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.