Blown out of proportion
Grade inflation at universities hinders students’ academic gain
After receiving a graded test back in class last week, I wondered how many of the students swarming the professor at the end of class to discuss their grades would complain about being marked too high. I assumed none, but I thought about the nature of grading errors on tests: certainly not every grading error was detrimental to the students. In fact, it was probable that many students received grades that were too high because of mistakes in grading. Since none were complaining about it, however, I cunningly deduced that students prefer receiving higher marks.
This makes sense because, after all, our grades are commonly used as a metric for academic performance. High academic performance leads to opportunities both at the University and beyond.
And yet, I am confident that GPA, an ancient metric, is losing any meaning it still holds as universities around the country succumb to “grade inflation.” Grade inflation is defined as “the tendency of academic grades for work of comparable quality to increase over time,” and has been debated in the past by administrations at Princeton, Harvard and even the University. In 2004, Princeton took a stand against grade inflation by instituting grading guidelines to unify grading standards for each academic department. Such a policy might help lower grades in humanities courses — which typically dish out more A’s than the natural sciences and engineering.
But Princeton students may be at a disadvantage, especially because other schools have yet to follow suit. Studies show that in general college students’ grades have been going up. American colleges and universities have seen average GPAs rise from 2.93 in 1991 to 3.11 in 2007.
Barring the possibility that students have somehow become smarter over the past 25 years, I offer that grade inflation explains the improvement and results in a decrease of the quality of education at a university. All else equal, grade inflation suggests that students are able to achieve the maximum grade with a lower amount of effort, meaning that students are not learning as much as they could be.
For example, assume that you know you must take three equal weight tests in a class. Further suppose that, thanks to grade inflation, you received a 95 percent on two of the tests, whereas 25 years ago you would have only received an 87 percent. In order to get an A in the class, you might calculate that you must study only enough to get an 80.2 percent on the final exam, whereas 25 years ago you would have needed to study more in order to achieve a 96 percent. I believe the decreased exposure to the material corresponds to a weaker education.
Grade inflation also shifts the traditional bell-curve model to the right, bunching grades in the higher quartile. This skewing gives truly stellar students less distinction from their peers. At Princeton, policies have made earning A’s more challenging, which in my view makes excellence that much more rewarding.
So if grade inflation weakens our education, why have universities nationwide not set safeguards in place to combat grade inflation? First, I would blame faculty — giving A’s is easier than giving F’s. Having to deal with students who complain about grades can be time-consuming, but giving people the grades they want can help overworked professors avoid the hassle. Further, some departments require a report stating why a student may have performed poorly in a class. Thus, following the path of least resistance, faculty may have contributed to grade inflation by doling out higher grades.
Second, I assert that the U.S. higher-education regulatory boards are also to blame. All universities should, each year, be required to publish to a national database the average grades given across all disciplines. Currently, employers need to make assumptions about the varying degrees of grade inflation at various schools, but an officially published database would allow employers and graduate schools to more fairly compare Wahoos and Tarheels.
Another solution would be to report grades as a number rather than a letter. It seems inefficient to me that exams are scored on a quantitative basis, yet final grades are converted to a letter, which is then converted back into a number in the form of GPA. In a digital world, it is no longer infeasible to report grades on a percentage-based scale out of 100. Compared to letter grades, exact numbers would help distinguish stellar students from students scraping by at the margins.
I have written before about overemphasis on GPA in students’ education, but I do wonder — if we are going to have such a quantitative measure of academic performance, why not at least make it accurate?
Andrew Kouri’s column appears biweekly Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.