When I was in high school, my friends and I were proud to take home a B grade on a report card. An A usually meant you deserved Dad's car for the evening or some other rare reward. Those A grades were handed out sparingly, and when you got one, it often meant you had not only earned A's on all your assignments and tests but also had attended every class and were never tardy.

I had a philosophy professor in college who never gave an A unless the student had the maximum number of points possible AND had done extra work. I graduated from high school with a 3.7 GPA, and only a half-dozen people had higher GPAs than mine. I was offered scholarships to all the public four-year colleges in the state at the time. Now a 3.7 might get you a small grant at a small college - maybe.Of course, there were straight-A students in my time, but they were extremely rare. They were assured full scholarships to just about any school they might want to attend. Now, straight A's are all too common, and a 4.0 GPA means less and less every year.

Statistics bear out this personal evidence. In 1969, just 7 percent of students in a national survey conducted by Columbia University were A students, while 25 percent averaged C or lower. A follow-up survey shows that now 26 percent average A's and just 9 percent are getting C averages.

I teach college classes part time, and I often hear from students who earned an A- or a B in my class that their perfect 4.0 GPA has been ruined. I always wonder what happened to the dignity of a B and the scarcity of an A. In order to compete for scholarships or to be admitted to the better colleges, students now must have that 4.0 because so many others do.

Those who receive a C on their report card feel their work is worthless when the grade sheets I fill out clearly state that a C indicates the student did acceptable work, fulfilled all the requirements and received average scores. That should mean a C is no disgrace.

Grade inflation is a fact of life. It's unfair to students and to those who must decide who gets the scholarship or who is admitted. When presented with dozens of high school or community college graduates with perfect or near-perfect GPAs, administrators must give even more weight to standardized test scores - the dreaded ACT, SAT or GRE.

If a student has a phobia about tests or simply doesn't do well in a testing atmosphere - and that's often the case for even very intelligent students - they could be weeded out because their 4.0 is indistinguishable from all those other 4.0's.

The percent of A-average students among SAT test takers has risen to 37 percent from 28 percent in the past decade. Among those all-A students, the SAT averages fell by 14 points over the same period.

Among ACT takers, the percent of all-A students rose to 32 percent in 1996, up from 16 percent in 1970, with no real improvement in scores over that time period.

When the test scores and grades were further analyzed, the College Board, which administers the SATs, found that white female students - not inner-city students as you might expect - are receiving the most impact from grade inflation.

This indicates students are learning less to get an A; grading standards are too low. It also indicates laziness on the part of educators. It's easier and much less confrontational to give lots of A's than it would be to give the above-average student a B and reserve the A's for truly outstanding work.

And it's a self-perpetuating thing. How can one educator buck the trend and give a B for above-average work when the student is used to receiving A's in other classes for the same effort?

If an A indicated excellence - a rare thing everywhere except in our schools, if grades could be believed - those students who consistently worked harder and achieved the highest level of accomplishment would be much easier to spot.

Above-average students should be proud of the B-grade designation but should also realize there is a higher target to aim for.