Grade Inflation

A year ago, Seton Hill U conducted a statistical analysis of grades on campus to examine the issue of grade inflation. We learned that our school, like many others across the country, has been giving students higher and higher grades on average over the past seven years — particularly in small courses, higher level courses (300/400), and summer/adult courses — moving from a 3.33 average in 1994 to 3.47 in 2001. These statistics were shocking enough to raise everyone’s concerns about grade inflation and we have since been conducting surveys, hosting conversations in the faculty senate and in division meetings, and generally addressing the issue by dialoguing about common standards of evaluation for student performance.

Seton Hill is not unique or alone in regards to inflated grades… in fact, we’re part of a nationwide trend that’s apparently been rampant since the Vietnam war.

I recently discovered a fantastic article online by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences called Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing? Grade Inflation and Letters of Recommendation [NOTE: this is a .pdf file and requires Adobe Acrobat Reader]. The article offers some amazing statistics about colleges in the US, chief among them that since the mid-1960s, GPA’s have risen approximately 15-20 percent, across all types of institutions. And perhaps more eye-opening is the fact that 80-90% of students receive a B- or above. One might believe that this information points to better educated students, but the article claims that only 25% of faculty feel their students are academically well-prepared and that 1/3 of all college and university students take remedial courses of some kind.

Though these datapoints are somewhat generalized, I was surprised by how widespread this problem is (and somewhat relieved that my campus isn’t an isolated case…perhaps we’re even better than others!). And the article raises some interesting issues I hadn’t considered, when mulling over the causes. For example, they posit that during the Vietnam era, junior professors began giving students higher grades because they realized that keeping a student enrolled could very well save their lives by helping them avoid the draft. This led to a shift: “The ideals of these new ‘student centered’ faculty members, who were concerned with student development and protection, collided with those ‘institutionally centered’ faculty members, whowere more concerned with preserving the assessment function of higher education.”

There’s nothing wrong with being student-centered — in fact, I think it’s the right way to go — and the article feels a little right-leaning to me, but the problem is compounded by other causes that the authors outline:


  • New Curricular and Grading Policies (giving students more choice leads them to take unchallenging courses)
  • Response to Student Diversity (the article suggests that standards have NOT been lowered as more minorities have entered the academy)
  • Student Evaluations (the pressure to please students)
  • Students as Consumers (the paradigm shift that treats education as a static commodity rather than as a collaborative process)
  • Watering Down Content (neglecting to update course materials — “The grades they assign may be valid, but students are required to master less content to earn them.”)
  • The Role of Adjuncts (who have little committment to the institution and the students; light grading makes their lives easier)
  • Rising Class Sizes and Faculty Service (the harder it is to manage, the more streamlined class grading becomes and a “dumbing-down” of content might result)

The article also addresses concerns regarding exaggeration in student recommendation letters. It concludes with some ambivalence about what to do about grade inflation, but it makes a very important point about the slippery slope that ensues:

“It is most important to stress that, once started, grade inflation has a self-sustaining character: it becomes systemic, and it is difficult for faculty to opt out of the system.”

I recommend all faculty read this paper. It will take commitment from both faculty and the institution to change, as well as a lot of courage, since student expectations for higher grades seem to be steering the ship. I personally am a proponent of a pass/fail grading system that reduces the need for hierarchical ranking, since this seems to be, in essence, what we already have in place. While our culture would seem to reject such a grading system, the authors of the article suggest that possibly because of grade inflation and the waning trust in grades as indicators of student talent, employers and grad schools are less and less using the transcript as the sole measure of a student’s potential. Perhaps we are doing something right at Seton Hill with our shift from comprehensive exams to portfolio assessment — we are arming the student with proof (or not) of their character.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

15 thoughts on “Grade Inflation”

  1. Many good points here to consider. You probably know that I have all kinds of ideas about grade inflation, some of which are mutually contradictory. I do believe, though, that these statistical trends point to a variety of changes in both student AND faculty behavior (something reflected in the article you cite). Students are concerned about their grade averages in a way I don’t remember from my college days. But they are also (usually successfully) balancing huge demands, with school, work, relationships. They are not underachievers. But, often students do not value learning very highly. I think that is the real issue, and one in which we as faculty are complicit.

  2. A few quick observations. Light grading makes any facutly member’s life easier — it’s not a problem limited to adjuncts. Smaller courses mean I have more time to spend on individual students (making personal connections, so that the student may be slightly less willing to blow off classwork; or giving out more frequent quizzes and more detailed feedback).
    At the same time, a smaller class means I more frequently adjust the course material — if all nine of my students “get” something in one class that I had scheduled to take two classes, I can move ahead more quickly, and the same is true of slowing down.
    I’m personally interested in people’s thoughts on grade inflation (where work that used to be worth a C is now given a B) vs. grade compression (since so many students are now getting As and Bs, there are few options to indicate gradation of difference).
    I’ve tried to combat grade inflation in two ways. First, I grade short exercises (responses to readings, discussion questions, and other assorted subjective stuff) on a four point scale, but I occasionally give out 5s for particularly excellent work — that way, those who “only” receive 4s don’t demand to know what they “missed”. Second, I think of a C grade as “adequate” — the student turned in the right number of pages, made some attempt to engage with the reading, etc.
    That works well for expository writing. Obviously when I grade a student’s ability to make a web page or to define a term, there are more ways to be wrong than there are to be right, so grading becomes less flexible.
    Here are a few of my older blog entries on grade inflation, in case anyone is interested.
    http://jerz.setonhill.edu/weblog/permalink.jsp?id=1753
    http://jerz.setonhill.edu/weblog/permalink.jsp?id=876
    Harvey C “minus” Mansfield is outspoken on the subject, and his theories on grade inflation and race have made him a target…
    http://jerz.setonhill.edu/weblog/permalink.jsp?id=63

  3. I must have skimmed over the part on “light grading.” I do lots of that–response papers mainly, so students have to do the reading. These are never worth many points, but over a semester these can add up and lift a student grade that might have been a C on longer papers and/or tests into a B category, and of course all B’s have the potential for becoming A’s.

  4. This will be a bit rambling because I want to write this before I go to class or I never will. I do believe that students are getting higher grades than before and I do believe in assuring that the grade has been earned. I personally think that the problem stems from the university becoming a marketplace: I get what I pay for. Also, and no offense to our student-focused mission, allowing students to do shoddy work and then letting them get by with it with the support of the administration because they have ‘special circumstances’ is another problem. Many students here have very low SAT scores, demonstrating that they are not as prepared as other students might be. However if we give them a bad grade, we’re seen as being mean and it must be our fault. Lastly, tenure at a school like this is based on your teaching evaluations. Bad evaluations mean no tenure. However, on the flip, University profs always get on a kick that they had to do so much more than their students and I think an attitude sometimes comes in that says “I had to do so much more and they should too.” We grade students hard; our profs say this all the time, although I guarantee that back in the stone age when they got their PhD’s they didn’t have to versed in all the theory and academic areas outside their fields. As for what we expect our students to do for a grade, that is what guidelines are for. If your guidelines state you expect creativity then you can grade according to that. If not, i don’t belive you can. A syllabus is a contract between the prof and students. I look at it and decide if I want to take your class based on that syllabus. If I stay in, I am accepting the terms you have spelled out. Perhaps I have this mentality because I recently received my PhD at a large school where the legal ramifications could be great if you do not assess according to the criteria established. That’s all I got to say about that. (Forest Gump)

  5. One modest suggestion concerning the A grade is that it should be something from the student that surprised me. Not a profanity or a cute clip art piece but something that made me reflect, reconsider something and see it anew. Bs are fine work that show a control of the material and C work has all the ts crossed and Is dotted, adequate and rewarded as such.

  6. All these comments are wonderful and have given me a lot to think about…keep them coming. I like the notion that A’s should be reserved for “something that surprised me” very much… as an undergraduate, an literature teacher once said that she gave A’s to anyone who taught her something new in their papers, and so I took that as a challenge and ended up getting A’s in the class. I tell my students the same thing — especially in creative writing courses: be original, surprise me, go the extra mile! But I also now see that there’s something inequitable about such a criterion: How does the student know what will and won’t surprise the teacher? And should students really be held to a standard based on the professor’s level of knowledge? How can one guage “surprise”? And if you grade by this criteria, do you ever play act “surprise” when really you’re not surprised at all, but impressed that the student went the extra mile? That mile marker is what should be clarified.

  7. My big problem with grading is context. If I come from grading a stack of STW papers, then the next stack of papers from upperclass English majors look outstanding. I can’t possibly grade them in the same way–if I did, one group would have all A’s and the other all D’s (mostly). That’s why I feel a discussion of generic definitions of grades isn’t very helpful. We can define fairly easily what an A should be, a B, etc. I don’t think many would disagree with what Mike Atherton. said below. The problem is the context–which class are you grading? at what point in the semester is that class? are the students majors or non-majors? is the course required? is the paper a rewrite or a one-shot? is it a term paper–the major requirement of the class–or a weekly “report”? All these factors sway the grading scale, and rightly so. The problem is that I can’t help being affected by the inadvertant comparison between papers in different contexts. It’s too likely that those upperclass English majors WILL get better grades just because I’m reading STW papers at the same time. And since we all teach classes at many different levels (Core, Major, 100 to 300 courses), such comparisons are hard to avoid.
    What helps me in grading (though it doesn’t solve the problem above) is a specific feedback form, and modifying it for different assignments. The criteria are listed, and I give a “grade” for each one, with an explanation why. The final grade is an average of these, which decreases some (but not all) of the subjectivity. What I really like about this method is that I don’t have to write one summary reaction at the end of each paper, which I used to do, and which I found to be more and more painful (I was writing miniature essays, which took up way too much time–I even was careful about my transitions [!], let alone the handwriting). The prose response to each of the criteria is much easier to write. The feedback form is a template on my computer, and I just fill in each form, print them, and return them with the papers. It still takes time, but not as much, and there’s certainly less soul-searching.
    I also want to add to the historical reasons Dennis gave below for inflation. In the early 70s, grades were often treated as a form of social stratification and thus faculty would not buy into them. I remember several graduate courses where both students and faculty agreed that no serious intellectual discussion could occur until everyone agreed that we all would get A’s. (Can you imagine a Rank and Tenure Committee acting that way now? Ah, yesteryear.)

  8. Mike Atherton, does it get harder to find students who suprise you with A-worthy work? One of my favorite early teaching experiences was watching students “figure out” things like “Does ‘Death of a Salesman’ count as tragedy?” Their answers don’t really surprise me, but I can still reward the student who has worked independently towards an answer to one of the questions that are not new to me, but are very new to the student. Having said that, I feel too much pressure from the students to justify every grade lower than a B+. Back when I literally had hundreds of engineering papers to grade, I found the students couldn’t really process the short essays I wrote for end comments — a statement such as “you write fairly good transitisons” didn’t always translate, in their minds, to “You would get more points if you wrote better transitions.” So I put a lot of time and effort into grading sheets, and even gave a paper on grading writing at an engineering conference.
    This conversation has made me want to spend more time on rubrics and objectives in my next set of syllabi. I wasn’t really sure how I would grade weblogs, for instance, so I feel like I gave out mroe credit than I really should have — but now I have a better idea of what the best students are capable of, and I will be able to work that into the syllabus.

  9. This is in support of Mike Atherton’s email comment about how fatique affects grading. It’s a paraphrase of an intructor I knew at Pitt. “The problem is not how to grade a paper. The problem is how to grade 50 of them.”
    I also want to add sympathy for Debbie’s comments above. New instructors are caught in a trap fostered by this whole debate. Tenure and promotion are influenced by student evaluations, or student satisfaction. Not only are our choices among methods-of-grading difficult to make, but they’re also restricted, and some of us are more constrained than others.

  10. Dr. Jerz had asked me to take a look at this post for I will be graduating and continuing on into the world of education. Teaching and grading go hand in hand, you don’t normally have one without the other.
    On the issue of recent grade inflation, I myself have witnessed this in the past four years. I began my college career at Pitt and experienced different attitudes and results concerning students’ grades. Getting a “B” in a class there was ok ans was even welcomed by many students. Here at SHU, it seems everyone wants A’s and won’t settle for less!
    I am not complaining about the whole “A” thing, I have a 4.0 here myself, but I am not one of the only students with this GPA. It seems to me, Seton Hill has an unusually large amount of students maintaining a 3.5 or above. Is the grading too easy here or are there just a lot of really smart students going to school at SHU? I don’t know.
    None the less, grade inflation is a hot topic in today’s college world. Overall, students (myself included) work very hard for my grades and often times I do believe I deserve the “A” but in some cases, the grades received do not reflect the amount of effort put in by students. Will this issue ever be solved or will “A” become average and “C” failing??? I guess we will see in the ever-changing world of education.

  11. I’m delighted that a group of us have taken on this discussion. For one thing, we’ve already noted that the real issue is the distinction between the A grade and the C grade. Probably most of us in the Humanities would agree with some version of Mike Atherton’s remark, that the A should surprise. For me, it is more a feeling of delight. Wow! This student got it. Even if all of the points in the essay are not points I would have made (exactly), the student has shown a mastery of analysis and of exposition that sets her or him apart from the other students in the class. If I have several of those, so much the better.
    Dennis is correct, though, that the C presents more challenges. What do we mean by adequate? Acceptable? At least in WCT I’m very clear about what students must do to earn 80% of the points for the assignment. I think of this as the minimum for an acceptable paper. 80%, of course, places the grade into B territory. But I think I am quite correct (like the Mikado) in this judgment. In the first assignments, most students present work that comes in at or below this standard.

  12. I’ve sent basically this same message by e-mail to a small group (thanks to whoever sent it to me) and now, having read other comments, I am emboldened to participate in my first blog conversation. Thanks, Mike Arnzen, for getting us going! I echo John and Mike Atherton’s comments that to earn the highest grade students have to do more than make no mistakes. They have to engage in creative thought. I usually recognize it because it surprised me and made me say “Oh, wow.” Sometimes it isn’t the content of the thought (lots of people come to similar profound insights about a given text), but it’s the way the student worded it, or simply that they “got” something sublte or elusive and can show me that(even if the student who wrote the paper I just read also “got it.”)
    I use numbers instead of letters simply because I experience some kind of psychological resistance and hesitation when it comes to putting bald-faced A, B, C, etc. on the page. I don’t mind indulging my neuroses in this way.
    If you look at the criteria on my generic checklist I think you’re likely to agree that a 3 is an A (100), a 2.5 is an A- (90), a 2 is a basic B (80) and a 1 is a C (70). Because students submit so many papers across the semester, most hit on the 2.5 or 3 at least once, often more frequently, and even a few good papers raise their 80 to an 83 or 88, so they aren’t penalized with a B- for having done mostly decently good work. I give a lot of 1.5s, especially in the beginning of the semester, before students believe that I care about grammar and punctuation.
    At the end of the semester I often take the top ten grades (usually they’ve submitted 12 or 13) and I add the points together.
    Students who have all 3s (30) earn 100%, all 2.5s (25) get a 90, all 2s (20) get an 80, and all 1s (10) get 70%.
    This is the easiest system I’ve ever used. I’ve been refining it over the past 2 years, and finally I can face a stack of essays without stomach knots.

  13. Cynthia, that sounds like a good system. What’s your policy for late papers? If you drop the 2 or 3 lowest papers, it sounds like you can just say “if it’s late, it doesn’t count,” and be done with it.
    I’ve never liked the hundred-point scale. What does it really matter whether a student gets a 20% or a 35%? Both are failing, and all the meaningful grades are confined to the top third of the scale. Because GPAs are computed on a 4 point scale, I find myself naturally drawn to giving grades on the same 4-point scale.

  14. Wonderful conversation! I wrote to the Dr. Alavaro Barriga, one of the researchers who performed the statistical study of SHU’s grade inflation, and asked him to clarify what the numbers meant in my citing that over the past seven years at SHU, grades have “moved from a 3.33 average in 1994 to 3.47 in 2001.” His response follows:
    the number reflects the average GPA for each course. if a course had 20 students, the course gpa is the average of those twenty students. this is not the same as student gpa (which is somewhat lower). the issue is that the way the data is recorded, each course gets the same weight. the problem is that smaller courses (with fewer students who are getting higher grades) get the same weight as larger courses (in which students are getting lower grades). the larger group of students should get greater weight. so the average is a course average, not a student average. i hope that clears up your question. let me know if it doesn’t.
    by the way a 3.47 is halfway between an A- (3.7) and a B+ (3.3). — Dr. Alvaro Barriga

  15. I just wanted to add a few hard core facts to the discussion if i may… 80% of students at stanford and 83% at princeton have an A or a B (according to the new york times, At Duquesne university in pittsburg, 3 quarters of the more than 20,000 grades given out to undergraduates in spring were A’s or B’s. Being a student myself this hurts me, when i work hard on a paper i want to stand out for my A not be “average”!! what is happening here?

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