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The cost of inflation

The College is best equipped to tackle the issue of grade inflation

A student taking a class in the University’s Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese can now rightfully blame his A- on someone else. This past October, department faculty received a memo instituting a new grading scale intended to standardize grading within the department and combat grade inflation; a student who in the past would have received an A for a 95 in a Spanish course will now receive an A- because the A+ has been eliminated entirely. If the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese has in fact identified a problem of grade inflation within its undergraduate courses, the Office of the Dean of the College — not the department — should be addressing the issue so that a broader solution can be reached without disadvantaging students in any particular department.

The Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese implemented its new grading scale to replace a system in which two different scales were used for upper- and lower-level courses and rightly standardized the way students within the department are assessed. The new grading scale also takes a stab at curtailing grade inflation, making it harder to receive an A in any course. But the department should recognize that language classes — especially lower-level courses — provide one of the only settings in which many students legitimately can receive high grades by mastering basic material. Students should not be punished for meeting the objective standards that lower-level language courses necessarily entail.

If the department did identify a localized problem of grade inflation, though, it is right to attempt to correct the problem. The way the department sought to address the issue, however, disadvantaged Spanish, Italian and Portuguese majors relative to other students in the College. Majors in this department could now find their grades artificially lowered, while students outside of the department will see no such impact upon their GPAs. This could lead to a host of other problems impacting everything from consideration for honor societies to job searches to graduate program admissions.

Any attempt to regulate grading scales or to contend with the issue of grade inflation logically should begin at the top. If grade inflation is an issue in this particular department, it is likely to be an issue in other departments as well. The Office of the Dean of the College is well positioned to take more unified action on the grading standards for affected departments, which could better prevent inter-departmental grading discrepancies. Such an initiative should verify that the high grades within a department reflect students’ mastery of the course content and should not punish students in departments where grades are rightly high. Inconsistent grading standards could cost the University credibility and cause confusion if one department’s grading scale does not reflect the same standards held by the rest of the College.

The College also is better poised to collect global feedback about student performance and the fairness of grading within different departments. In making its grading scale change, the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese made a unilateral decision based on the recommendation of its faculty. More sources of information — input from current and former students, as well as feedback from graduate programs requiring foundational knowledge acquired in undergraduate courses — could shed light on whether grade inflation actually is a problem at the University. If students’ grades do not reflect their working knowledge of a subject, the College should consider other solutions to what would then be a much larger problem. Reducing a student’s chance of getting an A in a course does not ensure the information is being presented and evaluated appropriately. What’s more important is getting to the root of the problem: establishing that all students are assessed fairly and held accountable for learning the course material.


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