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Let the air out of grade inflation

MOST OF us would celebrate if we could wave a magic wand and eliminate grades. It would be nice if grades weren't necessary - if everyone had equal abilities and always gave 100 percent effort. But those things aren't true; grades are necessary.

Grade inflation, though, undermines the whole system. If we don't take steps to reverse grade inflation, grades will be virtually meaningless. Harvard University provides an example of how bad grade inflation can get and how hard it is to combat at the individual level. That school's experience demonstrates that we need a national system of regulation to check inflation.

Harvard, widely considered the top university in the country, has a horrible grade inflation problem. More than half of all grades at Harvard are "A"s or "A-"s. Last spring, 91 percent of Harvard's seniors graduated with honors ("Harvard Releases Report on Grade Inflation, Promises to Take Action," Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 21).

What does an "A" mean if more than half of every class gets one? What does it mean to receive honors if only 9 percent of the graduating class doesn't receive them? Inflation devalues a grade or degree until it's worth nearly nothing. Pretty soon, an "A" at Harvard doesn't tell anyone anything more than that the student is enrolled there. This effectively puts admissions offices in the business of giving out grades -- all you have to do is get in and you're virtually guaranteed of graduating with a high GPA and an honors degree.

Harvard isn't alone; most schools currently face some degree of grade inflation, U.Va. included. The University's Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies reports that the average grade point average is between a "B" and "B+". The overall average GPA is a 3.13, with an average of 3.12 in the College. Honors are a problem here, too. Nearly 40 percent of College students receive Dean's List honors - which require a 3.4 GPA - each semester. Other schools inflate grades even more: Over 50 percent of Education students receive Dean's List recognition.

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  • U-Wire Today -- "Eyebrows are raised as grades soar in Ivy League"
  • There are five letter grades for a reason: to provide a range of grades that allows for some separation of students. "C" means average. But almost no one gives "C"s anymore; the few "C"s given represent a solidly sub-par performance. This can't continue.

    The causes of grade inflation are fairly obvious. Each professor has an incentive to boost grades. Tenure review and professional success depend on teaching evaluations. Students will steer clear of professors with a reputation for being "hard" graders. Scaring students away from your class, then giving the students who do sign up low grades - relative to other classes - is a bad way to get good evaluations. Plus, most professors want to reward and encourage their students. Few professors enjoy giving "C"s. But sometimes it's necessary.

    Professors aren't the only part of the problem. Until it gets really bad, whole universities even have an incentive to boost grades. Higher GPAs mean higher graduate school acceptance rates and better job placement, which boost a school's national reputation and make fundraising easier.

    These causes, though, are the very things that make grade inflation so hard to combat. If a professor readjusts his or her grading policy and starts giving "C"s, he or she won't fix the problem. He or she will only drive students away, toward other professors who don't fight the inflation. If single universities try to reverse the trend, all they end up doing is putting their graduates at a disadvantage compared to their peers at other schools, even compared to graduates of the same school in prior years.

    All of this means that we can't leave it up to individual professors and schools to stop grade inflation in its tracks. It's time to start thinking about ways to regulate grade inflation across the board. Grade quotas - limiting the number of "A"s and "B"s to certain percentages of students - might be one solution, at least until professors readjust their grading standards. This might require the U.S. Department of Education or another national organization to regulate - perhaps by tying compliance with a standardized grading scheme to federal funding and accreditation.

    The answers aren't immediately obvious. What is obvious, though, is that we can't sit back and allow grade inflation to continue. If we do, we'll soon find ourselves in a system where everyone gets an "A" and no one knows what an "A" means.

    (Bryan Maxwell's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at


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