade point average in my class. I have found that many students who earn a C, also get around a 16 on the ACT. Many of the parents of these students insist that their child should be given an A or B. However, when this occurs in other classes colleges call our school and question why a student who has a 3.5+ g.p.a. only got a 16 or below on the ACT. It makes you wonder doesn't it?"