Grade Inflation: Diamonds or Rhinestones

May 28, 2011

Editors: The column this week is for immediate release to accommodate holiday schedules. (573 words with optional cut).

by Clarence R. Deitsch, Ph.D.
and T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D.

Colleges and universities routinely produce lots of things, including evidence about their students’ accomplishments and credentials. Students’ athletic achievements, for example, are reported with fanfare and detail. The measuring rods for athletic achievements don’t change over time — yards per rushing attempt in football means the same thing today as in previous years.

But what if the number of inches per yard on football fields were falling at an unknown rate? That is, suppose that yards were getting “shorter.” Yards per rushing attempt would be rising, but the statistic would have diminished information value, particularly for making comparisons across time.

Fortunately, a yard is still a yard in college football. The same cannot be said for course grades as a measure of academic achievement. An “A” today doesn’t mean as much as it did in previous years. Likewise, “A’s” at college x and college y are losing comparability. The same holds for “A’s” in, say, economics compared with English composition. Decades of college and university grade inflation, proceeding at varying rates across schools and disciplines, have stripped course grades of much of their evaluative content.

Grade-based honor rolls, deans’ lists, graduation honors, and class ranks are also becoming ho-hum awards. At our university the grade-point measures for cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude have been bumped up from 3.4, 3.6, and 3.8, to 3.6, 3.8 and 3.9, respectively.

Along these same lines, it is curious that definitions of the various letter grades no longer appear in our course catalog. At the same time, the current “Faculty and Professional Personnel Handbook” has definitions of course grades. So the current faculty members are told what the letter grades mean but current students are not. Go figure.

Those and other experiences prompted us to look at grades in 26 “threshold” (introductory) courses at our university. The table below offers evidence about grades in these courses for autumn semesters in 1990 and 2009. Column 1 lists the courses by their university cataloger titles. Column 2 indicates the number of students receiving A, B, C, D or F grades in each semester (in 2009, plus and minus grades were permitted). Columns 3 and 4 show percentages of course enrollment receiving “A’s” and “B’s” in the two semesters. Columns 5 and 6 show the grade point averages (GPA) for the two semesters. (Given that the initial year is 1990, previous decades of grade inflation are already built into the numbers.)

What immediately stood out to us was that grades rose substantially between 1990 and 2009. Of the 26 courses, the percentage of “A’s” and “B’s” rose in 24 courses. Grade-point averages rose in 23 courses.

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Incidentally, to say that our university was forthcoming with this information is a serious overstatement. Our requests were alternately ignored and stonewalled, notwithstanding the fact that scores of people on campus have such access and publicize grade point averages for various groups of students. Our request was not complicated by student privacy issues; we did not request student-specific grades, just overall course grades. We only obtained the grades via the Indiana Access to Public Records Act.

To cite one example from the table below: In 1990, 52 percent of the students enrolled in Principles of Marketing received grades of A or B; by 2009, 80 percent received A’s or B’s.

Alas, even our own department — economics — succumbed to inflation.
 
Some of our colleagues point to students’ rising SAT scores over the period as a rationale for the rising grades. Sorry, it doesn’t wash. Why? Well, SAT scores themselves were inflated in 1995, something SAT officials euphemistically labeled “re-centering.” Prior to 1995 the mean verbal score was 420; after 1995 it was 500. The mean quantitative score rose from 470 to 500 in 1995. Improved performance? No, pure inflation.

Our administrators never mention grade inflation publicly, but they do feign at dealing with it by convening faculty meetings directed at what is called Assurance of Learning (AOL). This is a national effort, mainly by business schools, directed at defining inputs into the college classroom.

Administrators call our AOL meetings “brainstorming” sessions. To this end, faculty members “brainstorm” about undergraduate business knowledge — that’s right, we brainstorm about knowledge. We also brainstorm business ethics, separately for undergraduates and MBA students. We wonder whether different ethical standards for undergraduates and graduates exist. Perhaps the most cosmic brainstorming sessions have been MBA sessions on “leadership management,” “change management” and “decision-making.”

We do not, however, brainstorm about grading standards and academic excellence. After all, the academic DNA of the people presiding over AOL is the same DNA that has afflicted decades of administrators who have neglected their responsibilities as custodians of their college and university grade vaults.
 
For decades, these same people have hidden behind an academic-freedom mantra and allowed faculty to debase standards on the grounds that they must be free to act as they wish as teachers. In our college, faculty grade distributions do not figure in the assessment of a person’s teaching when he or she is being evaluated for promotion and tenure. We think that is amazing, and we have no reason to believe this omission is unique to our college.

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Current federal and state legislative efforts to offer colleges and universities monetary incentives for graduating students in four years will only exacerbate this problem. Professors don’t have to be rocket scientists to figure out that low grades can delay student graduation, thereby undermining state funding and faculty salaries. Such a legislative “fix” will be like putting grade inflation on steroids.
 
The time-honored measuring rod for students’ academic accomplishments and credentials are still valuable. Unfortunately, those in charge of overseeing those measuring rods are incapable of administering the standards. So as the last strains of Pomp and Circumstance faded at graduation this year, we had a better idea about how students performed as athletes than as students. As Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation writes:

“Once everyone’s wearing rhinestones, you might not notice someone wearing diamonds.”

Clarence R. Deitsch, Ph.D., and T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., adjunct scholars of the foundation, are professors of economics at Ball State University. This article is based on work for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Raleigh, NC., which can be viewed here. The authors may be contacted through the foundation at ipr@iquest.net.


(Editor’s Note:  Grade inflation as indicated in the table below is an issue that has concerned these authors for some years — not only at their university but throughout the nation. You can link here to view earlier work using Indiana data; national data are available here. It is argued in all of these citations that those faculty members using the full grading scale, not just the upper range, face sets of negative incentives, e.g., lower ratings on a faculty evaluation process that incorporates student assessment of the instructor. At Ball State University, the authors, frustrated by internal efforts at reform through faculty senates, became convinced that the solution must be top down — that is, a sincere resolve by chief academic officers to protect the value of the academic degree by restoring integrity to the grading system. An obvious policy change would be to report individual grades accompanied by the average for that particular class. You will note that this study tracks grade inflation by individual course rather than a less precise college-wide average.)

Course Title

Enrollment

Fall 1990/

Fall 2009

Fall 1990

A’s & B’s

%

Fall 2009

A’s & B’s

%

Fall 1990

GPA

Fall 2009

GPA

Principles of Accounting 1

977/511

52

66

2.41

2.77

Principles of Accounting 2

334/181

35

52

2.07

2.39

Principles of Biology 1

215/221

35

48

2.04

2.35

Principles of Biology 2

85/205

41

 42

2.17

2.19

General Chemistry 1

239/547

36

61

1.91

2.72

General Chemistry 2

49/74

27

53

1.93

2.45

Introduction to the American Criminal Justice System

271/233

61

59

2.43

2.58

Elementary Microeconomics

1,082/522

29

43

1.84

2.28

Elementary Macroeconomics

380/241

27

33

1.92

2.04

English Composition 1

2,592/2,786

68

77

2.74

2.88

English Composition 2

1,418/1,157

65

79

2.73

2.98

Principles of Finance 1

370/214

31

46

2.00

2.47

Earth, Sea, and Sky: A Geographic View

317/440

44

47

2.32

2.33

American History, 1492-1876

219/214

50

51

2.45

2.36

American History, 1877-Present

719/237

59

45

2.67

2.21

Principles of Management (Managing Behavior in Organizations)

495/347

79

92

3.12

3.30

Principles of Marketing

581/363

52

80

2.57

2.95

Mathematics and Its Applications

1,569/1,332

41

49

2.14

2.36

Introduction to Music

814/626

64

82

2.73

3.18

Introduction to Philosophy

651/458

64

78

2.72

2.99

General Physics 1

120/185

53

64

2.51

2.77

General Psychology

1,751/1,524

42

61

2.25

2.60

American National Government

946/557

46

51

2.31

2.47

Introduction to Social Work

136/119

43

84

2.46

3.20

Principles of Sociology

1,410/1,304

45

65

2.32

2.71

Introduction to Theatre

627/526

51

82

2.51

3.23



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