Several themes plague the headlines of articles about higher education institutions. In more recent memory, it’s been free speech and admissions standards, but another key topic covered extensively is grade inflation.
The Argus spoke with professors, students, and Academic Provost Joyce Jacobsen to collect both qualitative and quantitative data that have had a significant impact on the University’s grading systems.
“It could be that it’s just increasing selectivity, that the best students are more and more going into certain schools, but I don’t think that really explains these recent rises that would happen so suddenly,” Jacobsen said. “So I think there are other dynamics that occur internally at universities that can cause this to happen.”
Approximately two-thirds of grades awarded at the University in 2016 were in the A-range, as compared with slightly more than half in 2002. Trending toward higher grades, for whatever cause, may have unintended consequences. Jacobsen noted that, when transcripts are littered with A’s, distinguishing between students’ academic achievements becomes a significant challenge.
“It would get down to like the 3rd decimal place on deciding, for instance, whether someone would be a fall [Phi Beta Kappa student] or a spring [Phi Beta Kappa student],” she said.
The consequences may extend beyond the borders of campus. Some students, like Hui Yao Ong ’18, worry about how grades look on a transcript when applying to schools and jobs after graduation. He particularly addressed professors who resist grade inflation, giving B-range grades to students who are submitting high-quality work.
“[Admissions directors] assume that grade inflation is a thing, and with that assumption they’ll be reading your B-plus or your B or your B-minus or your C-plus with that in mind, going like ‘This person must be really bad at this one class or this one thing,’” Ong said. “But you know, it could be entirely average or above average, it just so happens that it’s [graded on] an entirely different scale…. It’s really uneven and that’s what bothers me.”
Jacobsen noted that grade distribution is more spread out in social and behavioral sciences (SBS) courses, while final grades are higher in the humanities and natural sciences.
“For years we were dealing with this issue that departments seemed to have different grading standards,” Jacobsen said. “We will [even] see cases, in the same department, where there’s different sections taught of the course and the grades are different. Are you really telling me that all the smart kids were in this section and all the less smart kids are in the other?”
Jacobsen asserts that such an imbalance relies on differences between professors’ grading systems rather than the random clustering of high-achieving students in certain class sections. But such a disparity makes it challenging for professors to maintain the integrity of their individual grading systems without unintentionally putting their students at an academic disadvantage.
“As an individual faculty member, I don’t want to be a lot tougher than everybody else because it doesn’t seem fair that the students who take my class should have lower GPAs than those who take my colleagues’,” English Department Chair Stephanie Weiner said. “That’s not right. And so it probably is best dealt with collectively, and that we should have some more formal set of expectations about what a reasonable distribution looks like.”
Jacobsen brought up potential solutions that the University is exploring to address grade inflation. One key strategy that she mentioned was making grade distributions available to faculty so that they could evaluate their classes’ distributions relative to others’ at the University.
“The idea is that all faculty and potentially also students would be able to actually see these distributions, certainly at the divisional level and at the college level, and probably we’ll make it available at the department level,” Jacobsen said. “I think people behave differently than if they’re in a system where they actually see how other people are doing things.”
Some universities have attempted to implement grading quotas or similar strategies to curb grade inflation, but Jacobsen said that the University hopes to deal with the issue in a more holistic way—most recently, by addressing grade distributions with new and visiting faculty.
“When we have new faculty coming in, we try to get them used to the norms and encourage them to use the range of grades and to design a grading structure that allows for some spread,” Jacobsen said.
She also noted that some professors might be inclined to give higher grades due to concern over teaching evaluations. Professors may fear that giving students lower grades would compel students, in turn, to give them lower teaching evaluations. And teaching evaluations are factored into both tenure appointment and merit-based pay. Jacobsen mentioned a possible strategy to address professors’ tendencies to grade more leniently in their own self-interest.
“We are potentially going to take it into account on merit pay, if we see people have good evaluations but they’re also giving all A’s, whether, in a sense, they’re buying those,” Jacobsen said.
The most fundamental issue that grade inflation raises is the actual value and purpose of a grade, and this is where different students, professors, and administrators may misunderstand each other.
“We joke about making everything pass/fail,” said Biology Department Chair Ann Burke. “I don’t think students would really like that though. They want to get rewarded for really hard work.”
Even the University’s academic provost questions the value of a letter-grading system.
“Part of me thinks that we should just not have grades at all and only have written evaluations, and as you know there are some schools, like Sarah Lawrence, that do that,” Jacobsen said.
For now, however, it looks like the University is taking a slow-but-steady approach to tackling grade inflation across the board.
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