Let’s Talk Grade Inflation

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My first week of 2014 was marked by eating too much food, watching too much college football and regularly reloading my online transcript as I waited for last semester’s grades to show up. I did well, and I like to think I came by my good grades honestly. But I can’t be too sure…

Last semester, the Collegian reported that our average GPA has risen by roughly half a point since the 1980s. What is now considered A work may or may not have been considered B work only a generation of Kenyon students ago, mirroring a trend seen across the country.

Perhaps most notably, the Harvard Crimson reported last month that the median grade given at the storied institution is an A-, with a clean A being the most commonly-conferred grade.

The optimistic explanation for this phenomenon is that today’s students are simply smarter and more studious than their predecessors. If the standards don’t change but the students do, then it should come as no surprise that today’s grade distribution won’t look like those seen in earlier decades. Particularly in quantitative fields like math and science, the argument might go, where there is a clearly-defined body of knowledge that is relevant to the course at the level being taught, it doesn’t make sense to move the goalposts and make the tests harder if students don’t really need to know the extra information.

Others, on the more pessimistic side of the conversation, instead argue that colleges are caving to the pressure to churn out employable students. As more and more Americans attend college, it becomes more difficult to stand out in each graduating class. If schools want their students to get hired, it helps if they have better grades. As soon as one school makes the calculation that inflating their grades will lead to more successful graduates and, therefore, more prestige and larger donations from richer alumni down the road, it creates a prisoner’s dilemma in which it is in every school’s best interest to inflate their grades.

It’s important to point out that these statistics are all being taken in aggregate: If possible, it would be useful to split these data out into classes that are graded on curves versus classes that are based on objective, quantitative metrics. If a professor gives the same math test for twenty years straight, and students happen to do better on that test over time, it’s hard to argue that the students haven’t legitimately earned those higher grades.

On the other hand, if a professor grades on a curve, and each student is graded relative to the other students in their class, giving the top ten percent A’s in 1990, the top twenty percent A’s in 2000 and the top thirty percent A’s in 2010 is hard to attribute to the students’ abilities. Given the degree to which grades have risen, it’s likely that both of these are occurring, but it would definitely be useful to try and separate the two.

In a response that amounts to a white flag with a middle finger painted on it, Harvey Mansfield, a notable professor of government at Harvard, has begun giving his students two grades: the grade that goes on their transcript, and the (often lower) grade that he thinks the student actually earned in his class. Unable to change the culture of grade inflation on his own – if one professor holds out against inflating their grades students will simply avoid that professor – giving the unofficial “true” grades at the very least encourages his students to reflect on their work and, hopefully, take more pride in it.

At the very least, Mansfield’s system provides some mechanism for rewarding and differentiating excellent work. With so many good grades crowding the top of college graduating classes, it’s often difficult to distinguish between good and great scholarship. Mansfield’s system certainly doesn’t fix the problem, but at the very least it lets his students know that a problem exists.

Another proposal, this one coming from Bloomberg assistant editor and recent Yale graduate Zara Kessler, suggests that we should simply expand the grading scale, like we did with the SAT:

Perhaps… we should simply break open the top, adding, say, Z above A and Y above Z. An A would be deflated — three notches below perfection. Grade-point averages would have to be retooled, maybe expanding to fill a 5-point scale. Over time, and as necessary, more letters could be added to the mix. Harvard could transform the blunt, mass-distributed, undifferentiated A into a conveyor of discernment.

Things change: Less than a decade ago, a score of 1600 on the SAT was perfection. Now — with a third section on writing, and 800 more possible points, added — it’s somewhat mediocre (63rd percentile). Perhaps the fate of the A should be the same. We may need to inflate our measures of academic progress to keep inflation from rendering them obsolete.

On its face, it doesn’t appear that Kessler’s proposal, if implemented, would do much to alter the incentives for schools and professors to inflate their grades. In other words, there’s no reason why Harvard’s median grade wouldn’t rise to a Y- if Y became the highest grade available. They’d simply re-inflate to the new top grade.

Furthermore, Kessler’s implication that the SAT’s were expanded to account for more competent test-takers doesn’t square with the data: The average scores on the critical reading and math sections of the SAT have shown no clear trend in either direction since 1986. The addition of the writing section may have made it harder to get a perfect score on the SATs by lengthening the test, but the section wasn’t added because students were getting too smart, or because somehow SAT scores were unfairly inflating over the years.

Accepting for a moment the premise that grade inflation is a bad thing – as it unfairly dilutes the work of standout students by giving their less-invested peers similar grades and, by extension, job prospects – something will have to be done to discourage the practice’s incentives. As long as schools stand to gain prestige and finances by giving their students more A’s than they have rightfully earned, grades will continue to rise. As this rise continues, employers will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between average and standout recent graduates, turning to non-academic indicators such as extracurricular activities, internships and work experience to compare students entering the workforce.

Ironically, this means that an upward spiral in grades only serves to perpetuate a downward spiral in the value of a college degree. While individual institutions of higher education stand to benefit financially in the short-to-medium term by inflating their grades, they collectively stand to lose credibility in the long-term. But, as with all good tragedies of the commons, it’s not at all clear how the upward (and thus downward) spiral can be broken.

But that only means that the issue needs to be talked about more, not less. What do we want our grades to mean, and how do we want to be evaluated during our time here?

The Observer will be hosting an Agora discussion on grade inflation tomorrow evening at 5:30 pm in Peirce Pub. Bring your dinner and chat with students, faculty and administrators about whether or not grade inflation is an issue at Kenyon and, if so, what we should be doing about it.

An earlier version of this article appeared on AMERICAblog.com.

4 comments on “Let’s Talk Grade Inflation”

  1. A major problem is that students that arrive at the most demanding colleges already expect to receive A’s, as they were likely never challenged in high school. Feeling entitled to a high GPA, students lack the mental toughness to accept an average mark (C is still technically average, right?). This means that they blame professors, become upset and when parents talk to them, they question the $200,000 investment that is making their child miserable. In America, “gifted” children are often coddled, not challenged, and are virtually ignored in public schools where the struggling students get the bulk of attention due to No Child Left Behind requirements.

    Kenyon is in the unenviable position of having to combat a psychology instilled in students and parents for 12 years (every child is special, everyone gets a trophy, etc.). In the past 20 years, excuses for academic failure have multiplied. If a student can’t pay attention, it’s a disease/disorder. If a student doesn’t learn the material, the teacher didn’t use the perfect teaching method. If a teacher hands out a bad grade, they are scrutinized as much as the student. Being exposed to this culture before going to an elite college, students are ill-equipped to handle the demands of higher education. As students pay a hefty sum to attend these colleges and universities, the schools have to cater to the needs of the students (and not vice-versa, as intended). This is not to say that all students lack accountability and experience this cycle, but it is certainly the cultural trend. For every student who appreciates what Mansfield is doing, there are 5 who would become distraught with the “Mansfield grade” or just not care about it and take the easy A.

  2. I’m a bit confused about the ethics of Mansfield’s system. If a student earned a certain grade, isn’t there an academic code that forces him to assign that very grade to the student? While I agree that grade inflation is rampant and applaud him for trying to help his students keep up, shouldn’t the “real” grades be the ones to be reported?

    I loved the post, though, and have been curious about grade inflation since the Crimson’s article came out.

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