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Curbing grade inflation

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Previous installments of this letter discussed the University’s mode of management and its public image, both issues your administration might want to address as it gets underway. We turn next to the problem of grade inflation.

Evaluating academic work by grades is relatively new on the educational scene. First came grading on a percentage scale (0 to 100). By the late 1930s, most American schools had shifted to letter grades representing ranges of percentages (e.g., A for the top 5 percent). An early step toward grade inflation occurred when the bottom two-thirds of the percentage scale was dropped, and passing grades began at about 70 percent.

By the 1990s, grade inflation had become rampant across the nation. In 1997 the median GPA at Princeton was 3.42 (a high B+), and 46 percent of the grades at Harvard were As and A-s. Between 1995 and 2004, the percentage of Notre Dame undergraduates earning bachelor degrees with honors (GPA of 3.4 or more) increased from 33 percent to 54 percent.

Few serious observers doubt that average grades at colleges and universities are steadily rising. But there are serious debates about why this is occurring, and about whether or not it is a good thing. The position one takes in these debates depends upon what one considers to be the purpose of grading in the first place.

Some teachers view grades as an incentive for the development of student potential. If substantial advance is shown by the end of the term, then a high grade is called for as a fitting reward. In the event that the majority of the students in the class show substantial development, then the majority have earned an A level grade. If not given to modesty, the instructor might take the high class average as a sign of his or her success at inspiring students.

Another view is that grades measure a student’s achievement against fixed norms that hold regardless of time and circumstance. Rising GPAs accordingly indicate rising levels of achievement.

This might be due to more intelligent students, better high school education or more effective teaching by college professors. Passing out a larger proportion of A level grades when this happens is like issuing more driver’s licenses as more candidates pass the tests. Anyone should be rewarded who meets the basic requirements.

From yet another perspective, grades are unsuitable as measures of student achievement. More appropriate are written evaluations tailored to individual students. Instructors inclined toward this view may welcome grade inflation as a sign that the current grading system is undergoing self-destruction.

A more traditional view of grading is keyed to the conception of higher education as a stepwise development of personal skills. In disciplines like mathematics, skill at the higher levels comes only after certain elementary stages have been mastered. In humanistic disciplines like philosophy, similarly, basic skills of critical thinking and conceptual analysis must be acquired before the student can move ahead to study at more advanced levels. Comparable examples can be found in the performing arts, such as music, dance and theater.

With this latter view of education in place, grading can be seen as a means of evaluating a student’s readiness to move on to further stages in the educational process. In any discipline worth studying, some students will learn more quickly than others. This means that some students will progress further than others by the end of the term. Grading in this context is a matter of distinguishing among (1) students eminently qualified to go on, (2) those meeting basic requirements for advancement, (3) those needing additional study and (4) those unsuited for further work in the field.

While some educational theorists today might reject this use of grading as too rigid and competitive, it is a use in which several key sectors of society have a vital interest. For example, universities rely on grade comparisons in admitting students for graduate training, and businesses rely on grades in selecting among candidates for highly responsible positions. Beyond this, there is the use of grades by the students involved in evaluating their own progress in a given field. From the perspective of uses like these, grade inflation has undesirable consequences.

To see why, we should note first that the term “grade inflation” is a misnomer. In economics, inflation is a matter of prices rising generally for basic commodities. Goods remain differentiated in monetary value, but come at higher purchasing prices across the board. The equivalent in an academic context would be something like C work receiving Bs, B work receiving As, A work receiving double As, and so on until top work receives As several time over.

What actually happens in academic grade inflation, however, is that A remains the top grade toward which the others converge. Where a group of students once would have been evaluated across a scale ranging from F through A, grades rise until a comparable group is evaluated in shades of just B and A. What has happened is not really grade inflation (the top grade is still A), but grade compression instead.

Grade compression is undesirable for numerous reasons. The basic problem is that it results in a loss of information. Whereas in most classes there is a discernable difference between C and B level work, that difference drops out when students performing at both levels receive a B. A consequence is that parties depending on grades as indicators of achievement – graduate schools, businesses, individual students themselves – can no longer rely on them as a basis for discriminating evaluation. The predicament is something like trying to determine body temperature with a thermometer calibrated no more finely than by even degrees (94 degrees, 96 degrees, 98 degrees, etc.).

Loss of information of this sort has long-range consequences that are even more dire. An educational system unable to distinguish superior from merely above-average achievement will fall behind in the international competition for leadership in science and technology. In the political arena, similarly, democracy of any sort worth preserving depends upon habits within the community of clear thinking and sound judgment that are instilled by philosophy and other critical disciplines. The requisite training will not be forthcoming in educational systems incapable of distinguishing several different degrees of individual achievement.

For reasons such as these it is crucial that grade compression in the nation’s colleges and universities be reversed, or at least arrested. And this requires a clear conception of the causes underlying the problem. While improved student performance might contribute to some extent, there are other causes that are probably more influential.

According to some qualified observers, grade inflation got underway in the late 1960s as a result of the Vietnam War. Since good academic standing was a condition of student exemption from the draft, teachers stopped giving low grades as a show of concern. Similar motives are at work today as teachers assign higher grades to make their students more competitive in a tight job market.

A more direct influence, perhaps, is the intrusion of market forces into the academy. Within the last decade or so, a college degree has increasingly come to be viewed as a product for which customers (students and their parents) pay a very substantial amount of money. Customer satisfaction hangs on the quality of the product, which from this perspective amounts to an outstanding GPA. Professors accordingly feel increasing pressure to pass out grades that make the product they are delivering appear worth the price spent acquiring it.

In most colleges and universities today, there are ways in which displeased customers can show their dissatisfaction. One is the Teacher Course Evaluations (TCEs) administered toward the end of each term. While many studies have been done of factors that influence evaluation of teachers by students, often with uncertain results, it has been found consistently that the teachers who grade leniently receive higher evaluations from their students in turn.

Beyond that, students understandably tend to gravitate toward courses in which they can expect high grades. Since both low TCE scores and low class enrollment affect chances of promotion and tenure, there is an intense pressure on young faculty to be generous in grading.

One thing your new administration might do in response to the looming threat of grade compression is to undertake a thorough study of how it is perceived by your faculty. This study should cover perceptions both of the extent of the threat and of steps that might be taken to counter it effectively. The study should be designed primarily by faculty with extensive classroom experience, perhaps with the assistance of specialists in the construction of surveys.

Pending results of appropriate faculty consultation along these lines, there are at least three stop-gap measures that might be taken to bring grade compression under control. One is to conduct faculty workshops on the purpose of grading, in hopes of reaching some kind of consensus among teaching faculty. Another is to revert to a grading system based on percentages, which should be less prone to inflation than letter grades (not all members of a class can be in the top 50 percent).

A further step is to rethink TCE procedures from the beginning. Realistically speaking, it is counterproductive to subject teachers to pressures of consumer satisfaction. TCEs in their present form register little more than student approval, and on-the-spot approval is not a measure of teaching achievement. Evaluation of TCEs is treated in the final installment of this letter.

Kenneth Sayre is a professor of philosophy. This column is the third in a four-part series addressed to new University President Father John Jenkins. Kenneth Sayre can be contacted at ksayre@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.