Thursday, July 14, 2011

Grade Inflation

I see that grade inflation is in the news again. (ht)

As I've said before, I think grade inflation is a myth. By this I mean not that there's no phenomena the phrase describes, but rather that calling it 'grade inflation' is a misdiagnosis. What we are actually experiencing is grade confusion, not inflation. If you look at the standards for grading from college to college, you will find very quickly that (1) they are all vague, and part of the reason for this is that they throw together absolute measures (students did work) with relative measures (students performed exceptionally well); and (2) they do not obviously match up with each other, with some colleges emphasizing the absolute measures and others emphasizing the relative measures. The absurdity in the whole thing is the common assumption that grades are univocal measures. They are not, and there is no way for faculty to coordinate grading on a national scale, which is what would be required for faculty to do anything about it even if they wanted to do so. Part of the problem is (as you can see from the charts at the link above) people started out with what at least seems to have been a common understanding of what the grades A, B, C, and D were supposed to mean (just judging from the shapes and medians of the curves it looks very much like the original understanding was that it was supposed to measure not the degree to which students had met standards of competence but performance relative to one's peers). What we have seen since is not inflation but the breakdown of this common understanding. It was stupid from the beginning to take every A to be equivalent to every other A; what has changed is merely that it has become obviously stupid.

The suggested cause of the shift, consumer-based approaches to education, is probably part of the cause, but is not likely to be the only one in operation. As I think I've also said before, a lot of the shift, so far as faculty are concerned, can be attributed entirely to two psychological facts: (1) most teachers like their students; and (2) most teachers hate grading. There are other pressures on teachers, but most of them are not likely to have a largescale effect on their own. One of the candidates for the primary cause of this shifting in grades is given in the article above as if it were just to be expected:

The authors argue that grading standards may become even looser in the coming years, making it increasingly more difficult for graduate schools and employers to distinguish between excellent, good and mediocre students.

Surely it has occurred to some of these people that the fact (and even if it weren't a fact, the impression) that employers use grades to sort hires provides more of an incentive and pressure on students, faculty, and administration for increasing A's than anything else that could be put on the table? Given this, it was inevitable. And there's no putting things back because, again, it's a matter of different grading philosophies across the board, not inflation of an otherwise univocal measure. Those who regard this as a problem really have only one option available to them: start pushing for a different kind of grading system.


  1. Isn't there more to the problem of grade inflation than differences in standards between institutions? If University X gives all of its students As, then we can't use grades to differentiate between those students; and this problem arises quite independently of any comparison between students of University X and those of other schools. In other words, you don't need to belive that grades should "univocal" across institutions in order to worry that the effective homogenization of grades makes them less useful.

  2. branemrys1:03 PM

    That's a good question. It's not just across institutions, although that does play a big role; it's within institutions, as well. In general, colleges don't have very strict or precise policies about how instructors grade; usually the most strict you get is that if the distribution is skewed too far to the left or to the right, the professor has to fill in some paperwork, and many colleges don't even have that. I occasionally teach at a college, a fairly good one, that pretty much allows every teacher to do their own grading scale (it just has to be in the syllabus), and the only requirement is that there has to be some way to convert it to the college scale for official records. And that's not even dealing with the complication of how an A in calculus compares with an A in Spanish literature (a comparison that you can make within limits if the 'A' means nothing more than how a student is doing relative to other people in the class, but that becomes impossible if the grades can indicate anything else). And every teacher, of course, knows the difficulty of maintaining a stable grading scale even across differently structured courses taught by the same instructor (summer vs. spring/fall, online vs. hybrid vs. on campus, changes in curricula, evening vs. day, etc.).

    The need to distinguish students by grades arises from the assumptions (1)  that the students in question are already in significant ways distinguishable, which, while always true to some extent, will be closer to being false at some institutions than at others; and (2) that the grades in fact do distinguish them in significant ways, which, while always true to some extent, will in fact vary considerably.  Private schools are always going to claim that because their standards are higher their grades should tend to be higher, i.e., that their mediocre students are typically better students than all but the best at less picky colleges, and that failing to give their students A would unfairly disadvantage them in comparison with colleges that have less rigorous standards. And how would one decide whether that was right? This is another way in which grades fail to be univocal.

    Likewise, there are plenty of situations in which we don't really care about differentiation: virtually all licensing and certification is really just pass/fail, for instance, so if a university really did give its graduating students all A's, it would simply be treating its degrees as straightforward certifications of competence, and nothing more. It would be entirely possible for this to be the case; indeed, degrees that are closer to being vocational than classical liberal arts degrees come close to doing this already -- the expectation is that the grade shows completion of competence requirements, not relative performance. It just depends on the field.

    But I'm not really convinced that grades need to be 'useful' in the first place, beyond helping to determine whether a student has met degree requirements. Demanding that they serve as pre-selection for employers is putting a lot of pressure on them that recent history strongly suggests they can't bear, given that there is no way whatsoever to coordinate them.

  3. Michael Sullivan11:05 PM

    I like most of my students, and I certainly hate grading, and no doubt that has a certain influence.  But it's hard to tell just what that is. I also think I have high standards, though it's hard to know how to apply them or to be sure I'm doing it fairly. I teach at a pretty major university and they've never given me guidelines about how to grade or questioned my grading distribution (neither did the previous two universities I taught at), though they do give all the department instructors charts showing how your classes' grades compare with everyone else's.

  4. Michael Sullivan11:20 PM

    At the end of every semester my overall feeling is that most students' grades end up being somewhat higher than I feel they really deserve. I like to err, if err I must, on the side of generosity. At the same time, I still give out fairly few A's and A-'s, less than 25%. So the large majority of my students every semester are failing to meet my standards but I try to make allowances for them wherever I can.

    What are these standards? It's hard to say. Like I said, I've never received institutional guidance, which surprised me when I first started teaching but no longer does. (the most I've ever got was from a program director who indicated that one shouldn't either fail or give A's to a majority, because that would be an indication that one is doing something wrong. True but trivial, I think; although in principle I would be willing to fail everyone.) Certainly writing competent English and at least sometimes speaking in class is a sine qua non of getting an A, and it's amazing how few can even meet this standard, even at a national top-50 university.

    At the back of my mind somewhere I probably use as a standard (without thinking of it, most of the time) my own undergraduate work. I still have plenty of the papers I wrote as a freshman and memories of what it was like. I was very far from an ideal undergraduate from a teacher's point of view - I spent more time on extracurricular reading than on class assignments, for one thing, and rarely or never wrote a second draft of anything, for another - but still, I did end up getting a PhD and teaching philosophy professionally, so I must have done *something* right. But I find that a vanishingly small portion of the students I've had have been able to turn in work of the quality I was turning in at 18, unless I am completely incapable of judging my past work even at a 12 year remove. So while somewhere in there I'm thinking "A *really good* philosophy undergraduate should be able to write stuff *at least* this good, or better", still, since they hardly ever seem to and I still give out A's, that isn't really my standard.


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