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ND questions grade inflation

Joe Trombello | Monday, March 1, 2004

As the professor hands back the examination booklets, an anxious student eagerly flips to the front page and finds a grade of “A” written in bright, red pen. Gleefully, she breathes a sigh of relief and slips the test into her backpack.What she may not realize is that her grade isn’t so sparkling as it may first appear. The distribution of grades at Notre Dame – as at many other colleges across the nation – has steadily been on the rise. According to the Office of Institutional Research, the percentage of University undergraduate courses in which half or more students receive a grade of A or A- has climbed from 43.6 percent in the spring of 1994 to 64.0 percent in spring 2003. The College of Engineering has experienced the most dramatic increase during this period – from 24.6 percent in spring 1994 to 39.7 percent in spring 2003 – an increase of almost 120 percent. The study showed the College of Arts & Letters having the highest percentage with 74.1 percent in spring 2003, while the College of Architecture had only a 25 percent mark in the same semester.Faculty in the College of Science, which experienced a rise in A grades from 25 percent in 1994 to 42.1 percent in 2003, said that grade inflation in this decade has tapered off. Charles Kulpa, chair of the department of biological sciences, said he believes inflation in his department has flattened after increasing somewhat during the 80s and 90s. “We have a number of courses where [the average GPA] is around a 3.0,” he said. “In some courses it’s higher. “Faculty and students nonetheless have expressed a divergence of opinions over these statistics, with many citing the dramatic increase in student profiles – such as SAT scores and high school class rank over the same time period – as explaining this grade increase. Seventy-nine percent of students entering college in fall 1993 were ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class and had a mean SAT score of 1218, while 84 percent of students who entered in 2003 ranked in the top ten percent of their class. These students had a mean SAT score of 1359 (the test was re-centered in 1996, partially explaining the rise in SAT scores).The historical perspectiveJoseph Walter, chair of the department of pre-professional studies since 1971, said grade inflation began to occur at Notre Dame and across the nation in 1972 with the institution of the Vietnam War draft.”If you gave students Ds and even Cs, they would come in [to your office] and literally cry,” he said. “More often than not, they were off to Vietnam. They begged you not to [give that grade]. This was true not only here, but it happened at other universities and all over the nation.Walter said students in his Analytical Chemistry class in the 1967-68 academic year earned 19 Cs, four Ds and two Fs. By 1972-73, only one student earned a C, the lowest grade in the class with five grades of B-. No student earned a C or below in a similar course in 1987. Walter said medical schools have also seen a similar rise in student profiles on applications. He said in the 1950s and 1960s, students generally applied to two or three medical schools and had an average GPA of approximately 2.7.”That student would not be admitted today,” he said. “As years [have gone by], the training and caliber of students has increased.”Walter estimated that the average GPA of a student currently accepted into medical school is a 3.4.Higher caliber studentsFaculty members within different colleges have expressed a diversity of opinions concerning grade inflation. Most have said the rise is primarily due to the better quality of students Notre Dame has been able to accept. “I’m not so sure that it’s grade inflation,” Walter said. “I perceive it as the caliber of students are increasing, you would not expect to have as wide a range of grades. Most students would be fairly similar.”Sam Gaglio, assistant dean of the Mendoza College of Business, said the rise in grades makes sense with the corresponding increase in the profiles of admitted students.”We have good students and a lot of people are working at a high level,” he said. “It’s feasible to have a lot of good students, especially given the tightening of the admission requirements,” he said.Gaglio said faculty often choose not to curve grades so that students will receive Cs or Ds. Assessing grades in this way, he said, would unfairly penalize many.”The assumption is that grade inflation is a bad thing,” he said. “We have to make sure not to penalize our good students. I’m not going to arbitrarily give someone a C. … The intent here is to make sure we give the right kind of grade.”Mark Roche, dean of the College of Arts & Letters, said grade inflation isn’t necessarily a problem if it means students are simply receiving better teaching or more attention from instructors. He said grades should not simply serve to differentiate students but rather to assess the knowledge that students have obtained.”The main purpose of grades is to document whether a student has achieved the learning goals of the course,” he said, “[not] to demarcate differences.”The downside of grade inflationSunny Boyd, associate professor of biological sciences, says rampant grade inflation can severally impact the credibility of an institution, and believes that distinguishing students who have worked very hard in a given course and thoroughly understand the material is important.”When we have larger courses with a diversity of people, I’m sure there are differences in knowledge and effort, and these differences should be reflected in grades,” she said. “It’s also important to our credibility as an institution that grades reflect knowledge. … We want to maintain our reputation as being a demanding institution.”Boyd said artificially inflating grades in order not to damage a student’s chance of graduate school acceptances ultimately proves detrimental to all parties.”My approach is making the course rigorous enough that I can feel comfortable that students who get As deserve them,” she said. “I have not been influenced by the idea that I should help students get into medical school by giving them higher grades. Giving people that are not academically strong [artificially high grades] is not doing anybody a favor.”