Dumbing down A’s

For many students, being average in the classroom is unacceptable. Receiving mostly A’s and B’s not only has become the norm, but it’s become an expectation, and professors nationwide have become increasingly generous when boosting student grade point averages.

Researchers studying grading trends over the last 35 years have found that awarding higher marks for coursework of the same quality has caused an artificial inflation in grades.

Stuart Rojstaczer, professor at Duke University and author of the Web site gradeinflation.com, compiled data on nearly 30 public and private institutions and found stunning results to confirm what many already suspected: grades are on the rise.

“It has been a long time since C was average,” Rojstaczer said. He found that average GPAs have increased about 0.15 per decade over the last 35 years.

When 91 percent of Harvard University’s class of 2001 graduated with honors, there was alarm across campuses. Universities started addressing grade inflation as a national problem and GW was no exception. Grade inflation is a reality of today’s higher education.

GW looks inward

The national attention on grade inflation led GW administrators to start questioning their own policies and practices. In 2002, Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that got him thinking more about grading at GW.

“Most institutions have accepted grading practices that persistently blur the distinction between good and outstanding performance, while they award passing grades for showing up and turning in work – even when that work is poor,” the article said. It prompted Lehman to write a memo to the faculty, bringing the issue to the attention of the University.

The April 8, 2002 memo titled, “Grade Conflation: A Question of Credibility,” was circulated to deans of each undergraduate school and the chairs of every department. In the memo, Lehman expressed his concern for the rise in grades as a threat to academic challenge and evidence that students might not be fully engaged in their education. It also provided data on University grading practices since 1983 as well as the Chronicle article.

“Over a 20-year period, the percentage of A’s awarded, as a percentage of the total number of grades assigned, has increased by about 15 percent,” Lehman wrote in the memo.

Data on grading practices at GW reveal in 1983, the average undergraduate GPA was 3.03. By 2001, it had climbed to 3.25, a 7.3 percent increase.

“The GW data makes it clear we’re not immune to grade inflation,” Lehman said. “It is a national issue, and we’re contributing to it.”

Nearly half (45.4 percent) of all undergraduate grades assigned during the 2000-01 academic year were A’s. Lehman notes that most grade inflation appeared in upper level courses.

The data shows bias in grade inflation based on area of study. In the humanities discipline, the percentage of A’s increased between 1983 and 2001 by roughly 10 percent. The natural sciences and math remained relatively constant.

According to school, the percentage of A’s in the School of Business increased 10 percent from 1992 to 2001, while the Elliott School of International Affairs remained constant. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences showed an increase of 7 percent for the same time span.

Alarmed by what he found, Lehman urged professors to actively counter grade inflation practices. Initially, the memo stirred some dialog among the faculty, but Lehman said it did not generate the response he had anticipated.

Cheryl Beil, director of academic planning, said the quality of students attending GW has improved in the last 10 years, especially as GW becomes more selective, but the University needs to do a better job developing standards of what constitutes an A grade. Although she said she agrees it is a national problem, she believes grade inflation in high school is to blame for its practice at universities.

Arthur Wilmarth, professor of law and chair of the executive committee for the faculty senate, said the memo did receive apt attention and that grade inflation is an “issue of concern.”

“It has been referred to the education policy committee, and we’re waiting for a recommendation on whether a formal resolution should be adopted,” Wilmarth said. “It’s something to recommend, it doesn’t need to be exceptionally rigid.” He suspects a response sometime in the spring.

Princeton takes a stand

Princeton became the first college to challenge grade inflation by implementing a university-wide grading policy last April. The proposal, spearheaded by Dean Nancy Weiss Malkiel, introduced a grading standard by revising the definition of grades and implementing grade limitations, also referred to as grade-rationing.

According to the proposals, A’s (A+, A, A-) must only account for 35 percent of the total grade distribution in any given undergraduate department or program that year. That is a roughly 20 percent decrease from grading trends at Princeton last year.

“These proposals are designed to assist the faculty in bringing grade inflation under reasonable control,” Malkiel wrote in a memo to Princeton’s faculty in April. “The proposed grading standard responds to the desire of the department chairs that all departments be asked to meet common expectations.”

When the Princeton faculty approved the initiative last April, it received national attention and brought grade inflation into the spotlight. The university welcomed the debate and was proud to be a leader in a nationwide academic initiative.

The new policy, though seemingly drastic, was not the first attempt to confront grade inflation. Discussions at Princeton began over six years ago, according to a summary of grading initiatives from the university. It took time to draft and approve the policies.

“Curbing grade inflation will require more aggressive steps than we have taken. These proposals are designed to serve that purpose,” the memo from Malkiel said.

Princeton worked over the summer to implement the new grade-rationing principle. University officials declined to comment on how the policy has worked this semester.

History and causes

Grade inflation has its roots in the Vietnam War era. Professors took up the practice of boosting the grades of male students to prevent them from failing out of college, and consequently being shipped off to Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, grade inflation tapered slightly and resurfaced in the 1990s.

Are students at GW receiving higher grades than they deserve? Dr. Glenn Rickettes, public affairs director at the National Association of Scholars, suggested that as part of a national trend, they might be.

“It is a national problem,” said Rickettes. “The grades can’t possibly reflect student’s performance.”

Rickettes attributed grade inflation to a “therapeutic mentality” at universities. “It’s like everyone gets egalitarian A’s,” Rickettes said. “We want to build their self-esteem or something.”

Rickettes recalled an instance when the psychologist of one of his students called and asked him to award the student a C or higher because it would otherwise have a negative effect on his confidence.

Other experts suggest students are actually consumers of education. With the cost of education so high, parents and students want to get something for their money. They feel they have paid for a product and they want high quality in return. In this case, they want A’s.

What to do about grade inflation?

Experts at the national level have praised Princeton for its policy to combat grade inflation as a good first step. Many wonder if this is the beginning of a trend to reverse grade inflation and whether other universities will follow.

Some professors have developed their own creative grading methods to deal with inflation. Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University adopted the two-track method. He would give one grade to the registrar for transcripts and a deflated grade to the student so they would have an accurate measure of their performance in his class.

Rojstaczer, the professor from Duke, said the problem is institutional. Professors feel pressure from students and parents to grade more leniently, he said. They want good student evaluations and high enrollment in their classes.

“There is no positive incentive to grade fairly,” he said. As a result, grades keep going up. In the end, the practice is self-defeating, he said. Rojstaczer suggested that grades be normalized at universities. One possibility is to include the average grade of the class on transcripts to give an idea of the playing field, he said.

“Or, you could introduce a new grade that really means excellent, Rojstaczer said. “Like a country with devalued currency, they introduce a new currency.”

For now, grade inflation reform is still in the discussion phase at GW. A policy change appears possible, but there is no gage on the timeline or likelihood of such a policy coming to GW.

“I don’t have a good answer to grade inflation,” Professor Eric Saidel said. “But I would hate to have someone tell me how to grade my students.”

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