The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"What are the characteristics of a good grading system?
It should be rigorous, accurate, and permit meaningful distinctions among students in applying a uniform standard of performance.
It should be fair to students and candid to those who are entitled to information about students.
It should be supportive of learning and helpful to students in achieving their educational goals."....  ...Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley, Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing? (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2002)

Commentary of the Day - February 10, 2002:  Grade Inflation - Myths, Reality, and Consequences.

The Irascible Professor has published several commentaries on grade inflation ("Who Owns My Grades Anyhow?", "This Is Not Your Father's Harvard.", "Student Evaluations of Teaching - Are the Inmates Running the Asylum?", "Social Promotion and Grade Inflation.", etc.) in both secondary and tertiary education in the United States.  Clearly he's agin it, but until recently he felt like his was a voice in the wilderness.

However, this past week the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a detailed report on the consequences of grade inflation at the university level.  This report confirms, to a large extent, the position that we have espoused in past; namely, that grade inflation has had a pernicious and deleterious effect on the credibility of American higher education.

The report, which was authored by Henry Rosovsky, former Dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Matthew Hartley, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania examines both the causes and consequences of grade inflation.  Like most scholars they trace the origins of grade inflation to the effects of the Vietnam conflict.  At the time students needed a B average to escape the draft, and large numbers of faculty members opposed to the war responded by inflating grades.

However, grade inflation did not disappear after the Vietnam war ended.  Indeed, it has gotten worse in the intervening decades.  Rosovsky and Hartley suggest (and provide some evidence to back up their claims) that a number of factors have contributed to this situation.  They include changes in the curriculum that allowed students to opt for easier paths to a degree, the advent of student evaluations of their instructors, the transformation of students from learners to "consumers" of education, the outright dumbing down of course content, and the increasing number of untenured, part-time faculty members who teach the undergraduate courses.

Once administrators began to view students as "consumers" of the educational process rather than "raw material" to be transformed into educated citizens, the role of student evaluations of their teachers became central to the retention process.  Today untenured faculty members, whether full-time tenure-track or adjunct, do all in their power to make sure that their student evaluations look good.  Too often this means watered down courses and inflated grades.

The rapid rise in the cost of a college education also has reinforced the notion that students are "customers".  Next year the basic undergraduate tuition at Stanford will be $27,204.  Most major private universities have similar tuition rates.  Throw in room, board, books, and clothes and the total rises to near $40,000 a year.  When parents are shelling out this kind of dough, it's not so easy to send home a report card that suggests that their little darling has been spending more time at the pool hall than at the library.

Rosovsky and Hartley provide some evidence that refutes the widely held belief that the rise of "diversity" (either ethnic or economic) is responsible for grade inflation.  At the same time, however, they suggest that the shift to "student centered" education has contributed to the problem.  Many faculty members these days feel that the grading process, if done honestly, discourages struggling students and contributes to lowered self-esteem and loss of confidence.  The report includes evidence that there is almost no correlation between self-esteem and academic performance.  Unfortunately, one of the consequences of the unearned A is that students come to expect that mediocre efforts deserve better than mediocre grades.  Students who truly deserve an A are cheated because they are not distinguished from those who merit less but who are awarded the same high grade.

Another consequence of grade inflation that is pointed out in Rosovsky and Hartley's report is that both prospective employers and those who screen students for admission to graduate and professional schools have learned that the information on a student's transcript may be highly suspect.  The result is that employers and admissions committees resort to other means to evaluate candidates.  Many employers no longer even require a transcript of college grades.  Instead, they rely on their own interviewing and testing procedures to judge candidates for a job.  Graduate and professional school admission committees now resort to the results of standardized tests, which have their own shortcomings.

In the IP's view, perhaps the most detrimental consequence of grade inflation (and one missed in the Rosovsky and Hartley report) has been the development of a costly "assessment" establishment.  Since we no longer can rely on grades to tell us what our students have learned, we invest far too much time, money, and effort in designing and running "assessment" programs to give us information that we should have gotten from an honest grading process.  The IP knows of at least one campus in the California State University system that has hired a Vice President for Assessment to lead this charge.  One can only imagine the amount of money that has been siphoned off from the classroom to support this new culture of assessment.

(Here now!  Our frequent contributor, Sanford Pinsker, provides biting commentary on this business of grade inflation.)

Return to main commentary.

© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.