November 18, 2003

Semi-Open Thread: Grade Inflation

Too busy to blog, but hope to resume shortly.

If I did have time to write a proper entry, I would write one on grade inflation, a topic that has come up lately in connection with both credentialling and student evaluations.

According to this op-ed by Stuart Rojstaczer (who also has a website called, "the data indicate that not only is C an endangered species but that B, once the most popular grade at universities and colleges, has been supplanted by the former symbol of perfection, the A." Is he right about this? Is grade inflation an observable phenomenon? And if so, does it matter? And if it does matter, then what, if anything, might be done about it? And if it doesn't matter, then should grades be abolished altogether?


Two recent items on the issue of grading: The Little Professor makes an interesting distinction between the copyeditor and the holistic grader; and Max Clio, who has "a powerful aptitude for evasion, delay, and self-protection when faced with the chore of grading," writes a column about grading in order to distract himself from the task of grading.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 18, 2003 10:11 AM

Well, to answer your questions: yes, yes, no, impossible, and yes.

"A" grades have supplanted the "B" and "C", and it's not too hard to recognize. I'm no math whiz, but it shouldn't be too hard to come up with the numbers. The only warning I would have is that these numbers tend not to track individual classes/teachers over time; that seems to be necessary data -- although it may be out there, I haven't looked too hard for it.

This phenomenon, by the way, is not limited to college -- see Jay Mathews' column in the WaPo last week on dishonesty in high school grading procedures:

I used to be of the opinion that grade inflation was such a terrible thing -- but, the only way to change this is to go back to "honest" grading, which, beyond opening up a rather nasty epistemological debate over "honesty," means shocking a generation of college students with a flurry of "C's" -- after they have been conditioned, from birth, to receiving unmitigated and undeserved praise. In the consumer climate of academia, that isn't going to happen.

I now believe that grades do not matter, and that it's only a matter of time before everyone realizes this. What matters is the credential. Who looks at grades anyway? Your HS grades are looked at for undergrad, your undergrad for grad school. That's about it. When you send off an application, you can be assured that most everyone has the same grades as you do, the same GRE/SAT, the same -------. Admissions is a craps game, and we all know it. An "A" makes you feel better, I suppose, but it has no effective value.

The last time I got a "C" was in first grad. Handwriting class. I was illegible. I still am. Since then, of course, I'm a solid 3.9xx. Wow, looking back, that just makes me feel great, knowing that I've learned how to game the system for all those years....what a special person I must be.....

Posted by: shkspr at November 18, 2003 10:42 AM

I was reading a good piece about grade inflation and class averages on academic game. Here's the link.

Posted by: ll at November 18, 2003 10:45 AM

I don't know about the overall trend, but in undergrad I didn't get any undeserved As. (I did get some undeserved Cs (as in, I deserved a D), and I will be unendingly bitter about one class where I deserved an A but didn't get it mostly because the professor is an asshole.) I know a lot of people who did honours research projects and still didn't quite get a 3.0, which was the minimum required. More people might do well than they used to, but there's no "everyone gets honours!" there.
On the other hand, in my dept here, everyone gets As if they show up and hand in a reasonable paper. So an A- is a mild warning, a B+ is a hey, you're in trouble. It's actually sort of nice. No one is under any illusions.

Posted by: wolfangel at November 18, 2003 11:06 AM

A finer means of grading will certainly help matters. Instead of the usual A,B,C,D,F, a ranting on a ten-point scale will proberbly lead to a guage of ability.

The use of GPA has always been less than stellar measurement of what a student has learnt. Is a 4.0 at a 3rd-tier university as good as a 3.5 at an Ivy? Colleges look at high school rank, SATs, essays and outside activities in additiona to GPA as a means for selecting applicants. Graduate school looks at the types of classes taken, GRE, recommendations in addition to GPA as a means of evaluating people. Companies use interviews and the kinds of classes someone has taken as the primary means of evaluation. Thus in this sense grade inflation really doesnt signal a large problem.

Posted by: at November 18, 2003 11:29 AM

I always hesitate to blog about grade inflation because that's the time I'll make the most grammatical errors in my posts, thus giving my comments an unintended dash of irony! For my classes, it is possible to make an A, but you will have to work for it. The problem is, students think A means they simply show up and do just the requirements, no more. This used to be considered C work. Another problem with grades as they are usually handled is that students can choose to do the minimum, or C level work. As teachers, why are we accepting low-quality work to begin with? Still another problem with grades is that they are treated as one-shot and boom, you're done. Revision needs to be part of the process. Assessment is meant to help improve student work, not only serve as a marker or indicator. If you are willing to take on the task of helping students to improve their work (I don't rely on the writing center or tutoring; I take action) it will involve "reteaching" on your part. All debates about remedial writing aside, there are realities: for the most part, people do not write in high school; they do worksheets. Even though I teach at the masters level, I will work with students the first few weeks of their first course on basic research writing skills. We use APA in the college of education, and most of my students have not written many papers in college or high school, if at all! This first course always involves many time-consuming corrections and revisions.
Basically, I got tired of getting crappy papers so I took action a year ago. If students want to hand in careless work, it will be more of a challenge for them to do so than to start working on improving their writing skills. I even specify font size, margins, spacing, etc. so people will know what to expect right from the start. I also realize that I work with a small number of students. Those who have large lecture hall classes will not be able to do this.
Even after all of these requirements are in place, I still worry about people thinking I inflate grades when I turn in mostly A's and a few B's because the students earned them! We need to ditch the normal curve as a means of assessing students. It is inappropriate to apply a normative means of describing class data when you are using teacher-created criteria that relies on individual work, not students being compared to each other. Suggesting that we stop grading on the curve will open myself up to criticism, but I just don't see the logic in it!

Posted by: Cat at November 18, 2003 11:40 AM

One of my senior coworkers here explains it very well: "I teach for free; they pay me to do the grading."

I tend to grade promptly at the start of the semester, but end up ignoring it for a month in the middle, until sometime mid-November I realize that I need to give students some idea of where they stand before finals. The exception is those precious seminars with 5 or 10 upper-level students you get every couple of years where they're all interested in what's going on and invest themselves in the class. There whatever "grading" happens is usually pleasant.

Every exam I write ends up with a class average around 65%. My peers in the intro classes report the same thing, although there's a bit more variation in our expectations of upper-level students. To "balance" honesty (they don't meet my standards) with inflation I use the exams to scare them but at the end of the semester grade 85% as an A-, 70% as a B-, and in 10% increments below that.

And now I have a stack of files from my "Computers for Dummies" students to trudge through while waiting for my Honor Code case to show up this afternoon...

Posted by: ABD Instructor at November 18, 2003 11:43 AM

I teach at a school that prides itself on fighting grade inflation. People here have a tendency to talk as if there is some platonic meaning of C and that only we are true to it. But this is obviously absurd. As long as everyone uses the same standards (and almost everyone except us seems to) there's no problem. Or am I missing something?

Posted by: duncan at November 18, 2003 11:53 AM

Well, I doubt everyone has the same standards. At some schools I was a "harder" grader than others -- though the discrepancy was rarely more than one or two degrees off (C- versus C, for example). (I used an absolute standard rather than a curve; I told my students, "It is technically possible for everyone in the class to get an A; statistically, it is unlikely, given the uneven distribution of talent, skill and willingness to work.") Indeed, at the better institutions the classes tended toward B averages, at the lesser, B- or C+. Curiously, the distributions of As and Fs were about the same.

The problem, then, is potentially two-fold: (1) differing standards of grading (both absolute and in whether instructors choose absolute or weighted scales), and (2) what you do when your students start exceeding the upper limits. If everyone is compressed into the top third (because Cs are no longer "allowed") the distinction between a B+ and and A- grows increasingly fine -- to a degree, I would argue, that highly subjective factors in grading (like whether one was tired or not) come to weigh as much as ones relating to the objective quality of the paper. There is less "room," in other words, between an upper-level grade and a lower-level one and thus errors and unintended subjectivity on the part of the grader weigh far more than they would otherwise.

Posted by: Rana at November 18, 2003 12:16 PM

Here are some unscientific observations from someone fresh out of grad school. I've not seen the requirements for an "A" watered down, at least in most cases. To earn an "A", students still must come to class regularly, pay attention to lectures and discussion, do all the readings, ace the exams and write good papers. It's the "B" and lower grades that have begun to concern me. Often a "B" is rewarded for competence, a "B-" means the student's work has serious problems, and a "C" is equivalent to failure. Obviously there are exceptions. I just fear that the "B" no longer equals "very good", the "C" no longers equals "average" and so forth.

I also have other concerns. As much as I like the review session, I am growing more and more concerned with how many of us are teaching our college students how to study. The study guide also has begun to bother me. While I feel that our expectations need to be clear to the students, I can remember not that long ago when students were expected to read their notes carefully and do all the readings when preparing for exams. Now many of us tell them what to study.

There's partial credit. Once upon a time, wrong was wrong and wrong meant no credit. Now wrong is no longer wrong, and an answer that has absolutely nothing to with the question can receive at least half-credit if not more.

Posted by: DM at November 18, 2003 12:27 PM

I was shocked when I heard about a grade inflation policy at a small but prestigious liberal arts college. Professors are advised against grades lower than a C, and if they wish to give a student a lower grade, they must provide written documentation to justify the grade. Furthermore, students are given the option at the start of the term to set a bar for their grade -- if they receive anything lower than the grade they've chosen, the grade isn't recorded.

I know we don't live in a meritocracy, but it still seems horrible and unfair.

Posted by: Hard Grader at November 18, 2003 12:31 PM

Since the existence of "hard" and "easy" graders would seem to demonstrate that grades aren't even a reliable measurement, why should anyone care?

Posted by: Joshua at November 18, 2003 01:30 PM

"I will be unendingly bitter about one class where I deserved an A but didn't get it mostly because the professor is an asshole."

Thank you for perfectly encapsulating the consumerist attitude that drives grade inflation. Now, I know nothing about your particular case -- perhaps you should have received an "A", and perhaps that professor did not behave in an appropriate manner. But that does not change the sentiment. Many students believe that they do indeed "deserve" an "A", regardless of the effort and intelligence displayed. "Deserve." Not "earn." No word demonstrates the passivity of contemporary academia more than "deserve."

I also applaud the posters to this thread who demonstrate the ways in which such consumerist trends in education can be reversed.

Posted by: shkspr at November 18, 2003 01:31 PM

Let us not forget the contribution to this problem that ye olde course evaluation forms -- plus speech codes of various sorts and by various names -- make. The entire rhetorical mode of disapproval, being less than impressed, etc., is ruled out of bounds in so many ways at the contemporary American university, that it becomes extremely difficult to judge students honestly.

In English departments, the problem is compounded by Creative Writing. CW courses give practically everyone an A practically all the time for doing jackshit, and this makes the literature instructors look mean for grading students based upon whether they've learned something.

Posted by: Vivian at November 18, 2003 02:06 PM

Why does anyone care about grade inflation? All you need to do is teach a class full of pre-meds. Grades matter tremendously, because they are used as a next level sorting tool. I don't have the solution, but I am reminded of the comments from someone I know who teaches in med school "do you want your/your children's/your spouse's doctor to have gotten an A for showing up?"

Posted by: bioteach at November 18, 2003 03:09 PM

Yes, I agree that if the grades all get squeezed up at the top, that would be a problem. I haven't seen this happen, but I can see how it could. Getting an A for showing up is only a problem if an A is taken to mean something. Obviously it shouldn't in those cases. You should have to get an A+++ or something to graduate. Grade inflation in itself (the average grade becoming a B when it used to be a C, for instance) isn't a problem it still seems to me. It's the variation in standards and the lack of adjustment to what grades mean. I guess that's what most people mean when they say grade inflation is a problem. It's just that I know people who mean something else, and what they mean is dumb. Just had to get that off my chest.

Posted by: duncan at November 18, 2003 03:48 PM

maybe all grades should be abolished. it aint like we have a real meritocracy going on in the u.s. anyways.

Posted by: meanregression at November 18, 2003 03:59 PM

there's always the Evergreen option: or from the faculty handbook:

(I didn't go to Evergreen myself, but have friends/family who did.)

from this side of the fence, grades aren't worth much in the long run. in the 7+ years since I got my BA, I've had exactly one potential employer ask for a transcript, and that was at an educational institution.

I've forgotten all my grades, anyway, except for American Politics, which I failed outright. not that I have any qualms with the prof on that one: I just stopped going to class about midway through the semester. (long story.) they were good enough, in general, that I could keep my scholarship, and that's all that seems to have mattered.

Posted by: Elaine at November 18, 2003 04:11 PM

Seems like the hard part these days is *getting in* to college...after that, you can coast.

Posted by: David Foster at November 18, 2003 04:37 PM

Please. You can deserve something for lots of reasons. If I figured there were courses where a C was *higher* than I deserved (and there were), then I obviously don't feel an A is what I should get because of my existence. I don't think it's consumerist to feel that there were courses where my mark -- because the professor was merciful or because the professor was an asshole -- was not what I deserved.
I will continue to use that term, because changing it to "earn" doesn't change my point in the slightest. I never got an A I didn't deserve. I sometimes got lower marks than I deserved and sometimes higher. I am grateful about one, bitter about the other.

Posted by: wolfangel at November 18, 2003 05:46 PM

One point to consider is that while the B may have become the new standard grade in this era of grade inflation, in the eyes of most of the admissions committees at top tier professional schools the 3.0 GPA is well below the cut-off point. And for those students who, for whatever reasons, want to aspire to a higher grade, if they are paying atention, will learn quickly enough what kind of work they have to produce to achieve the better grades. And as for the rest, the B allows them to stay in school in order to learn, acquire certain professional skills -- if that is their goal -- and in some cases these students may turn their outlooks and work araound to become A students. It can and does happen. Grant that it doesn't happen often, but it can. In the end, the B is harmless grade, which neither hurts nor especially helps.

Posted by: Chris at November 18, 2003 06:18 PM

I graduated from Caltech in the mid-80's with a 3.4, and recently applied to graduate school. I was asked to explain my "low GPA." I don't think the interviewer really understood when I explained that I was an average student in math and physics there, and average meant C. She probably thinks I can't balance my checkbook or make change.

Posted by: Shamhat at November 18, 2003 09:26 PM

I truly don't see grade inflation in the departments (science) where I have worked. If anything I have been encouraged to increase the numbers of D's and F's. I teach mainly entry level science to Nursing students and such courses are still ye ol' "weed out" courses. The sentiments expressed by poster #14 are alive and well at all levels of health science education. eg: Would you want a nurse attending you who could only match half of the drugs with their correct actions on a pharmacology exam? (This happens with scary regularity on the final exam.) Hence, I am encouraged to give pharmacology D's (with which a student can then no longer progress in the program). Straight and clear credentialing? Absolutely! But, very little grade inflation...

Posted by: Ellie at November 18, 2003 10:18 PM

My first undergraduate school had no grades, and I pine endlessly for that system. Much like student evaluations, grades have minimal meaning. Both student evals and grades do measure *something* with some degree of precision. But I'm not sure what's being measured in each case. Popularity? Ability to follow the rules?

I would much rather take the time to give my students detailed written evaluation of their work. Having to give students a letter or a number really frustrates me.

Of course, what frustrates me even more is the fact that I have to use the fact that I'm going to be giving students a letter in order to motivate them to learn calculus. It's not the students fault that I have to collect homework in order to make sure they actually do some work. Students have a lot of demands placed on them, so they're going to use their time efficiently. And this is the system they've grown up with.

Posted by: Angela at November 18, 2003 10:45 PM

What happens to students who have been in a grade-inflation environment when they graduate and enter the corporate world? I imagine their first performance appraisal comes as kind of a shock. There tends not to be a lot of grade inflation on performance appraisals, because it would quickly turn into real (ie, salary) inflation.

Posted by: David Foster at November 18, 2003 11:06 PM

The real problem with the grade inflation argument is that it's rigged from the outset. The term "grade inflation" is intended to suggest an analogy with the economic concept of inflation, the notion that as prices go up, your currency becomes less valuable (quick note to economists: I know that's not the "real" definition, but that's the way the public looks at it). In other words, to refer to rising grades as "grade inflation" presupposes that this is a bad thing. We would not, for example, refer to increased human longevity as "life span inflation".

It seems to me that most arguments about grade inflation are simply opportunities for older faculty to bash younger faculty (by bemoaning the "loss of standards") and for younger faculty to bash their students. There is also a disturbing political angle to this, as the grade inflation argument is often used a weapon by the right wing to attack the "liberal" academy, which is why it is a favorite hobby horse of the National Association of Scholars types.

But aside from serving the agendas of intellectual snobs and conservative blowhards, exactly what is the problem that needs to be addressed here?

Posted by: No name at November 18, 2003 11:08 PM

Last academic year, the Big State U. campus where I taught conducted a review of the previous two years' data on grades given throughout the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

The senior-most faculty awarded exactly 0 Cs in that time period, but were slightly more likely than junior TT and non-TT faculty to award a D (barely a blip on the radar). Junior/non-TT/contingent teachers were more likely to award Cs and Bs, with significantly fewer As than senior faculty.

Not that I'm presenting this case as representative, but it does give lie to the notion that those with the most incentive to be "easy graders" always buckle.

Posted by: MisterBS at November 19, 2003 12:01 AM

No name: do you really think that students (and particularly students at tenure-taught classes) are getting cleverer? Something in the water these last years, perhaps?

Posted by: at November 19, 2003 01:38 AM

Re: #22: From what I've read and heard it appears that there is indeed far less grade inflation in the sciences. Many science fields remain highly desirable for today's students -- for professional, or pre-professional rationales -- and so there is ample room to enact a "weeding out" practice. Enrollments are never going to suffer in these fields/courses, and there is little need to no need to justify the existence of the departments of Chemistry, Biology, and Physics to adminstrators. Not so in the humanities, however. Most humanities depts. need to maintain certain enrollment levels in order to survive. And one unspoken way to accomplish that is to subtly -- or not-so-subtly -- let it be known that an easy B is to be had.

Is this cynical? It surely is. But it is also the reality in which we live. And so I return to my original point. I have no trouble bestowing a B for more or less middling work (work that in a past day and age would have been a C). As I said, it neither harms nor helps, and it prevents a long line of grade clamouring students from forming outside of my office. And I am already far too overworked to have to deal with that. On the other hand, the A remains a true A. That is, where the B and C grades have more or less collapsed into one another, the A remains true. I do not give out A's on a relative scale. And it never fails to be the case that the A students step forth from the crowd.

Cynical, or just realistic?

Posted by: Chris at November 19, 2003 07:23 AM

"No name: do you really think that students (and particularly students at tenure-taught classes) are getting cleverer? Something in the water these last years, perhaps?"

Well, no, I don't think that students are getting cleverer, though I'm not prepared to rule out that possibility entirely (and please don't tell me about declining SAT and ACT scores; the relationship between standardized tests and intelligence is tenuous at best).

In any event, that wasn't my point. I was simply arguing that, since any notion of "high" and "low" grades is arbitrary, the grade inflation argument is a canard. Grades today are simply higher. That is not inherently a good or bad thing, nor does it suggest that we have a problem with "inflation" (in the sense of high grades being less deserved today than they were thirty years ago).

One could as easily (and just as ridiculously) argue that grades were too LOW back in the 1970s, and that today's higher grades are more representative of students' true performance.

Some people cling to the notion that average work should be given a grade of "C", which would, by definition, require that "D's" and "F's" being given out with the same frequency as "A's" and "B's". But almost nobody really believes that. After all, students need a "C" average (2.00) to graduate from most colleges and universities. Does anyone really want to argue that only "above average" students (and those few who achieve a GPA of exactly 2.00) ought to receive bachelor's degrees?

So I return to my original point: why is "grade inflation" a problem? As long as there's variation around the mean, we can distinguish the top and botton performers from the rest. It doesn't really matter if the mean is 2.50 or 3.50. I suppose, as people point out above, that if the average GPA went to 3.99, we'd have a problem, but that's never going to happen.

As I said earlier, the grade inflation debate is the hobby horse of intellectual snobs ("I'm so smart; my students are so dumb") and anti-intellectual right wingers ("those touchy-feely, kumbaya-singing, left-wing professors are making our kids soft and destroying our country").

In the meantime, our students take classes, get degrees, find jobs, get promoted, and the country does just fine. Just like in the good old days.

Posted by: No Name at November 19, 2003 08:21 AM

"I will continue to use that term, because changing it to "earn" doesn't change my point in the slightest."

I'm not in the mood to engage in semantic quibbling this morning, so I'll let this go for now. However, I continue to believe that "deserve" is a dirty word. No one deserves anything. Period.

"I sometimes got lower marks than I deserved and sometimes higher. I am grateful about one, bitter about the other."

Why the bitterness? Angela, in post #23, stated that grades measure something, it's just not certain what that "something" is. So why should one feel bitter about a grade? It doesn't reflect anything more than your ability to play a game. That fact just may not be as obvious as with, say, a standardized test.

Now, that's not to say that I never worried about grades. I know how the system works -- if you want to go to grad school, you need the exact grades everyone else has, i.e. a majority of "A" grades. That's it. A grade is simply a measure of your desire and facility to play the academic game.

So, grades can take a few slightly varying forms: 1)an ego-boost for the consumer, 2)a simplified quantifier used to avoid the real problems of education, and 3)yet another phase of the hazing ritual that academia has become.

Now, if you still feel bitter about a certain grade, I don't blame you -- we're all a victim of the current system, and in that system grades are perceived to be meaningful indicators. Once you recognize that they aren't, the bitternes fades away.

Sidenote: A few posters have mentioned that "grade inflation" isn't a problem, or perhaps even a topic, in the sciences. Inhabiting the humanities as I do, I would be interested in hearing more about this. In my admittedly small sample of anecdotal evidence, I would tend to agree. I remember Physics friends in undergrad struggling to get 40% on exams -- a concept that seemed alien to me, since my department rarely gave out anything below a "B".

Posted by: shkspr at November 19, 2003 09:59 AM

Just a note: it's not necessarily the case that "C" = "average." Many instructors (myself included) use the "C" to indicate "minimally acceptable."

Posted by: Miriam at November 19, 2003 10:38 AM


Fair enough, but that just speaks to my point about the capriciousness of the grade inflation argument. I assume that your school, like most, gives academic credit to students who receive a grade of "D" in your courses. Thus, you are defining "minimally acceptable" differently than your institution does. That's fine by me--I think that the entire concern over grade inflation is an inherent threat to academic freedom, and I'd fight for your right to set your standards wherever you choose. But it does show that all grading "standards" are, in the end, arbitrary, or at least subjective.

Posted by: No name at November 19, 2003 10:58 AM

Where lies the pressure to give higher grades? I must say I don't understand it. In the years I taught introductory economics, my median class grade hovered between 78-81, meaning half of my students got a C+ or lower. Although I was often petitioned for higher grades at the end of the semester, I never felt any pressure to comply. In fact, I distinctly got the impression that the department would not approve of a class average that was higher.

Posted by: Matilde at November 19, 2003 11:30 AM

Pressure comes from the constituency "No-name" represents - as he/she writes, the "country is just fine" no matter what we do so let's just keep everybody happy. Plus all standards are arbitrary (if students graduate knowing nothing that's just our particular way over here in American culture; the French or the Czechs, say, may still be quaintly hung up on some concept of cultural knowledge, etc., but we're so strong and rich here we don't have to teach our next generation anything - it's all relative, anyway, and no one has a right to judge anyone else, and it makes us so cute to the rest of the world that we don't know anything!)....

Posted by: Bart S. at November 19, 2003 12:25 PM

Matilde, I would say, as I did above, that the pressure comes in part from the realization that for humantities courses and departments to survive in this day and age, they need to maintain enrollments at a certain level, and to accomplish this the grading scale for these courses needs to be less strict. If students learn that some lit. or history course is difficult, or that the prof. is a hard grader, they are far less likely to take the course. Why bother, they say, it's not like I'm ever going to, like, use history, or whatever, like, in my life, you know ...

Posted by: Chris at November 19, 2003 01:05 PM

If marks don't mean anything and aren't ever used as if they mean anything, then that would be one thing. But if marks don't mean anything but are used (for: admission to graduate and professional schools, scholarships and fellowships, various rewards of they 'hey, I got money!' type), then it can be reasonable to be bitter about them.

This mark was not the worst I received, either. I'm not going to go into exactly the details of this particular course and why it is the only one (of about 60) I feel bitter about, but it's not as simple as "hey, this is all a game, it doesn't matter". (Marks are a game where I am now, but it's made quite clear. I mean, it's graduate school.)

Posted by: wolfangel at November 19, 2003 01:41 PM

David Foster said: "There tends not to be a lot of grade inflation on performance appraisals, because it would quickly turn into real (ie, salary) inflation."

Anyone is free to tell me that I'm full of it, but I have worked at a real job before and performance appraisals suffered from outrageous inflation. There's tons of incompetent people keeping their jobs, being advanced, and getting fat raises in the corporate world (here at BU, we even managed to gave a couple of million dollars to someone who did nothing at all). It's not about whether or not you are doing a good job; it's all about whether you are playing whatever game there is to play correctly.

I don't think I used to be this cynical. I really do think that lots of people do good work at school and in their jobs. I just think that "the man" (teacher, boss, dean, whoever) hands out a somewhat arbitrary "reward" (grade, paycheck, tenure, whatever) to us so that we'll keep our little noses to the grindstone. But the reward is all about what looks good, and bears only passing resemblance to our performance.

Posted by: Angela at November 19, 2003 01:48 PM

"Pressure comes from the constituency "No-name" represents - as he/she writes, the "country is just fine" no matter what we do so let's just keep everybody happy."

Hey, I didn't know I was part of a constituency. Who's my representative? Can I hire a lobbyist?

Seriously, Bart S., don't have a cow, man. Nowhere did I suggest that students shouldn't have to learn anything. Nor did I ever recommend eliminating grades. I am simply arguing that the grade inflation debate is bogus.

If I am reading Bart's post correctly, he is suggesting that more lenient grading demonstrates that "we don't...teach our next generation anything" and that "we don't know anything". Both of these charges might be true (though I doubt it). All I am saying is that you cannot automatically infer from "grade inflation" that students are learning less.

I wouldn't do away with grades because most students do need an incentive to study the course material. But that has very little to do with how high the average GPA happens to be at a given moment in history. Students--attentive ones, anyway--will always have at least a rough idea of what they need to go to graduate school in medicine, law, English lit, etc. And if the target GPA has risen from 2.75 to 3.40, they'll react accordingly.

But of course all grades are subjective. That's a good thing, really, because it means that I have the freedom to apply standards that differ from yours. That does not, however, mean that grades are worthless. Over the course of an academic career, after taking thirty or forty classes, some taught by tough graders and some taught by lenient ones, a student's final GPA will still provide useful information that allows those of us who recruit grad students to compare across cohorts (it might make it tougher to compare a 2002 grad with a 1962 grad, but that's rarely an issue).

Student learning is good. Academic freedom is good. Grade inflation is no big deal.

Posted by: No name at November 19, 2003 01:58 PM

Too much of this discussion is blaming others when all too often we have only ourselves to blame. Students rarely or never complain when they know what the criteria for the grades are. Let's consider DM's standard for an A go to class (do you take attendance?), pay attention (by participating in discussion?)do all readings (and document such in a journal?) ace exam and write good papers. I suspect that DM's grades really boil down to these last two categories. But what constitutes an aced exam or a good paper. Is it replicating the knowledge of the class (which might be good for a pharmacology class for nurses but strictly B level in my history classes) or pushing the boundaries of the material even if it leads to wrong answers (bad for nurses, good for high school and undergrad historians) Knowing your criteria and being able to explain it mollifies students and encourages them to work on specific skills that enable them to make progress in a field be that assimilating a body of knowledge or manipulating data etc. This doesn't work as well for curve grading, but curve grading makes no sense in the humanities.

My bias is against grade inflation because it allows students to measure progress. As a Swarthmore graduate ("anywhere else it would have been an A..., really" said the t-shirts)I know that I cherish the few As I earned and my so-called bad grades did not hold back my academic career any later on. Actually, I'm probably proudest of passing art history (which was pass/fail) because it was so alien and difficult for me, I almost did not pass it. My average, was, I believe, a C- and I was never so happy in my life. At places like Swarthmore that are drawing more and more applicants for the same number of spots, and those applicants are better qualified, grade inflation is less a problem of intent than the fact that the student body is getting smarter. There are fewer Cs than 50 years ago because those students that used to make up the bulk of the student body (middling to wealthy Mid-Atlantic Quakers of solid but not spectacular academic ability) have been replaced with stellar students from across the country.

Posted by: David Salmanson at November 19, 2003 04:24 PM

The post above raises a jarring point about grade inflation. There is no question that the A at Swarthmore is of an entirely different order than the equivalent grade at, say, a large urban state university. Or, to put it differently, the C or low B at the state university would surely be an F at Swat.

I'm not sure how to reconcile this.

Posted by: Chris at November 19, 2003 05:19 PM

A year or two ago, the Chronicle of Higher ed had a great article about grade inflation. It made the point that there are good reasons to believe it may be bogus--not bogus as a "problem" as no name points out, but bogus as a matter of factual record.

While it hardly provided slam-bang evidence that grades haven't been rising considerably, it did demonstrate two things: That whining and hand-wringing about grade inflation has been a staple of "state of academia" discourse for over a century, and that very few actual studies to demonstrate the empirical reality of grade inflation as a national phenomenon have actually succeeded in doing so. IIRC, the evidence that grade inflation might, in fact, be occuring seemed a great deal stronger at the Ivies, not the second tier and big state U type schools. If anyone has access to, or a better recallection of, that article it might shed some light on this conversation. It's possible we're just having another iteration of a pointless conversation that has no meaning. I'd say it's actually likely.

Posted by: David W. at November 19, 2003 06:57 PM

It is certainly a question as to whether grade inflation is an actual problem or the worrying about it is. I recall something from the news where a young high school student, top in her class, graduated with pride and honors only to find that she was wholly unprepared for community college.
I do wonder if exit exams, the rearrangment of SAT, ACT scores and the emergence of remedial english and math courses in college are the result of handwringing.
Is it also possible that rumors- leading to concern- to fears -to paranoia- become in themselves, a self fulfilling prophecy?
An acquaintance of mine, hearing all the scuttlebutt of grade inflation and student evaluations made sure that he brought occasional doughnuts to class and crafted tests so it was impossible for anyone to fail.
He claimed that being somewhat new in the academic game, he wanted to give himself any edge he could.
He worried a lot, although I believe it wasn't about whether grade inflation was a bad thing.

Posted by: cesek at November 19, 2003 07:27 PM

Angela, I agree that there sometime is "performance appraisal inflation" in the corporate world. I remember one manager who used to endlessly and bitterly complain about an employee of his. Then one day this person wound up being transferred to my organization, and I got a look at the performance appraisals this manager had written on this individual. All "excellent" and "outstanding."

But I think this kind of thing is an exception. If you give everybody "outstanding" appraisals, they're going to all expect "outstanding" raises, and you're not going to be able to afford it. So there's a self-limiting process which I don't think usually operates in the academic world.

Posted by: David Foster at November 19, 2003 08:06 PM

Anyone who doubts the existence of grade inflation should read this paper [warning: PDF file] by Rosovosky and Hartley.

I suppose it wouldn't much matter if the letter grades weren't still (at least nominally) attached to an older scheme that went something like this: A=Excellent; B=Good to Very Good; C=Fair/Satisfactory. In practice, many instructors now grade according to a scheme that goes something like this: A=Very Good to Excellent; B=Satisfactory to Good; C=Below Satisfactory (ie, Punishment Grade). But we still pretend that we're using the older scheme, which is to say, we now tell students that average or mediocre work is good to very good. As I see it, one needn't be a right-wing ideologue to worry about the message this sends. I think it is a problem when work that is just passable is designated "good." I think it's dishonest.

There is also the lack of room that Rana mentions. On a practical level, one problem with grade infation is that of grade compression. With "C" now a punishment grade rather than the average grade, most work must be given an "A" or a "B." It becomes increasingly difficult to make fine (or even medium-grade) distinctions. This works to the disadvantage of students at the higher end of the curve: the "A" doesn't mean what it used to mean, the highest grade has been devalued. I sometimes wonder whether we shouldn't abandon grades altogether, or else grade evertthing on a pass/fail basis.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 19, 2003 08:25 PM

But IA, the grade that is truly being devalued is not the A but the B. The B is becoming the catch-all grade, while the A, at least as I grade, is given very rarely and only for superior work. I don't give out A's on a relative scale, though at once of the insitutions I teach at the university policy demands that I tailor the B to the prevailing curve. Interestingly, though, they tend to leave me alone on the low number of A's I give.

Is that silence the institution's version of a tacit wink?

Posted by: Chris at November 19, 2003 09:10 PM

Just a little note to my friend from Swathmore. Out here in the wilds of California, we are reasonable people and do our best. Reading a series of student papers that simply regurgitate the course material can be very depressing and we do our best to discourage this. And the wrong answers I mentioned were not those that pushed the boundaries of the material. They were simply wrong.

Posted by: DM at November 19, 2003 09:13 PM

#42... I had one of those "high school honors" students in one of my community college courses a couple terms ago. In science... with a "D" - despite proclaimations of "but I was at the top of my high school class!". And, I have seen others in the same boat through the years.

Regarding grades for science vs. humanities, many schools that need to weed through multiple applications for limited clinical slots (like nursing), use a selective GPA system. In such a system the grades for only 5 courses are used to compute their entrance rank GPA, often their sciences and math. In that scenario, humanities grades are barely given a glance. They are a box to fill to have a "rounded" education, but they are not considered "crucial". (Sorry 'bout that, but I don't make the worksheet...)

Posted by: Ellie at November 19, 2003 09:44 PM

In comment #41, David W. mentions an article from the Chronicle debunking the idea of grade inflation. I looked for it on Google, and here's the URL:

I just read it and it's quite good, and not just because it makes some of same points I did more effectively than I did. :)

Posted by: No name at November 19, 2003 09:59 PM

No Name, thanks for tracking that down.

Invisible Adjunct:
I suppose it wouldn't much matter if the letter grades weren't still (at least nominally) attached to an older scheme that went something like this: A=Excellent; B=Good to Very Good; C=Fair/Satisfactory. In practice, many instructors now grade according to a scheme that goes something like this: A=Very Good to Excellent; B=Satisfactory to Good; C=Below Satisfactory (ie, Punishment Grade). But we still pretend that we're using the older scheme, which is to say, we now tell students that average or mediocre work is good to very good. As I see it, one needn't be a right-wing ideologue to worry about the message this sends. I think it is a problem when work that is just passable is designated "good."

I guess I don't see it that way. First of all, as no name points out, the notion that the C is average in theory, or should be given for average work, is undermined by the fact that at most universities students whose average falls even slightly below average are placed on academic probation and eventually dismissed. Unless we want to suggest that slightly below average students ought to get booted from University, we have to acknowledge that the official descriptions of the meanings of letter grades have been all but meaningless for at least as long as that policy has been in place. I know there are some serious elitists in academia, but very few of them would want to go this far.

But as a practical matter, I really don't think students are recieving the message that their B- work is very good. I'd say at least three quarters of my students who get in the B- range are either upset with themselves for doing poorly or upset with me, or simply acknowledge they don't care much about their grade in this class. University catalogs may describe B- as "good," no one is getting that message.

Posted by: David W. at November 20, 2003 01:57 AM

41 and 48 favorably cite the Alfie Kohn article. Certainly, Kohn's findings do not apply to the University of Alabama where our recent study for the Alabama Scholars Association found extensive grade inflation over time and grade disparities between divisions. The twin problems of disparities and inflation can be defined as "grade distortion." For our study, see

Posted by: David T. Beito at November 20, 2003 11:05 AM

Over on the thread dealing with posting policies, David T. Beito writes the following:

"Please post my comments on the grade inflation thread.

41 and 48 favorably cite the Alfie Kohn article. Certainly, Kohn's findings do not apply to the University of Alabama where our recent study for the Alabama Scholars Association found extensive grade inflation over time and grade disparities between divisions. The twin problems of disparities and inflation can be defined as "grade distortion." For our study, see"

Since I'm the "48" (as in message 48 on this thread) that Professor Beito refers to, let me make a few comments on his post.

First, I have no idea what Beito means when he refers to "Kohn's findings". Kohn's article in the Chronicle was not a research paper, it was a response to those who say we should fear grade inflation. While it is true that Kohn suggests that the evidence of grade inflation is overblown, he also says that we shouldn't worry about it even in cases where we can demonstrate that grades have risen over time.

I read the article on Professor Beito's website regarding grade inflation and "distortion" at Alabama, and I don't think it does anything to silence Kohn. Apparently, grades are higher at Alabama than they used to be, and there is disparity (Beito calls it "distortion") in grading between departments and even between different sections of the same course.

So what?

Does that prove that standards have declined at Alabama? No.

Does that prove that some departments (those that have more lenient graders) impart less knowledge than others? No.

Does that prove that student pay less attention, do less reading, or study less effectively in "easier" classes? No.

It simply proves that grades are higher at Alabama than they used to be. That's all. Nothing else.

As for grade "distortion", where I come from they call that academic freedom. Beito grades his way, I grade mine. Am I too easy? Is he too hard? Are these even meaningful questions?

Finally, if you take the time to peruse Professor Beito's website (, you will see that the grade inflation argument is simply part of a much longer menu of right-wing attacks against "political correctness", speech codes, diversity, etc.

Now, of course Professor Beito has every right to believe in these things. Frankly, I think it would be healthy for the academy to have a few more conservatives among the ranks of humanists and social scientists. But understand that the attack on "grade inflation" is, as Alfie Kohn points out, part of a larger right-wing attack on American higher education.

Posted by: No name at November 20, 2003 11:21 AM

"part of a larger right-wing attack on American higher education."

Attack -- you mean "attempt to reform"?

Posted by: JT at November 20, 2003 01:01 PM

No, I meant attack--attempt to discredit.

Posted by: No name at November 20, 2003 01:15 PM

That's an element of reform. You don't reform something that doesn't have flaws. The point is about biased use of language, which I'm sure you understood.

Posted by: JT at November 20, 2003 02:38 PM

Why does grade inflation matter? Another perspective:

In short: because students drop/withdraw at the slightest chance of a C, or even a B. If you don't have tenure, or a tt job, too many drops, people not taking your class, has a significant impact on your future.

Posted by: biotech at November 20, 2003 06:16 PM

A math professor at Princeton Jordan Ellenberg, wrote an article: Don't Worry About Grade Inflation: Why it doesn't matter that professors give out so many A's which you may find interesting. He points out that any grading system can work if it has more than one grade. He also points out that many schools (including Northwestern, where both of my daughters are enrolled) are now using a 6 step system (A, A-, B+, B, B-, F)which has more spread than a 5 step system (A, B, C, D, F)and can therefor produce finer distinctions.

Second, One proposed solution that may make some sense is the external internal grade. I read that the famous Harvey Mansfield announced that he would henceforth give two grades one for the offical transcript and one for the student to tell him what Harvey really thought. A much more elaborate version of that concept was used at The Ohio State University College of Law, where I was a student before in the previous century.

The system was invented by a professor named Robert Wills, a man so dull that his students called him "The Chiller." Nonetheless he deserves a footnote at least in the history of information science. He devised the first versions of the database that is now Lexis-Nexis. His grading system, which is stll in use works as follows:

The Law School maintains its transcrits on a 0-100 scale.

The University maintains its transcrits on a ABC A=4pts scale. When the Law School sends grades to the University 92-100=A, 82-91=B etc.

Law School professors rarely gave numeric grades of less than 84, so almost all students carried at least a B average.

The Law School maintaines exact class rankings based on the numeric grades.

Here is where the math comes in. Professors are constrained in handing out grades by the records of the students who are taking their classes. They cannot bid for popularity by handing out easy grades. The Deans office looks at the records of the students coming in to their classes and tells them in effect -- you may hand out no more than 1 100, 2 95s, 3 92s, 6 90s, etc. The result is that there are no "guts" taken for easy A's and difficult courses are not shunned. Good students have their class ranks and honors and even mediocre students graduate with B averages.

The Law School grading system was designed to force profs not to disrupt the overall class mean, which was about 90 with a sigma of about 3 (remember I said grades varied mostly between 84 and 100). This produced a B average on the University's ABC scale. As for failing grades, I don't think that would ever have happened. Students who flunked out last year were removed from the data base.

Third are grades merely fetish objects? I don't thinks so. Once upon a time they were a form of comunication from teacher to student and from school to parents and then to employers or higher levels of schools. But in the 1960's they came under attack from a couple of quarters. One was the anti-war crowd who did not want to give any student a low grade for fear that he would lose his student deferment. The other was the counter-cultural crowd exemplfied by Sumerhill, the Waldorf Schools and the Self Esteem movement. See also: Michael Barone's comment on the difference between school and the real world.

I think that this controversy, like almost every thing in American society can be understood through d'Tocqueville. The importance of equality is such that it will always be very hard to sell the American people on the proposition that half of them, and even worse half of their precious children, are below average. Our neighborhood newspaper published a quote from an offical in our school district that amused us, He said that 44% of the children in our district are gifted. If grades bring bad news that half of us are below average, so much the worse for grades.

Should we do without grades? Teachers could communicate with students without grades, even parents, although it might be a much higher burden on the teachers. But trying to get a synoptic view of the student without grades is much more difficult. If there are no grades, then employers and higher level schools need alternatives. One alternative is standardized testing. I do not think I need to remind you how unhappy that makes a lot of people. Another alternative is feeder schools and favored professors. We usually call this the old boy network. It is not thought to be a socially egalitarian method of allocatin opportunities. maybe grades and class ranks are not so bad.

3 final thoughts here.

1. Lets get rid of the current letters, the emotional baggage they carry is too great. My Proposal is:

O = OK, work was acceptable, you passed the course. used to be a C, but the word average is poison in Lake Wobegone.

P = Pat on the back, good work kid. Used to be a B.

W = Wow, way out of the ordinary. Why aren't you teaching this course? What an A should have been, but hasn't been for a generation.

S = So sorry, you did not pass the course. (I do not see why you need a D and an F. Although, I remember my Typing teacher in high school "Bob, you are a nice boy and I do not want to flunk you, but you have not learned to type so I cannot give you a grade higher than a D-")

Numeric values:

O = 1,000,000.1
P = 1,000,000.2
W = 1,000,000.4

2. It is high school Students who are hurt the most by these shenanigans. My kids high school where 44% of the students are gifted ;-) once claimed that 15% of its graduating class were valedictorians. When that producced guffaws, they clammed up and refused to disclose class ranks at all. Now these are well to do suburban kids, but the trend is worrisome. As I said before, it is the poor and lower classes who get screwed when the objective measures are removed.

3. At the college level, the classic problem is the humannities science split. At Northwestern, my daughters' school, the Engineers are always complaing about the easy grading of the Humanities students. The solution, it seems to me, is to maintain separate rankings for different areas. Perhaps forcing a curve would be a good thing in this context.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 20, 2003 09:53 PM

I think grade inflation is a problem, and I'm as leftist as you can get. I'm also in favor of some of standards.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at November 21, 2003 01:07 AM