The National Controversy Over Grade Inflation

The National Controversy Over Grade Inflation

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By Tim Lindsay '17 The topic of grade inflation has, of late, permeated University conversation and raised ethical questions at institutions of higher education not just in the United States but throughout the world. But as schools continue to address this issue, although it is not new, the facts must be presented unambiguously and without bias; otherwise, “grade inflation” might only be the subject of futile arguments. And while there are multiple ways to define grade inflation, this piece will subscribe to the modest and prevalent description: grade inflation is the progressive increase in grades for the same quality of work performed by individuals throughout the past. To illustrate the reality of this situation, a 2012 study by 2 professors at Duke and Furman University respectively found that “A” grades represented 43% of all letter grades at that time among 200 four-year colleges and universities, up 28% from 1960 and 12% from 1988.[1] Yet a study conducted with data from 1984 to 2005 confirmed that average test scores and literacy levels have remained fairly stagnant.[2] In fact, in 2013 the median grade awarded at Harvard College was an A-, and at the same time, Harvard dispensed more straight A’s to its students than any other letter grade.[3] These studies neither represent an anomaly nor do they unveil a new dilemma; grade inflation undoubtedly exists. Therefore it is imperative to understand the root of this predicament, its societal ramifications, and the potential solutions.[4]

Minnesota State University, Mankato Economics Professor Richard C. Schiming outlined a litany of possible sources for grade inflation - some less likely or less significant than others, such as evolving school missions pivoted around research, changing “grading policies and practices” like group work, and a gradual slide in difficulty of actual course content. However, others factors in his list contain more substance. For instance, Schiming indicates that some institutions have experienced grade inflation as a means to retain current students and as a means for teachers to attract students to their classes: “With students seeing themselves more as consumers of education and more eager to succeed than to learn, the pressure on institutions to provide more success can be persuasive.”[5] Another viable factor in grading by teachers that Schiming lists is an increased ubiquity of subjective measures such as participation and attendance. Lastly, he specified that the emphasis of student evaluations on promotions or tenure decisions encourages artificially higher grades, even though studies have refuted a dominate relationship between grades and teacher assessments.[6] But whatever the main sources of grade inflation may be, it is clear that many institutions have found it necessary to saturate their own students' GPAs as a means to remain competitive.

Of course, this form of inflation isn’t similar to economic inflation, where prices rise indefinitely. Contrarily, GPA’s have a fixed cap at 4.0. So it’s important to discuss the societal implications and solutions to this preponderance of A’s and B’s because current GPA’s evidently have reached that cap. Most visibly, grade inflation will derail the value of A’s throughout colleges and Universities. Employers and graduate schools might find it easier and more convenient to gauge work experiences and extracurricular involvement in its applicants than core education. Additionally, students and teachers alike might not afford academics the appropriate attention if everybody earns an A or B. This too should contribute the downward spiral of grade worth. Furman’s Christopher Healy further claims this could dissuade students from certain subjects in which they exhibit a superior performance; tremendous grades across the board and consequently, ambiguous feedback leaves no room for differentiation of strengths and weaknesses and seriously undercuts potential achievement.[7] It could even deter students from subjects branded as more difficult.

Schiming offers one viable solution – including overall class grades in transcripts. The perspective of the mean class grade alongside students’ grade could devalue an A in an easy course. Thereby, teachers might give a high grade more consideration than in past years. Schiming also suggests an adjustment to the grading scale, eliminating the presence of (-) and (+), to reduce teacher bias and subsequently, to boost a marginal grade.[8] However this might elicit such an overhaul of our grading system that its potential seems unrealistic.

Grade inflation has infiltrated educational systems throughout the world but most prominently in the United States, and it exists at Washington and Lee, but by no means is it confined to Lexington. The opinion of many experts on the subject suggests it is a problem with serious ramifications for gauging individual qualifications and merit. Yet, grade deflation, as University of North Texas Economics Professor Michael McPherson asserts, has its own swath of consequences. Deflation excuses grade manipulation, which would add further scrutiny to the debated corruption of colleges and Universities.[9] It seems the combined initiative of a union of schools is the only vehicle towards creating an achievable solution, and W&L’s prestige and storied reputation make it an invaluable player in this effort.

 

[1] Rojstaczer, Stuart and Healy, Christopher. (2012) Where A is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940-2009.

[2] Katsikas, Aina. (2015, January 13). Same Performance, Better Grades. The Atlantic. Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com

[3] Slavov, Sita. (2013, December 26). How to Fix College Grade Inflation. US News. Retrieved from www.usnews.com

[4] Rojstaczer, Stuart and Healy, Christopher. (2012) Where A is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940-2009

[5] Schiming, Richard C. Grade Inflation. Minnesota State University, Mankato. Retrieved from www.mnsu.edu/cetl/teachingresources

[6] Schiming, Richard C. Grade Inflation. Minnesota State University, Mankato. Retrieved from www.mnsu.edu/cetl/teachingresources

[7] Katsikas, Aina. (2015, January 13). Same Performance, Better Grades. The Atlantic. Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com

[8] Schiming, Richard C. Grade Inflation. Minnesota State University, Mankato. Retrieved from www.mnsu.edu/cetl/teachingresources

[9] Katsikas, Aina. (2015, January 13). Same Performance, Better Grades. The Atlantic. Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com

 

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