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Inflated grades or inflated hype?
May 11, 2009 4:34 PM   Subscribe

Is grade inflation really that serious a problem at colleges and universities? Looking to cut through the rhetoric associated with this issue.

Before posting this question, I dutifully sought out an answer through Google, and I didn't realize that grade inflation had become such a political issue. I don't exactly follow radical right wing punditry, so I didn't realize that to so many from that lot Harvard = grade inflation = some sort of liberal plot or another. Well, whatever.

I know that there are statistics out there that show that, for example, Ivy League schools hand out a higher percentage of high grades than they did, say, a half-century ago. But that doesn't really tell me much. There could be a number of factors in play to explain these figures. But nobody appears to want to analyze the situation objectively.

So what I'm asking is this: has anyone been to a school where they perceived grade inflation to be a serious issue? That is, were there large swaths of students getting high grades who didn't deserve them? If so, how did this work? Could they actually skip assignments and still do well, or was it more like they just had to put in a minimum amount of effort to do the necessary work? Was it so bad that students expected high grades when they clearly had no business doing so?

I know that grades don't mean a lot to most people. But the reason I ask is that I'm in a grad school program that draws students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I'm surprised at the sense of entitlement some people have when it comes to getting the A-level grades they need to stay in good standing. Where I came from in undergrad, the students that worked the hardest (i.e. those destined for grad school) seem to worry about their grades the most. Where I am now, nobody seems to stress about grades. It's odd.
posted by hiteleven to Education (43 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
There was a bit of an issue with this in Australia a few years ago, where universities desperate win the big up-front fees from foreign students seemed to be giving foreign students an easy pass - in some cases, basic English skills were not even up to a standard that would be required to complete the coursework. Good article here.

I have to say though, in my experience as an academic (albeit 95% research, only 5% teaching), I haven't seen students with a sense of entitlement for high grades, nor students being given easy passes. I'm hardly at an "Ivy League" university, though.
posted by Jimbob at 4:53 PM on May 11, 2009


I went to a private liberal college from '98-'02. We weren't given anything and I felt like our profs pushed us tremendously. My wife is attending college now and has attended two different nearby state schools (take that detail how you will, not sure if it matters) and she tells me stories constantly of lazy, self-entitled, immature kids who don't expect to work, expect ALL due dates to be supremely negotiable, and assume good grades are a given. Ugh, it's totally vile, don't get me started. I have a friend who has just earned her PhD and teaches at a state univ thousands of miles away from me and reports much of the same attitudes there.
posted by CwgrlUp at 4:54 PM on May 11, 2009


That is, were there large swaths of students getting high grades who didn't deserve them?
I think that's the wrong way to think about this issue.

All that grades are is a system of communicating student achievement to the student and to others. On one level, as long as everyone understands the grade scale in the same way, it doesn't really matter very much what the scale is. If a C is average and everyone understands it that way, that's fine. If a B is average and everyone understands it that way, that's also fine. What is not fine is if most people believe a B to be average but you, because you're a bitter old reactionary with an axe to grind, decide to grade your students using C as the average so that you can make some sort of point about how superior things were in the good old days. If you're failing to convey student achievement to your audience, you're failing as a grader. A lot of anti-grade-inflation loons end up doing that.

The problem with grade inflation is that it tends to devalue high grades, so that it's hard to differentiate between truly outstanding students and merely good ones. If the highest grade is an A, and professors give out lots of As, then they don't have any way to signal that a particular student's work is unusually excellent, rather than just good. For that reason, it's not good to have too much grade inflation. It's good for graduate schools and the like to have some way of knowing whether a student is amazing or just very good, something that isn't conveyed by an inflated grade scale.

Grad school grades work differently from undergrad grades, in my experience. In general, there are three or four grad school grades. A is for very good work. A- is for acceptable work. B+ is for not-really-acceptable work and suggests that you're in trouble. Anything below a B+ is a failing grade and signals that the professor doesn't think you belong in grad school. Everyone understands this scale, and it conveys everything that it needs to convey. Therefore it's not really grade inflation. It's just a grading scale that is meant to convey whether the professor thinks you've done good enough work to continue in the program and not much else.
posted by craichead at 4:58 PM on May 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


I teach freshman composition at a state university, and there's a lot of variation in how much inflation goes on. Personally, I realize I'mterrible about grading up - since writing skill isn't quantifiable, and I don't believe a system can be devised for quantifying it fairly, I tend to grade high (using the comments as the real indicator of how I feel) because I don't want to punish students with something in which I don't even believe.

A lot of the media coverage of grade inflation doesn't really talk about instructors' individual quirks, and I think those are a massive aspect of how grading gets decided, no matter what the institutional atmosphere. I've participated in training exercises where every comp instructor gave a different grade for a different reason: because the paper offended a particular priority of ours, because we felt the student needed encouragement or ego-deflation, because we regarded grammar as significant or insignificant as a measure of quality, etc. The question of whether we thought the paper was good was actually made up of many questions.

All this is to say that, yes, there is a strong culture of grade-inflation here. The students are often very anxious about their grades, and don't hesitate to make this known, and a lot of instructors (I'm really speaking mostly of composition people here -humanities grad students without much training- since that's my world) respond to that. I think that's certainly part of why I tend to grade up; after all, I could just as easily say "I find humanities grading frighteningly arbitrary, but you still get a C because you're not trying." But a lot of it also depends on the instructor and the student. At least, it does here.

PS I don't know anyone, though, who wouldn't fail a no-show. The inflation comes more in terms of high grades for mediocre writing.

PPS Of course, with regard to my own work: I generally expect, and get, an A. It's the culture of my particular graduate program that an A for a graduate student is predetermined once they're in.

PPPS An objective analysis of grading would be a fascinating thing. I don't know if it could exist, any more than an objective grade, but I do agree that the media could have a better shot at it.
posted by thesmallmachine at 4:58 PM on May 11, 2009


I think you would first have to define what it means for a student to "deserve" a grade; that very notion would appear to me to indicate that grades are a matter of quid pro quo rather than a metric. (Which they may well be, I'm just saying that the answer to that would radically change the nature of your own question.)

If grades are a metric of a student's performance relative to their peers then any deviation of grades as a group from a bell curve would indicate flaws in the metric, as I understand measurement science. So the degree to which grade inflation would be a problem would be the degree to which someone is attempting to use grades as a metric.

And so I'd think that different organizations attempting to use grades for different purposes probably would have different answers to the question of whether it's a problem. Someone who is trying to determine whether a student understands a given topic based upon their grade would probably have a different answer compared to, say, someone trying to award a scholarship.

I can say anecdotally that where I went as an undergraduate (not an Ivy-league but sort of an Ivy league wannabe) the college administration explicitly pushed for grades to conform to a bell curve, which apparently resulted in it being much more difficult to achieve high grades and consequently there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. (I wasn't really affected by this because I generally did not try to achieve high grades.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:00 PM on May 11, 2009


Maybe I'm misinterpreting this, but you say

Where I came from in undergrad, the students that worked the hardest (i.e. those destined for grad school) seem to worry about their grades the most. Where I am now, nobody seems to stress about grades. It's odd.

This sounds less like an issue of grade inflation, and more like, perhaps, these people are not as concerned with grades anymore because they've already made it into a grad program.

To answer your broader question... A student at my prestigious liberal arts college did her thesis on grade inflation here a few years back. As I recall it, the issue is not so much that grades are given with less care now or anything like that, just that (in certain departments/with certain professors/at certain institutions), the grade about which a class is curved has crept up. For example, our math department still curves most classes about a B, while some humanities classes will curve about an A-.
posted by telegraph at 5:00 PM on May 11, 2009


I think it completely depends on the professor. I've had professors that completely kicked my ass and made me work for everything I got in the class and I've had ones that graded on curves as high as 30 points (yes, really).

The one that graded on the 30 point curve was for Chemistry (I'm a Nursing student). I still have no knowledge of the subject whatsoever and he passed me with a B+. At one point in my academic history, I would have been thrilled with that. However, I'm pretty pissed that I spent a lot of money and time on a class that was a complete waste to me and I will likely have to take it again at some point in the future to learn what I need to know. He's not doing anybody any favors by slacking off like that.
posted by dancinglamb at 5:01 PM on May 11, 2009


Craichead's explanation of grad student grading is probably more accurate for my institution than mine, actually. I should have said that we either get an A or we're in serious trouble.
posted by thesmallmachine at 5:03 PM on May 11, 2009


Yes. I have a friend who was forced to give As to students she felt should fail, she was a postdoc at Stanford, which is famous for grade inflation.

I think Yale is also known for excessive grade inflation, but not Harvard or Princeton. I've even heard that Princeton has some creative accounting practice where they can fail out poor students, but not report this to prospective students, thus not scaring off the rich but stupid ones.

A normal state school has grade inflation from the shear number of students, and ubiquitous fitting to normal distributions, but this seems more justifiable than the inflation at Ivy League schools. I think the major force against grade inflation is the "common final" across all sections of core first year classes, like calculous, i.e. honors track students get the As on the common final, pushing the normal students grades down where they belong.

An elite tech school like MIT, CalTech, VaTech, GaTech, etc. usually has far less grade inflation because poor students switch into easier majors like management, economics, etc. very quickly, or just drop out.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:10 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's a lot if you just Google. For instance:

A Harvard University report last spring complained of grade inflation that makes it easier to get high grades. Now the academic dean, Susan Pedersen, has released data showing that 49 percent of undergraduate grades were A's in 2001, up considerably from 23 percent in 1986.

I can't judge myself, but I began medical school in Sarajevo during the war. It was very difficult to get the equivalent of an "A" or even a "B." When I came to America, I studied English - which I couldn't speak - for about six months, then I entered a well-known and hard-to-get-into school, where I got straight A's (well, aside from a couple of bad math classes, where I got B's.) It felt a little like a joke to me - my English still was off - although I did work hard and learn a lot. When I read stories about grade inflation, I believe it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:26 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm in a grad school program

Grad school is a whole different situation than undergraduate grading. Craichead's description of the grading scheme is very accurate. Basically, anything short of A work is problematic, and so there's not any point in stretching out the scale -- B work would be effectively failing. This isn't a shift of what an A means, this is a shift of what anything but an A means. The fact is that transcripts/grades are largely irrelevant to getting jobs out of grad school; if you're going into academia, they are completely irrelevant, and it is really the quality of your research that will matter. In this domain, I would say that there is no inflation in terms of expectations of quality whatsoever.
posted by advil at 5:30 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I went to a state school and it varied highly among professors. I had a calculus teacher that, out of his class of 35 at the start of the semester, ended the semester with 10 and of them, passed 4 students (myself included, with a C, which I only got because his son was in my mom's second grade class at the local elementary school). He was well known as a tough teacher. My history of rock and roll teacher was also tough (he was a DJ from SoCal and knew everything about music) I got a B in a class that was known for easy As. The final exam was listening to a 15-20 second audio clip and having to write down the artist. He had originally expected students to know the artist and songwriter(s).

Then there was a kid who was borderline mentally disabled, had spent 12 years working on an mechanical engineering degree, and got his degree the same year I did. He took every class about three times before the professor would just give up and pass him. Gentlemen's Cs would be an understatement.
posted by SirOmega at 5:31 PM on May 11, 2009


I should clarify why common final exams are a force against grade inflation :

A typical calculous course for a large state school with an honors program will consist of numerous classes of 20-60 students all taking the same course. All classes get their own midterms graded by their professor but the whole course gets one common final. All faculty members then decide upon the grade distribution on the final exam. So each professor knows how their individual students and their whole class did on the final exam. The honors classes naturally take the lions share of the As on the final. So professors with ordinary classes get an accurate picture of their students abilities relative to the whole student body, not just within the class.

A professor won't usually get in trouble for giving an extra A each semester, but too many might get noticed. I've definitely felt guilty about giving even one A when no one got an A on the final exam. A professor won't ever get into trouble if their final grade distribution approximately matches the grade distribution on the common final exam, which might still mean no As.

Your honors students otoh get massively inflated grades if you compare them amongst only other honors students, or even Ivy League students, but ultimately their degree will say "University of [State]", just like everyone else's, so I think the global comparison is fair.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:31 PM on May 11, 2009


I did my PhD at Princeton. When I started, grad inflation was an issue, but after my first year of grading to a B average this was dealt with by the university across the board. This resulted in less students bitching to me about not getting an A when it was undeserved. FWIW, in my time there, I never heard of or experienced any creative grade accounting.
posted by ob at 5:32 PM on May 11, 2009


I think most good grad schools just kick you out if you consistently deliver below what they view as A level work.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:35 PM on May 11, 2009


ob : I never knew the details, but this "creative accounting" was that Princeton's promotional literature hid the fact that they actually do fail out students; thus making them more competitive with Stanford & Yale among the rich kids.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:38 PM on May 11, 2009


As a grader/teaching assistant at an elite American university, I have felt pressured to give B grades to work that I thought was C or D work, and A- to work that I thought was B or B+.

I have only been allowed to "hold the line" on the full A.

Some professors are aware of the problem and do something about it; some feel too pressured by the department's habit of grade inflation to do anymore than TAs do, and hold the A line; some have convinced themselves that the students always do A work, when this is patently not the case (not even for generally quite bright and well prepared students).
posted by jb at 5:55 PM on May 11, 2009


There was a good post about it on MeFi before.

First, non-US people (including myself) are commenting. The issue is different outside the US. In Australia a lot of grading is done on a curve. The grades get spread out. I believe the average score in a course in Australia is about 71 or so. It is hard and rare to get above 90.

Second, grade inflation is incorrectly termed. The problem is grade compression. The people who were getting As in the 1960s would be getting A++++s now if it were inflation. It is the compression and the lack of grades to show how relatively capable students are that is the issue.

Finally, look at the article in slate written by Mefite escabeche where he argues that despite grade compression it is still possible to work out who the best students are.

One interesting aside is that non-US people often don't have to pay to go to University, if you have to pay 20K to get in, is there pressure to get an A to justify the expense? Expensive US universities may rank as the best in the world because of their research achievements but do they teach better than other cheaper international systems?
posted by sien at 6:06 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the answers so far, everyone.

Sorry, I think I confused the issue by bringing up grad school. I was trying to explain why I was interested in the issue because I see behaviour some in my peers that I did not see at the undergrad level, which is particularly puzzling since I'm at a much more prestigious school. I suppose I was thinking that some of the students in question had an easy time in undergrad and carried that attitude with them into grad school, but that's pure speculation. I'm more concerned about hearing stories of what happens at the undergrad level (which is what I've been getting, so thanks again).
posted by hiteleven at 6:08 PM on May 11, 2009


Oh, and according to the official grading rubric, A (including A-) = excellent, B= good, C = satisfactory.

But the reality is that
A = excellent
A- = good but not great
B+ = satisfactory
B= not satisfactory, but not completely awful
B- = pretty darn awful
Cs = would be bad for high school work
Ds = were you on drugs when you wrote it?
F = I'm pretty sure I read most of this on wikipedia...
posted by jb at 6:08 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


(Sorry, I've graded recently, and for an easy course which a whole lot of students took to get a credit without doing much work - and then some complained that I gave them low grades for bad work.)
posted by jb at 6:16 PM on May 11, 2009


It definitely varies within institutions. I did my undergrad in math and physics at VaTech. The advanced physics courses tended to curve around a B or B+, with about half the class dropping each semester (due in part to low grades). Class averages on final exams and midterms were usually well below 50%. By contrast, my math classes would routinely feature do-overs on tests or extra credit work. There was much more talk of students as "paying customers" in the math department.

My own sense is that the compression that sien talked about is indeed the biggest problem. Not so much because you can't figure out who's good, but because bad students get passed through to advanced classes, and the professors feel compelled to slow the classes down to keep the paying customers moving down the pipe. The result is that good students (sometimes) get bad instruction from advanced classes. Example: a graduate-level complex analysis course at VaTech was slowed down so that one student (who had never seen complex numbers before) could keep up. The (senior-level) undergraduate prerequisite to that course frequently had lectures that devolved into in-class homework sessions, wherein the professor would wander around and help students do the problems they had been assigned (again, to help the weaker students). These were two different professors, the department had an institutional problem.
posted by Humanzee at 6:31 PM on May 11, 2009


As far as statistical evidence goes, I can say that there are far fewer Cs and Ds than most people imagine, but I can also say that having looked at those statistics over 20 years at multiple universities, I have seen very little change in those numbers. So grades at most universities do no center a bell curve neatly on a C, but somewhere around a B. I was a teaching assistant for a professor who very consciously and explicitly said that he was going to move the curve from a B/B- to a B-/C+ and when grades started coming back, I thought we were going to get assaulted after class. Lots more anecdotes, MeMail me if you want more.

What I will say is that any right wing pundit who tells you that this is all some sort of liberal plot is in some sort of OxyContin haze. If you talk to the people on the ground, you'll find them pointing to a number of other things. First, it's something of a prisoner's dilemma. Even if you want to have a lower curve in your classes, other professors and other schools are not doing that and you put your best students at a competitive disadvantage on graduate applications. ("What about class rank, isn't that a better measure?" Sure, but again, you assume that admissions committees with hundreds and hundreds of apps to read will look at that closely. "3.8" pops out at them in a way that "427 out of 3,978" doesn't.) Even if you make them better students, you may make it less likely that they will keep getting to do something they love and are good at. Second, an emphasis on assessment and at least looking like they stress good teaching has led almost every college or university to embrace quantitative student evaluations. Almost every instructor - adjunct lecturer through full prof - gets evaluated on a 1 to 5 scale. Administrators love these because they're single values that they can look at side by side and give the appearance of objectivity, even though no one who teaches anything doubts that they are anything more than a popularity contest. And what makes you popular? Easier grading, or at least a generous back end (i.e. show up and do most of the work, you get a B). Again, most instructors know most grades are inflated, but the institution will punish anyone who sticks their neck out and lowers them. Really, really great instructors can get away with more honest grades, but you'd have to be a once-in-a-lifetime prof to get away with that regularly. Add in some effort to protect the majors for smaller departments (Chinese gave 90% of their students As when I was at Georgetown) and you have students, departments, administrators and self-preservation for younger instructors all pushing the grades upwards.

What do you do? As someone who gets evaluated and someone who's sat on committees where these things were discussed, I don't think lopping off any one of the heads kills this hydra. I think you have to have more nuanced forms of evaluation to avoid popularity contests, you have to have a clearer sense of where the distribution of grades should go, and both of these have to be things that become standard practice in most institutions. I haven't seen anyone with brilliant ideas on how to do either one, much less the authority to make it all happen.
posted by el_lupino at 6:32 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think Yale is also known for excessive grade inflation, but not Harvard or Princeton.

If Harvard is not, then it's a recent change of policy. About ten years ago (sorry, can't recall the year, but the stat is real), 80% of their seniors graduated with honors, which would imply at least a 3.4 or 3.5.
posted by el_lupino at 6:43 PM on May 11, 2009


If Harvard is not, then it's a recent change of policy. About ten years ago (sorry, can't recall the year, but the stat is real), 80% of their seniors graduated with honors, which would imply at least a 3.4 or 3.5.

To be more precise on the Harvard statistics, it was 91% in 2001. (From The Tech, MIT's student paper, in February of 2002.) You'll be hard-pressed to find an average GPA for Harvard because at the time they calculated GPAs on a different scale. (I shouldn't talk; MIT GPAs are out of 5.0 instead of 4.0, which was our own sort of "grade inflation".) Also, if you're going to try to compare average GPAs at different universities you have to bear in mind that some fields generally give higher grades than others, and those fields may be better-represented at some schools than at others.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:59 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


To be more precise on the Harvard statistics, it was 91% in 2001.

Wow. I was sitting here wigging out a bit, thinking, "Shit, did I remember that stat right? Am I gonna get stomped on the green?" But I UNDERremembered it? Wow.
posted by el_lupino at 7:06 PM on May 11, 2009


I don't think grade inflation at my institution (University of Ottawa) is a problem. The average entrance scholarship requires an 8.5 GPA (out of 10) to maintain. This averages out to a A-/A average.

85-90% of students manage to lose this scholarship in the first year.

That said, uOttawa is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road Canadian school. But the grading is fair.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:24 PM on May 11, 2009


Expensive US universities may rank as the best in the world because of their research achievements but do they teach better than other cheaper international systems?
posted by sien at 9:06 PM on May 11 [+] [!]


No. Proof: They let me teach. I have way less preparation and teaching skill than the TAs I had at my dirt-cheap Canadian state university.

More seriously, I don't think that very research oriented universities put as much thought into teaching as lesser ranked universities. Certainly, my current department has no coherant curriculum and little to no discussion of teaching issues across the department. While individual faculty members have put in a great deal of thought and effort into their teaching and offer support to their teaching assistants, there is no departmental co-ordination on either courses, or skills to be expected/taught within them. Whereas my previous university had a full-program for the department designed, a progression from first through to fourth year, which was nonetheless flexible to the needs or interests of the individual student. I think I was lucky to do my undergrad where I did.
posted by jb at 8:01 PM on May 11, 2009


It all depends on whether "average" is based on other students, or a standard. Where I used to work there was a big annual audit/inspection that ended up with a grade for the organization. The grade was not A, B, C - it was Significantly below average (SBA), BA, A, AA, Excellent.

Guess what? More organizations got Above Average than Below, which sounds ridiculous at first. The explanation was, "Average" wasn't the average performance of all those tested. It meant the standard performance level that the average performer could be expected to put out. In that sense, it's entirely possible that everyone is above average this year. Unlikely, but possible.

The problem with strict curve grading is comparison from class to class. Is the guy with a B in prof. X's section really not as good as the guy with an A- in prof. Y's section? Maybe Y just has a generally dumber class, and the guy in his class stands out more with the same effort.

The inflation (if it exists, but I don't doubt it) is a tough problem. Once someone starts handing out As willy nilly in a competitive field, everyone else has to follow suit. At that point, giving a "good" student an honest B hurts them relative to everyone else. Damns them with faint praise, in effect.
posted by ctmf at 8:10 PM on May 11, 2009


I have discussed this with one of my closest friends, an English prof. She teaches for a large state school and also for a small liberal arts college. She feels pressure to grade generously from both, but in the small liberal arts school it is more intense. She was actually asked to reconsider a "D" she posted for a student who rarely attended class and made a joke of his final paper - even though the D was what was earned according to her rubric, the dean thought it was too dangerous to piss off the student's family. My friend accepted the change of the grade to C.

According to her, this is an overt conversation on many campuses.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on May 11, 2009


On one level, as long as everyone understands the grade scale in the same way, it doesn't really matter very much what the scale is. If a C is average and everyone understands it that way, that's fine. If a B is average and everyone understands it that way, that's also fine. What is not fine is if most people believe a B to be average but you, because you're a bitter old reactionary with an axe to grind, decide to grade your students using C as the average so that you can make some sort of point about how superior things were in the good old days.

Well, there is also the idea of an actual scale - a C is meant to show that you got about 75% of the answers correct. And, traditionally, a test is meant to be about hard enough that an average student will get that, a good student will get 85% right, and it will take an outstanding student to get practically everything right. It may be harder to see how this works when you're grading papers instead of tests with right/wrong answers, but plenty of teachers use metrics that give a certain amount of points for different aspects of the paper.
posted by mdn at 8:23 PM on May 11, 2009


I grade in the engineering school at a gigantic Midwestern state school. No grade inflation here!

The only students getting A's are super-geniuses who really shouldn't be taking the class in the first place. A typical hardworking student with regular high-school preparation gets a B, and average across the whole class is a C.

As for grad school grades: my advisor has repeatedly insisted that I spend less time on my own classes in favor of TAing and research. That might explain why your peers are nonchalant about grades. Of course, my advisor and theirs might be surprised when we all flunk out due to low marks...
posted by miyabo at 8:54 PM on May 11, 2009


Paper grading isn't as arbitrary as you think. They are graded on style (organization and composition), and content (ideas and knowledge/skill of analysis). I personally rate content and organisation higher than style - you don't have to be Robertson Davies, but you do have to know what you're talking about, think critically about it, and being able to write out that analysis in a clear and coherant manner. Being Robertson Davies (or Faulkner, for the Americans) is great, and totally an added bonus. I had one paper that I gave an A+ to which had wonderful thinking, but even better writing.

Excellent in both: A. Excellent in one, but only good or a small problem in the other: A-. Both good (but not great) or one quite good but problems with other: B range. You have a paper, and it's in English, and it says something obvious but it says something: Cs. You have a paper, and it's not quite in English, and what it says isn't correct: Ds.

Okay, I know this sounds a bit arbtrary, but after reading about 10 student papers, you quickly begin to feel excellent, good, poor. If you got As in undergraduate, then you have a definite sense of what was required for an A. Some of my low A- papers in undergrad I thought were damn good, but I can see now that they were lacking something (they were very good on information but light on analysis, or the thesis, while solid and well argued, was not as original as I thought it was). A B paper is written competently, but not necessarily with great style, and the content is good - the student understands the concepts/material and can articulate that knowledge, but may just be answering back what they have learned rather than working through the thinking for themselves.

There obviously is some comparison among a class - once I've decided one paper is a B+, I'll probably bump a much better paper into the A-, because in reflection and comparison, it is better. But it's not just comparitive to the one class - it's comparative to your whole experience of papers, and to what you know is expected out of the students. I also think carefully about how papers would be graded at other universities, and try neither to penalise nor reward my students for the fact that they are a university with many more A and B students than were at my undergraduate university. If I think a paper would have gotten an A- or A at my undergrad uni, I'll give it that grade, even if that means all papers get in the A range. But I don't want to be pressured to give A-s to papers that would have gotten B+ or B at my not-at-all selective undergrad uni.

There is actually quite good reliability in paper grading. I've "double-graded" several times - that's when you have two (or more) people reading the same paper and grading it without knowing what the other person has assigned it, and sometimes there is a small difference within a grade (such as between B and B+), but rarely a large one (B to A-, for example, or even a low B+ to A-). In my experience, there is more variance between graders with low grades - Cs and Ds - than in the high Bs and As, but I think that's a matter of trying to decide just how bad the paper is, and also because people have different floors (some just won't give Cs or Ds).
posted by jb at 9:08 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, grade inflation - or grade compression - does matter, if it happens in one discipline and not another, or in one university and not another. Students compete for scholarships, awards and funding across disciplines within universities, and between universities. Grade inflation in my own graduate school has meant that students in departments with strict standards are loosing out on competitive funding to students from departments that just give out the highest grade if you did the work. One department here defined H (Honours) as a good term paper; another defines it as "publishable scholarship." That's not the same thing, but we're up for the same funding. Just because I probably benefitted from this (mine is the former department) doesn't mean it's right.

Between universities, there can be a double whammy: some people assume that elite universities have harder grading standards, which is not true. (The undergraduate does have more assigned reading, but I'm not sure that it all gets done.) So if an elite university is grading work as A- that would be B+ at a less-elite institution, this may be even further inflated in the eyes of graduate schools, scholarships and employers. This is also a serious problem.

It's about fairness - it's also about what grades really are: an assessment of the skills and knowledge mastered. If students are given grades that say that they mastered certain skills/knowledge that they didn't, they are poorer for it, and our world is poorer for it. University should be a time to be striving to learn - if you want those As, you should be working your brain off learning and thinking. No one wants a doctor who has only a passing knowledge of anatomy; I don't want future leaders with only a passing (or even flawed) understanding of history, society, state-formation, economics, etc.
posted by jb at 9:20 PM on May 11, 2009


There is actually quite good reliability in paper grading. I've "double-graded" several times - that's when you have two (or more) people reading the same paper and grading it without knowing what the other person has assigned it, and sometimes there is a small difference within a grade (such as between B and B+), but rarely a large one (B to A-, for example, or even a low B+ to A-). In my experience, there is more variance between graders with low grades - Cs and Ds - than in the high Bs and As, but I think that's a matter of trying to decide just how bad the paper is, and also because people have different floors (some just won't give Cs or Ds).

So, sorry, I just want to be clear...because earlier you said that you felt a lot of pressure to give students higher grades than you wanted, but here you're saying that the grading system is coherent. So are you saying that it's coherent, but distorted? Or are you saying that the system is good, but then the pressure to inflate grades comes afterwards? Or does the pressure come when grading tests rather than papers?
posted by hiteleven at 9:24 PM on May 11, 2009


Something a prof at a middling Canadian engineering school told us: the grades in that calculus course (called calcul I, basically adding vectors to elementary calculus) didn't fall on a bell curve. You had a three-humped camel instead: a hump of people who clearly hadn't gotten it (Fs, maybe Ds), another hump of middling students (Cs and Bs), and a third hump of people who'd truly gotten it (As and A*s).

So a bell curve isn't an answer to everything. (Although it seemed useful in courses where the exams killed so much that the C was at 4/20).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:42 PM on May 11, 2009


A possible way to objectively assess and correct for grade inflation:


Professors should report the average grade for the class to universities, and universities should print that average grade right next to the grade given to the student on their transcript.

This system give professors the academic freedom to grade as they see fit, but allows universities to monitor grade inflation across the board. It requires minimal changes to the current system, and yet you could automatically correct for inflation looking over a transcript - you see a B and an average of C, and you understand instantly that the student performed above their class average. It's much more informative.

I'm no reactionary, but I worry that education is becoming a line that you wait in for X number of years to receive Y piece of paper. Currently, most employers wouldn't know that I worked much harder for the A in Organic Synthesis than for the A in Computing in Molecular Biology.

(I'll ignore the snide remarks about state schools - though I'd relish seeing the commenters struggle through a full science or engineering workload at a Big Ten school.)
posted by Jorus at 6:16 AM on May 12, 2009


Princeton has made grade deflation an academic priority, so they've publicized statistics on their grading standards which you might find useful to quantify the "problem" of inflation (see this report, for example). Before the administration made a concerted effort to rein in the number of As, they constituted 55% of all grades in the humanities (although there were lower percentages in the social sciences and natural sciences). The school's made it a policy to reduce As to roughly a third of all grades.

I can't speak to the student experience there, but clearly the administration thought that it was inappropriate for the majority of grades to be As.
posted by frogpondian at 7:00 AM on May 12, 2009


I should probably clarify the "bitter old reactionary" comment. I'm not talking about people who object to the majority of grades being in the A range. I'm talking, in particular, about a professor with whom I graded who decided that the standard for an undergraduate A was that the paper was publishable and would make a significant contribution to the field. An A- paper was publishable but would not contribute significantly to the field. He wanted me to give a student a B on an original, well-researched, cogent B.A. honors thesis, because the student's work would probably not be published by any major journal.

Now, maybe that should be the standard for undergraduate work. But it's not anyone else's standard. It's not the standard by which that student's peers were being judged. It's not the standard that the student would have in his head when he got back the paper on which he'd worked his butt off for six months and saw a mediocre grade. And when I tried to explain this to the prof and to back it up with examples of recent B papers and a chart of recent grade distribution and what have you, I got accused of being representative of everything that's wrong with contemporary academia, just because I thought the department should have a reasonably uniform grading standard for honors theses. I did manage to argue him up to a B+, but it really should have been an A-.

I've seen a fair amount of this, mostly from politically conservative professors who entered academia before the '60s. They really seem to think that they're striking a blow in defense of Western Civilization by giving students low grades. And I think that's fundamentally misguided, if you consider what the purpose of a grading system is.
posted by craichead at 8:25 AM on May 12, 2009


craichead, I wasn't trying to snipe at you by dropping the "reactionary" adjective. I apologize for my defensiveness. Your description of the problem:

If a C is average and everyone understands it that way, that's fine. If a B is average and everyone understands it that way, that's also fine. What is not fine is if most people believe a B to be average but you...

is spot on. This breakdown in a shared standard system is why I think averages should be included explicitly on transcripts.
posted by Jorus at 9:03 AM on May 12, 2009


I've seen a fair amount of this, mostly from politically conservative professors who entered academia before the '60s. They really seem to think that they're striking a blow in defense of Western Civilization by giving students low grades.

I hear what you're saying here. For my program we have to take a language test, which is always set (twice a year) by one of maybe two or three profs. Well, everyone knows when our soon-to-be-retiring prof sets it, because it's about a million times harder compared to when the other profs do so. This prof is a very nice fellow, I should mention, but I think he's thinking along these lines.

I find it interesting that there seems to be both positive and negative pressure causing grade inflation. By positive, I mean that some profs feel that they need to reward their good students as much as possible so they will have competitive grades when applying for grad programs and scholarships. By negative, I mean instances in which the university itself forces reluctant profs to up their grades for a "valuable" student, or to make the school attractive to future applicants, or whatever. Seems like a hard mess to get out of.
posted by hiteleven at 10:52 AM on May 12, 2009


"Is grade inflation really that serious a problem at colleges and universities?"

As someone working in academia, I'd say that grade inflation in high-schools is a serious problem in colleges and universities. It's extremely common for students who don't know basic math and/or can't write a coherent sentence and/or can't solve basic reasoning problems to use as their defense: "But I got straight A's in high school!!"
posted by coolguymichael at 12:51 PM on May 12, 2009


So, sorry, I just want to be clear...because earlier you said that you felt a lot of pressure to give students higher grades than you wanted, but here you're saying that the grading system is coherent. So are you saying that it's coherent, but distorted? Or are you saying that the system is good, but then the pressure to inflate grades comes afterwards? Or does the pressure come when grading tests rather than papers?
posted by hiteleven at 12:24 AM on May 12 [+] [!]


Yeah, I was totally unclear, sorry. When I was talking about the system, I was talking about how it should ideally work (and how people talk about it, which we do, a lot). But I have felt personally pressured by the grading in my department to move the line for the A- down into the Bs, to work work which fits how I was talking about Bs and which I feel would have gotten Bs in my undergrad uni.

about highschool grades: aren't incoming students told that their grades will go down in university? We all got the "you'll probably go down 10% [a full letter]" speech during the orientation at York (in Toronto). Then I felt smug, because I didn't. (Of course, that was just because my highschool teachers were loveable bastards who expected university level work and graded accordingly. Gotta love alternative schools with few rules but high academic standards.)
posted by jb at 3:53 PM on May 12, 2009


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