Grade Inflation

In an earlier column I mentioned that during the last decade scores on college entrance exams (SAT scores) have gone down in the United States while the subsequent grades being awarded to students by colleges have gone up.

Let's take a look at some recent figures -

In 1966 at Harvard, 22% of all grades were A's. In 2003, that figure had grown to 46%. In 1968 at UCLA, 22% of all grades were A's. By 2002, that figure was 47%.

The so-called Ivy League schools, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, averaged 50% A's.

The most immediate effect of giving almost 50% A's is that exceptional students see little reason to try to excel. They know they can "coast their way" to an A without really being challenged.

" Awarding students A's for C+ work robs the best and the brightest."

Prof. Roger Arnold.

The C grade was at one time considered a average, respectable grade. However, at many schools less than 10% of all grades are C's, and this grade is now considered a mark of poor performance.

From the chart below you will note that private schools, the schools that are most dependent upon tuition money, tend to give out the highest grades.

Although it is argued by some that there are intervening variables involved that might help explain some of this, and it's true that some of the better schools have tried to reverse this trend, it is hard to escape the conclusion that many instructors and colleges have simply been lowering their standards. 

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, is the pressure to retain students at the expense of academic rigor.

To cite just one example, I know of a professor who had for some time required a demanding research paper. Since this was not a popular assignment with students, it was suggested by a superior that the assignment be watered down so that some students wouldn't be discouraged from staying in the major.

The fact that the paper was designed to develop a host of important critical thinking and research skills was seen as being less important than pleasing students.

Of course, "accommodations" such as this undermine the academic experience, not to mention academic freedom and instructor morale. 

Even though there might be short-term benefits in temporarily having more "warm bodies" in a major, studies suggest that the long-term effect is to lower the esteem of the major and actually make it less desirable to students.

" Interestingly, some schools have found that when they raise standards, over time a major becomes more attractive and they end up having a larger pool of interested, not to mention better, students."

The effect on instructor morale is also positive, which is certainly not the case when standards are constantly being lowered. 

The next cause of grade inflation has been the role of student evaluations of instructors. Not surprisingly, with promotion and tenure tied to evaluations, instructors look for ways to raise their scores. 

One thing that doesn't escape the attention of instructors is that high grades are related to popularity. The conclusion: give higher grades and receive better evaluations. 

Next, being only human, some students tend to shun academic rigor and avoid instructors who are demanding.

In our academic advising we are constantly asked by students shopping for courses if so-and-so's course is difficult.

If we say "yes," that generally ends the discussion and the student moves on and asks the same question about another instructor or course (at least until an advisor makes it a policy not to answer such questions).

Interestingly, in all these sessions the relevance or importance of the material to the student's welfare and future is almost never brought up—at least by the student.

Although teacher evaluations are often responsible for identifying weak instruction, when they are unduly emphasized in an effort to please and retain students, it results in a "the carriage leading the horse" situation.

Instructors become fearful of doing things that will upset students; even things such as enforcing deadlines for papers and projects.

" Rejecting a paper because instructions were not followed, or because it was unacceptably late impacts teacher evaluations."

An instructor's decision on assignments used to be more or less final. Standards were standards and rules were rules.

Today, students know that instructors fear low ratings and they are prone to try to argue their way out of low grades or try to get excuses accepted for missed or late assignments. 

Instructor evaluations have become to education what the Neilson ratings are to TV—and with some of the same questionable results. Quality has never been related to popularity. If it were, classical music would rule radio, PBS would rule TV and art museums would rank higher on our list of pastimes than sporting events. 

The next thing which has contributed to grade inflation is the need to accommodate inadequacies associated with some minority students. Overlooking an inability to write and speak proper English is the major issue here.

Although it might seem charitable to forgive such inadequacies while the student is in class, when the name of your college shows up on a job application full of writing errors, the message is clear: "the quality of the students graduating from this college is questionable." 

Employers caught on to grade inflation some time ago, and despite a shiny new diploma, many routinely give applicants basic tests in academic skills to see if they can read and follow instructions, write reports, and function in a job.

Very much related is a recent study that indicated that the number one reason given by employers for rejecting applicants is an inability to effectively communicate, especially during a job interview.

Interestingly, follow-up interviews with the rejected applicants indicated that the applicants appeared to be totally unaware of the problem. 

Of course, there are those who would take exception to each of the reasons I've given for grade inflation.

For one thing, giving low grades for inferior work and even failing students who do not meet minimum standards creates failure experiences and tends to discourage those who are either unable or unwilling to meet minimum standards. 

How do you answer that?

I think the best answer was provided by a story that Dr. Ron Whittaker told me during one of our talks about doing this column.

According to Dr. Whittaker, a student who had graduated and gone on to become a successful film producer was invited back to his school to speak to a class. During the course of the visit the student revealed that he held a certain anger toward the whole school experience.

He said that although he had regularly been on the Dean's List and, therefore, was considered "successful" by the school's standards, he ended up being totally unprepared for the demands of the real world.

For many months after graduation he floundered, somehow feeling that his success in school, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, would translate into success in the real world. When it didn't, he said he had to finally back up and retrain himself to cope with a level of demands he had never experienced while in college. 

In this young man's case possibly some "failure experiences" while in college, especially if they provided motivation to do better, would have been preferable to the series of real-world failures, economic hardships, and professional setbacks he said he had to endure after graduation.

Since instructors who try to buck the grade inflation trend can imperil their own careers in the process, it is hard to reverse the trend without solid administrative support. Unfortunately, most administrators are reluctant to do anything that will jeopardize enrollment goals. 

Although the unfortunate consequence of grade inflation is the eroding of academic quality, the ultimate loser is the very person the system is set up to serve: the student. 


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