PUMP IT UP

Check out this neat online tool for graphing grade inflation over time at a large selection of US universities. It comes courtesy of fan and reader Steven Ranney. Thanks!

It is naive to suggest that this is entirely a recent phenomenon; the "Gentleman's B" has been a punchline for decades' worth of jokes about Ivy League schools. The academic perspective on this – feel free to chime in if I'm off base here – is that everyone recognizes grade inflation but feels powerless to stop it. In my limited experience, there is external pressure as well as internal pressure to give higher grades than students' work deserves. We are put in a difficult position, yet part of the problem is us.

The external pressure at the college level comes from two sources. One is the grades students received in high school, which are even more wildly inflated. The modal American high school student is so academically indifferent that any student who actually completes the assigned work and masters a few rudimentary aspects of each subject is given A and B grades. In their defense, K-12 educators face constant pressure from parents to give their special special snowflakes the high grades they deserve. College professors have the unbelievable luxury of being able – legally required by FERPA, actually – to refuse to deal with parents. The second source of pressure comes from other professors within our institutions. We all know the faculty who are either Pollyanna-ish or completely checked out mentally and end up giving every student who enrolls in the class an A. When Professor X gives the students an A in English Comp despite the fact that they are completely unable to write a sentence in the English language, how am I going to give them an F, Or even a C, without getting an avalanche of complaints? When the tide keeps rising, it's very difficult to keep the boat anchored to the seafloor.

The internal pressure comes from the fact that when an entire class's performance is comparable in quality – and if that quality happens to not be great – it feels "wrong" to give an entire class a C. The voice in your head starts telling you that you're being a dick and you should give some A's, which you end up doing for whichever students performed a little better than the rest of the pack. And let's not kid ourselves either. Colleagues, Deans, and other people in the university who evaluate us are definitely going to raise eyebrows at entire classes full of C and D grades. Inevitably they are going to ask what I'm doing wrong, why I'm such a bad teacher that all of my students got C's. Personally this has never happened, I've always had normal grade distributions in my courses. But I know other faculty who have had this problem. The assumption is never going to be that none of the students did work that merited an A. It will always be assumed that the person in charge of the class has failed somehow. Sometimes that's a fair point. Sometimes you just get a batch of students who give zero shits.

Grade inflation has gotten so silly (take a browse through some of the schools on that list with mean grades in the 3.5 range) that it can't continue forever. A common complaint about graduate programs is that they obsess over standardized test scores. This is accurate, and it is a direct result of undergraduate GPAs becoming nearly meaningless. As for what to do about it, your guess is as good (and most likely as unworkable) as mine. All I can control are my own classes, and despite my reputation as a Harsh Grader I'm feeding the problem too.

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49 Responses to “PUMP IT UP”

  1. J. Dryden Says:

    I have only just discovered that I am considered a draconian grader by the students at my school. As in "He gave you a 'C'? You should TOTALLY complain–my professor would have given that paper an 'A'."

    (Side note: I do not know who this professor is, but A. I suspect s/he is not singular, B. that person is almost certain an adjunct who wants to be invited back and thinks that the best way to achieve this is to make his/her students love him/her by playing Santa Claus, and C. with all due sympathy to the miserable plight of the adjunct, FUCK THAT PERSON. But I digress.)

    But my students do not complain–on the contrary–they keep following me from class to class. Because, as they have explained to me, in person and on anonymous forms, they're actually *learning* something in my classes. "I got the first 'A' I ever earned in his class," is a refrain.

    I say this not to brag (like hell I don't), but to point out that there is often little-to-no correlation between grade inflation and popularity of teacher. That students *will* pay the price of a lower grade if it means that they feel that their time has not been wasted. There have always been slackers–witness the success of the Bush family at some of our finest institutions of learning–but there have also always been minds that want to get something out of this miserable experience.

    In other words, keep doing what you're doing–draw the line, and hang the consequences. Make it clear from Day One–I will give you a goddamned C if you are mediocre, because THAT'S WHAT A C MEANS. Then, give the goddamned Cs if that's what they've earned–even if ALL of them have earned it. (Admission: I've never had to do that–I've always had two or three A-students in every class I've taught AND one or two D/F students, and God how I love them because they make my grade distribution look like the beautiful bell curve it's supposed to resemble.) If the administration wants you to inflate grades, MAKE THEM TELL YOU. I bet they don't have the guts. (Although in and around periods of reappointment, you may want to exercise discretion at the cost of idealism.)

  2. Rob Says:

    So all the perfect little snowflakes get As. Then they graduate. And get hired somewhere based, in part, on claims of academic performance. So this is how we end up with the Pontiac Aztek.

  3. Major Kong Says:

    In the Air Force we had Officer Performance Reports or OPRs. These were, to put it mildly, highly inflated.

    The problem was: I knew that every other commander was inflating OPRs for their people. If I didn't inflate mine, then my people would not be as competitive when it came time for promotion.

    As such, pretty much everybody's OPR was "firewalled" with the highest marks possible on all items. To have so much as one item marked less than perfect would have been a career shortening maneuver.

  4. Xynzee Says:

    I have one mark on my transcript that I call B/S on and that's an 'A'—emphasis on the quotes. Yeah I'll take it, but I did nothing to earn it, and he was the shittiest teacher I'd ever had in my life—including the psychotic 6th Grade teachers that were straight out of "Brick in the Wall Pt2". I learned nothing in his subject, worst of all it was to be a culmination hands-on subject for our major so that we would have a book together to show prospective employers.

    I tried to launch a formal complaint against him, but no one else wanted to sign on, and I sure as shit wasn't going to stick my neck out for them if they weren't going to join me. Wisdom being the better part of valour, or as J. Dryden said, "…you may want to exercise discretion at the cost of idealism."

    So I got my 'A', no skills but I have an 'A'.

    Mark I'm most proud of was the D I got in Stats. I worked HARD, damn hard for that D. The guy had a rep for being draconian. Unlike JD above, no one went, "you should TOTES! complain…" We were, "Wow!" or "I feel for you."
    He told us his expectations and mercilessly stuck to them. He wasn't an arsehole, he'd offer assistance, he just made you work for your mark. Part of his secret for getting away with it though was it was a small uni, and he was the only one who taught the subject.

    After that I have a mark that got "discretionarily" kicked up to an A-. On an exam I missed—as in literally did not see—a 10pt question. I was talking to the lecturer about the subject and marks and he said how I was 10pts short of the A-, but as I'd demonstrated a pretty good understanding of the subject he gave them to me. I looked at him and said, "10pts you say? I know exactly which ones they were." He said he'd wondered what happened there, and we laughed at it

  5. Anonymouse Says:

    When I started my master's program in Comp. Sci in (well-known big east-coast school) back in the late 1990s, it quickly became apparent to me that everyone would get a B. Why? Because virtually all of us were there on our employer's dime, and employers in my area would not reimburse for anything below a B, so to keep the program afloat, everyone needed to earn a B.

  6. sluggo Says:

    Interesting chart.

    A couple of points: Some schools have data going back ten years and other schools have data going back decades. Another point is that some schools still have tougher grading than others, and their median grades are still in the 2s.

  7. Alan Says:

    A "Gentleman's B" has not been a punch line for decades. Thirty years ago when I was an undergrad at an Elite Liberal Arts Institution ™, it was a "Gentleman's C." But I guess that proves, rather than refutes, your point.

    This grade inflation is not, however, universal. Many California schools recruit heavily from the California Community Colleges system, where the mean GPA has dropped from a 2.8 to a 2.7 since 1992. And a student in that system can earn guaranteed transfer admission to a number of schools with highly competitive admissions policies with a GPA of 3.2.

    Maybe it's just that the "special snowflake" effect has not reached this particular system – it's more heavily populated by kids from lower-income families and first-generation college students. But the most competitive schools that recruit from this population – Pomona, Occidental, UCLA, Berkeley, etc. – recognize this fact, and understand that a GPA of 3.6 indicates an exceptional student, not one who is just above average.

    All of which is to say that the complaints about grade inflation are largely meaningless. The schools with inflated grades have always been widely known, and the advent of the interwebz makes that information inescapable. No graduate school admissions committee is going to think that a "B" from MIT is the same thing as a "B" from Brown.

  8. Jestbill Says:

    I blame 1957.
    After that year all the textbooks changed.

    I blame VietNam.
    My degree was earned but not deserved.

    As the world becomes more crowded, the differences among contestants for any job, any prize become smaller and less relevant. So GPA becomes less relevant.
    How much did your daddy make and who do you know?

  9. Mike Nichols Says:

    My Granddaughter, seventh grade, enrolled in Honors English, gets all As and I sometimes wonder. She is not required to read books, writes no reports, has no homework and from what I can tell, sits in class, listens and pulls it off.

    I wonder, what is required to get an A in honors English, and just what if anything is she learning?

  10. MPAVictoria Says:

    Man this blog has just become a bunch of old people bitching about the "kids".

  11. Chautauqua Says:

    I was extremely fortunate to be enrolled at my college during a once in a lifetime change over from a three point grading system to a four point one. Nice work if you can get it.

  12. Captain Blicero Says:

    Proud to see that my alma mater's grade inflation, per its reputation, was not as egregious as that at most other institutions. Also probably explains my shitty GPA. That and all the pot and not going to class.

  13. Captain Blicero Says:

    The grades I'm most proud of aren't necessarily the highest.

    Forgive me for this, but it reminds me of something that Cliff told Theo on The Cosby Show. To paraphrase, he's telling Theo that he's "afraid to try " and that he'd rather see Theo get "hard Cs" than "easy As." And because I saw that episode during my formative years, it really stuck with me.

    I worked my ass off for a B in a Spanish Literature class (it was actually a class magical realism, entirely in Español, and I quickly realized my language skills were not as good as I thought they were). But, I LOVED the class, and the teacher, and I learned so much and I STILL read Spanish language literature to this day because of it. And I worked my ass off for that B. Honestly, I've only ever been bitter about grades in easy or low expectation classes. When you are challenged and work hard, you don't care about getting a B instead of a B+. So students bitching isn't just entitlement, they're also not getting as much out of courses I think (which may very well be their fault).

    I really needed an A in that class to boost my GPA for law school applications, but you know what, fuck it.

    And in law school, I struggled because I found it intellectually stultifying. From poli sci grad seminars and Spanish literature courses to fucking Contracts. I completely checked out in law school. My highest grade was, I shit you not, an A in Fed Courts, despite not buying the book and skipping 2/3 of the classes (in a stroke of genius, if I do say so myself, I deliberately did not put my name on the seating chart so the professor couldn't tell at a glance when I was absent). But I studied my ass off for that final during the reading period. Was delighted to take an A away from a Law Review schmuck.

  14. unclemike Says:

    I teach Algebra to 7th and 8th graders, and I have to admit a sense of quiet pride whenever I have a parent complain that their precious little snowflake "has never ever had a B/C/D before."

    Since I grade on a pure percentage, I have to wonder what the heck their previous math teachers have been doing in their gradebooks…

  15. Greg Says:

    As a Brown alum who deliberately took classes pass/fail because I wanted to take them without any artificial incentives to my interests, I'm glad you can recognize the slackers at MIT for the frauds they are.

  16. Sagas Says:

    Like Major Kong's experience in the Air Force, my first few Navy performance reports were silly. The distinguishing factors were in the number and type of superlatives. "Performs well in all areas" would have been the most damning review possible. They tried to change it- the few commands that followed the new guidance ended up having to retract and resubmit, since so few followed suit. By the time I was getting out they'd switched to stack ranking with an enforced curve. Which, by the way, is one of the most hated parts of the review process at Microsoft. There's no easy answer.

  17. Ubu Imperator Says:

    Thanks for this post, Ed. It's especially timely at the end of term.

  18. Junkyard Jesse Says:

    As a former student, current graduate of a civil engineering program I'd like to second J. Dryden's statement above.

    I graduated in 2013 and there was at least one well-known professor at my school who had a reputation as being absolutely brutal. She taught structural analysis, her section was the only one offered ever, it was taught once a year (not semester) and was a prerequisite for all of the required senior-level design electives. In other words, if you did not get a C, and you failed to beg someone to waive the prerequisite requirements for you (and ABET was ratcheting down on the school for this at the time) your graduation would be delayed by a year.

    By the end of the semester everyone had a weird sort of respect for her. You couldn't hate her. She knew the subject extremely well, explained it clearly and accurately, graded fairly, took an interest in her students, was available in her office constantly, set up tutoring and study sessions, etc. She was probably the only professor I'd run into around campus after that semester who I'd greet. I'm way more proud of the C I got in that class than the A I got from a professor who gave me 150% on a take-home project.

  19. Skipper Says:

    MPAVictoria — apparently someone who passed without being able to read. The article is about the colleges and the faculties. Not about the kids.

    @Greg. I agree about pass/fail. I did that at Brown also. It really takes your mind off the grade and allows you to concentrate on the subject matter. As far as MIT, my partner went to MIT, and I always remind him about the shortcomings of having gone to a vocational school instead of a university.

  20. quixote Says:

    Alan beat me to it. At least back in the day, it was a Gentleman's C. And, as Bush is my witness, you really didn't need to know anything to get one.

    I'm pretty sure we ain't seen nothin yet on the grade inflation front. I'm convinced the reason it's so bad in K-12 is that part of the teacher's formal evaluation is based on student grades. That's making inroads at the college level now.

    So, imagine you're a teacher. You can give your students A's, not get fired, and get done with grading by 10pm some nights instead of always midnight. Or you can assign and grade a ton of work to drill the students on the material, and give all the ones getting less than A's on their own as much individual tutoring as it takes to get them up to that level. And after that some of them will still get C's and D's.

    The choice is obvious, of course. Take on more work than there are hours in the day and never let the standards slip.

    Not.

    As I say, we ain't seen nothin yet in the way of grade inflation in colleges.

  21. Nick G. Says:

    Hehe. Professor X.

  22. anotherbozo Says:

    I am so, so happy to have been denied tenure, I mean to have quit teaching, before grade inflation got so horribly out of hand. After the denial I even briefly taught at a college where no grades were given, just long essays on the student's accomplishment—that made graduate schools balk. (I enjoyed writing the essays, being glib and also being able to particularlize to a fare-thee-well. Classes were small, mind)

    But I tune into this blog and commiserate. There was/no easy solution.

  23. Freecookies Says:

    Cynically, I do notice almost every Ivy League or near-Ivy League school has an almost linear march upwards in grades.

    Some of the state schools seem to have backed off on grades though recently, some peaking earlier than others.

    I guess if you're a student, you get the best grades that money can buy? From a business perspective, you want to keep as many people paying tuition as possible.

    Perhaps we should go to a public funded version of higher education, where the bent of the professors is to wash out as many students as possible into the trade schools, like in Germany?

  24. Robert Says:

    I remember the only upper division English class I took at UC Berkeley. The Novel in the 20th Century, recommended by a good friend who was an English major. A few weeks in, I had an office session with the professor, and told him I was going to drop due to not understanding the material. He had noticed my participation in class, and had formed an opinion of me based on my verbal skills. He assured me that I was doing fine, and to stay.

    After the midterm, he met with me after class. With what I can only describe as a shit-eating grin, he said that he had been wrong and I had been right. It was too late to drop by then, but if I kept attending and doing the work (to the best of my ability), he would promise me a C. I can only wonder how one of these 'special snowflakes ' would have reacted. For what it's worth, I have two children in public schools here in Oakland and have never expected the teachers to give them anything beyond what they've earned by their efforts. Maybe I'm just old fashioned – heck, I still read newspapers.

  25. democommie Says:

    @ Major Kong and Sagas:

    I was in the AF from 10/68–11/72 and I got ONE APR that was less than "9's" across the board (Fuck you, SSgt Vick DeMarco, you fucking lifer P.O.S.). Fortunately, at that point, the WAPS (Weighted Airman's Promotion System) was in effect and my APR's didn't matter as I had TIG and my test scores were WAY above the cutoff point. But, yeah, if you had a fucking pulse, a "9" was about as low as you could get.

  26. democommie Says:

    I should add, "9"was the highest you could get so it was all about the "endorsing" officials gift for creative fiction. "Walks on water." would not fly, but "levitates" might.

  27. PhoenixRising Says:

    Note on the data: I compared the 3 women's colleges I know well to their formerly-boys, coed-since-1970 analogs, and something interesting showed up. Smith, Pomona and Spelman students got the same boost in the 80s as their counterparts at comparable local coed colleges–but their average GPA has stayed in a tight range around 3.3 ever since, with all 3 dropping the average grade in the past decade by a tenth in a deliberate fashion. At the comparison schools, there was an upward curve that has stayed up and risen.

    Explanations are welcome; regardless, I intend to continue encouraging my 9th grader to lean in that direction. Grade inflation is most insidious for good students who work hard, because it tells them that what they do doesn't matter–everyone got at least a B+, most got an A, so why apply yourself?

  28. Drew J Says:

    I think part of the problem is when students don't know why they got the grade they got. If they get used to being graded on a teacher or professor's subjective opinion of what "looks like" a relative degree of "effort", then they start to assume that if they wrote the maximum number of pages and checked off the boxes on a poorly-designed rubric, then they "deserve" an A and, if the teacher can't point to specific "excuse" for why snowflake didn't get the A++ he thinks he is owed, then the teacher has to give in. It's easy as a teacher to get caught in the trap of realizing that a student delivered what the teacher asked for, but the general quality is lacking in some area. Avoiding that means spending a lot of time on grading requirement.

  29. Isaac Says:

    According to the chart, Washington State University, my shitty alma mater, started at about 2.82 in 1970, had a low of 2.72 in 1984, and is at 2.95 today. Really, that's not a huge spread, and who's to say that grades were “fair” or appropriate in 1970? Maybe the upward trend reflects better quality in the pre-collegiate education, higher admission standards, a dying off of a bunch of hard-nosed asshole profs, or a combination of factors not under consideration. The demographic make-up of who attends university has certainly changed in 45 years. Maybe the upward trend of GPA's isn't entirely a bad thing? Maybe chaining ourselves to the bell curve and saying "we will always have the poor [and stupid]" is an out-of-date and unhelpful mode of thinking.

    Yes, education at all levels is pretty fucked up in the states right now (hooray Texas school board and Florida bubble sheet tests), but I'm not sure this trend and this study are what I'm gonna worry about.

  30. Kaleberg Says:

    At MIT, the guy who taught probability and statistics had a simple policy. You either got an A, or he recommended that you drop the course. It was an excellent course and I sure learned a lot from it. Even now I remember how to integrate probability densities, though I don't often have need to. I also learned that the school motto is "mens et manus" which means "mind your hands" which has repeatedly proven to be good advice.

    Looking at the MIT data, I saw that grades inflated through the 1960s, then leveled off in the early 1970s. I'm not sure of what happened. The rise started too early to be related to 2S draft deferments and the Vietnam War and it ended shortly after they instituted freshman pass / fail. (I'm also assuming they normalized the data since MIT graded on a scale from 0 to 5, not 0 to 4. The penalty for an F was more severe than elsewhere.)

  31. Alex SL Says:

    It is difficult to generalise this issue. In my home country, for example, it depended very much on the faculty in question. We biologists were known for giving very lenient grades, so that it was common knowledge that anybody who didn't get a 2 was hopeless, and anybody who didn't get a 1.3 or so was most likely not cut out for a career in science. (Grades 1-6 with 1 the best and 4 the last passing grade.)

    On the other hand, law students at my university had a scheme from 0 to 18 with 18 the best and 4 the last passing grade. There the average student considered themselves lucky if they got 8/18, those achieving higher than 10 were considered prodigies, and the highest few grades were just never awarded. No idea why, but nobody can say they had grade inflation.

    Also, I consider myself lucky to be a natural scientist. It seems much easier in our area to set an objective standard that needs to be achieved than in the humanities; there is much more room for interpretation in analysing a text than in whether the student knows what a stipule is or how photosynthesis works. Then again, that still leaves the option of reducing those standards…

  32. Alex SL Says:

    Reading over the comments again, there seem to be three major issues:

    Incentives. It is obviously moronic to evaluate teachers on their students' grades, or to have a supervisor decide the grades of people they sympathise with, or to have an employer pay based on their employees getting at least a certain minimum grade. And everybody should know that. These are governance failures, plain and simple.

    Then there is the question of what the grades are good for. Clearly their purpose is defeated if everybody gets an A because then no employer will be able to tell who is really capable of doing a job. Again this is a governance failure from the perspective of society as a whole, and I am optimistic that it will be recognised as such when things get too bad.

    Finally, there might also be a US American cultural issue at play here. Americans appear to be much more fond of praise and superlatives than many other cultures, but the existence of the latter demonstrates that it does not have to be thus.

  33. argleblargle Says:

    I think I'm OK with grade inflation actually. Just go with the flow and give everyone an A. Eventually, as a society, we'll learn to stop caring at all about grades.

  34. N__B Says:

    When I was at Rensselaer, it was well-known that the school median was about 2.8. I don't know if that was true or not, but we all knew it. The chart data only goes back to 2001 and shows the median bouncing back and forth between 3.02 and 3.1. Of course, what really matters is that we're less inflated than MIT.

  35. Anonymouse Says:

    @Alex; sadly, with grad school tuition in my area averaging about $5,000 USD per class, most people in my field get their master's degrees on the back of their employer. Why is the employer so generous? Because the customer demands upper-level degrees in specific fields in their requests-for-proposals. (The bitter irony is that people with advanced degrees are often stuck not using their knowledge, but instead training the customer's high school work study kids, who are always children of the customers themselves)

    I see this as more job inflation; jobs that a high school graduate might have filled 30 years ago has since gone on to require a college degree to do, then a master's degree to do, and now a master's degree plus various technical certifications, kept up to date, of course. The ticket-to-employability is becoming ever more expensive, but without it, middle-class work is shut out to the job seeker.

  36. montag Says:

    Tie together Major Kong's experience with what is happening in education in the last, oh, twenty-five or thirty years. It's about retention. In the services, not promoting people leads to the people quitting before retirement. In higher education, they don't go on, or transfer. And as schools depend upon higher and higher tuition and fees for the bulk of their operating funds, as state funds either stagnate or decline, keeping people in those seats matters.

    So, there's lots of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to aid retention. Sure, some grade inflation was inevitable during the years of the draft. The Vietnam war probably explains some of the spike at a lot of schools in that time, but it doesn't explain the continuing rise in GPAs after the draft was eliminated.

    Other forces are at work, and I suspect a goodly part of it is economic (even indirectly–students paying $10-15K per year tuition at a state school are inevitably going to think that they deserve, as consumers paying premium prices for education, the best grades for that kind of money, as as Anonymouse suggests, job inflation makes a high GPA an imperative, even though grade inflation, as a leading or lagging influence, is probably contributing to inflation of credentials for work).

    I used to teach for a small satellite of a Christian school which was always in money trouble (I'd go weeks without a paycheck, frequently), and the pressure to pass through completely unmotivated and indifferent students was enormous. I heard, repeatedly, in one form or another, "this isn't Harvard, you know." Virtually all the incoming students, most of whom had had a rather lackluster education in high school and were years, sometimes decades out of high school, were told, "oh, sure you can work full-time and go to school full-time. It won't be a problem." And there were no remedial courses offered–because Pell grants didn't pay for them. Most of the instructors were full-time high school teachers working part-time and reproducing the same level of difficulty as in their high-school courses, so it was basically a wash. It wasn't higher education, and still, many students struggled, and yet expected good grades for attendance. And that was over thirty years ago.

    If and when states start paying the freight at the land-grant schools again, I suspect that admission standards will rise a bit, and the pressure to retain students will ease up a bit–not completely, but some. When the first baby boomers showed up in the state college system, the state schools were overwhelmed by the demand, so retention wasn't an issue. I still remember a matriculation lecture given at the state school I first attended (in 1965, when tuition was $150/semester). "Look to your left and to your right. One of those people won't be here four years from now."

  37. April Says:

    Two things:

    First, a while back (20 years ago now? longer? time passes so fast when you're old!) one Seattle high school had 7 straight-A valedictorians. All the news was "Isn't this great?!" whereas my thoughts were "Apparently it's too fucking easy to get A's. I mean, four whole years of high school and no B's? That's just wrong."

    I was completely alone in these thoughts.

    Second, when I was still teaching college my grades nearly always resembled a double hump camel….a bunch of A's and B's, and a bunch of D's and F's. People either learned the material or they…..didn't. So fortunately I didn't have to inflate my grades, because no one questioned me due to the reasonable numbers of A's and B's.

    But it's a serious problem, no lie.

  38. April Says:

    @arglebargle…..once I started my class (an upper lever class that people in that major would need for their major) by telling all the students that they all got A's. No matter what. They didn't even have to attend. If they did attend, of course, they would actually learn the subject, which, presumably, they all needed for their major. By the second week of the term I had only a couple of students (out of 60 registered). I did give everyone the promised A, but I've often wondered how the rest of the students fared in their chosen major without the information from this vital course.

    And, of course, I never did that again.

    To get to the point where grades don't matter, we have to completely restructure education from the beginning. I don't see that happening any time soon, although it would be glorious!

  39. Spiny Norman Says:

    The big difference is between public and private institutions. There's more grade inflation at private institutions and that disadvantages the generally less-affluent students at public schools. As usual.

  40. Jeffrey Says:

    In my experience, K12 teachers usually face more pressure from administrators that parents to inflate grades. The main statistic is passing rate, wherein many students who should justly fail for doing next to nothing must be passed or the teacher faces serious repercussions. This exerts an inflating pressure that comes from the laziest student upward. If the kid who spent two-thirds of the course drooling on his desk makes a D, then the kid who understands almost nothing about your course but did everything she was asked to do day in and day out expects a B. Besides, you need the inflated grades to compensate for the students who will do absolutely nothing, but whose F's will bring a grade book audit from some kindly district official. Don't forget, since NCLB, our classes are populated with 100% of students who are going to college! Seriously, most people have no clue how messed up public education has become. I struggle to make my grades meaningful too.

  41. Rich Says:

    Not surprising that Harvard is a lease in inflation. It's long been known as a place that's difficult for acceptance but easy for graduation, whereas Columbia which less prestige seems to have held steady. The biggest inlay ion seems to be at Southern schools which,are struggling for recognition. I'm sure some people would blame affirmative action for all this except minorities other than. Asians are faring worse in admissions at most schools and amount to very few people at places like Harvard.

    A real problem is that some people aren't prepared for college. I taught part time at a commuter school that drew community college grads. It was an odd place because frankly anyone with a car (and you needed one for this location) could have attended the flagship state university which has a somewhat worse rep than it deserves (the next state over has a flagship with a rep that's probably inflated). I gate very few As and failed people who came to class but just couldn't perform on the exams.

  42. cpinva Says:

    my mom & wife were both teachers, at the k-12 level. as such, I've got to disagree with you. the odds of an entire class of 30 students all being "special snowflakes" is pretty slim. in fact, it's real damn slim, to nonexistent. at least one, if not a few, will actually give more than two shits about the class, and make every effort to do well in it. now granted, that leaves the bulk of the class in the "serial barely performers" segment, and a few in the "wait, what, there's a class going on here?" segment. that, my friend, is what's known as the "Bell Curve", and it's been around since Plato.

  43. Townsend Harris Says:

    April Says: "… once I started … by telling all the students that they all got A's …"
    One semester I inverted the bell curve distribution, artificially elevating all passing final grades (D or higher) to A. My program director didn't comment and probably never noticed, and student complaints about grading fell from an average of two to only one.

  44. Addicted Says:

    GPAs are kinda stupid as a judging tool (recruiters love it). I got fairly average GPA a the end of my undergrad career, and much lower GPA than several people I used to tutor and help study. The reason was that I rarely took traditional classes. I was studying engineering, but took honors versions of all my science and math classes (and was inevitably the only engineer in them). I got average grades in most of them, but clearly learnt a lot more than the aforementioned peers who got As and Bs taking the regular versions.
    I have no regrets now, since challenging myself beyond what I thought I was capable of has helped me tremendously in my career, but I was certainly a little bitter that I couldn't even submit a resume to many companies because my GPA didn't meet their cutoffs. The people who did were those who chose classes based on the grades the profs gave, and coasted through college barely learning anything with 4.0s.

  45. NoPublic Says:

    When I went to R.P.I. (Before they rebranded it Rensselaer) if you had a pulse and payed attention you could manage a 2.0. At the time they were famous for the so-called F-tests which weeded out the chaff in the Freshman class. Nowadays I'm told the F-tests are no more and the average grades are a fair bit higher. Don't know if that's a result of not beating down the younguns just as they enter a new type of schooling or a result of grade inflation. I'm reasonably proud of my 3.something from the 'Tute though.

  46. Rick Says:

    I believe grade inflation exists, and that its a phenomena which needs to be understood.

    The referenced website does nothing to eliminate examples where the grade swing is small creating a graphically exaggerated sense of inflation. Nor, does it eliminate schools with too small a sample to constitute a trend.

    Leaving these out, there are (as to be expected) more fits in starts in the grade lines, with some schools even showing grade deflation.

    Where the picture starts to get interesting is for schools with many data points over many decades. Just mentally summing these up, it looks like there was a big jump from sometime in the '60s to sometime in the '70s. Then mostly flat grading until around 1990, followed by a resurgence of inflation thereafter. It should be pointed out, however, that the post 1990 inflation doesn't seem as extreme as what happened in the 60s-70s.

    All of this makes me wonder at the combination of political, demographic, and social issues which drive grade inflation.

  47. David Littleboy Says:

    I started college (MIT) in 1972. Nixon had basically turned off the draft and the whole protest movement had come to a complete stop. There.Was.Nothing. But everyone was burnt out, and I had the strong impression that the generation just before me were way more serious, studious, act together than mine was. So it's interesting that MIT's grade inflation was largely occurring during that period. Maybe those guys were more focused, having the threat of the draft breathing down their necks, and really earned those grades, and the real inflation was when my generation showed up.

  48. D C Says:

    Can't resist weighing in, as the comments are still going:

    I teach English as a Second language to university students who aren't yet ready for course-credit classes, and to adult immigrants. So in must of what I teach, grades don't matter that much. Pre-credit university ESL is generally holistic pass-fail, and immigrant English is non-academic, based entirely on skills and need.

    However, I did once teach a course-credit ESL composition class designed specifically for degree-track international students.

    In this course, all of my students received As, even though many of them entered my class with sharply sub-par writing skills. They/I accomplished this because my class rules allowed them to rewrite their essays as many times as they needed to, within the 16-week constraint of the course. If they turned in their initial assignment late, they would lose 10% off their final grade for every week past deadline; these points could not be recovered. However, as I said, potentially infinite rewrites after they initially turned in their assignments were just fine.

    Not one student turned in an assignment late. Some students got their As on the first try, never having to revise their papers. Other students had to revise each paper once or twice. A few students achieved As by rewriting nearly all of their papers 3-5 times. Only one student needed to rewrite their final term paper to get an A on it. The rest of the students learned, through constant revisions of their own work, to create good writing with minimal revision by the end of term.

    I really don't think of what I did as grade inflation, but some may disagree.

  49. Anonymous Prof Says:

    I have been teaching for a while now, at public and private universities, large and small. My frustration is that my students are utterly unable to hack college, not even the seniors. They've signed up to get prepared for the MCAT and the GRE, but by the end they can't even do the mid-level end of chapter problems in the textbook. So, I have to give half the class A's even though everyone fails every exam, every semester, every subject I teach.

    I'm very frustrated by this, because when I talk to my "colleagues" at conferences, they usually look at me like I'm from Mars, and tell me that the problem is that I'm incompetent.

    Last semester, I dumbed the final down to the point of just asking "What are the units of force?" and "T or F: Momentum is a vector quantity." Forget whether they can actually *do* vector problems. I already gave them in-class and homework problems involving momentum as a vector. All I want to know is, after doing a week's worth of momentum vector problems, after they carefully scribbled down every number and equation I put on the board, did they get it into their head that yes, Virginia, momentum is a vector quantity? And the answer is no. They had no idea. This is like spending a week on the American Civil War and asking "T or F: Abraham Lincoln was once President of the US" on the exam, and even then they all fail.

    So I ask people at conferences, "Can your students tell you if momentum is a vector or not?" and they sniff, "Of course! I don't know what your problem is, but *I've* never seen anything like what you describe, so you are clearly doing something wrong." And then I ask, "Did you actually *ask* them?" And of course little Dr. Perfect never actually tested his students on anything so basic.

    I think the answer is simple. My students fail every exam, and I curve the class, and people cluck their tongues about how awful I am, because GRADE INFLATION. But what are the other professors doing? Simple. I know what they're doing because they say things like, "Thank God this class has a lab, or everyone would fail." Or they give the students the exam questions in class, and then give the same questions (with slightly different numbers and wording) on the homework, and then the same questions again on the exam. One of my colleagues gave her class a table of numerical data to memorize- it might as well have been random numbers. It didn't prepare the students for medical school at all, because it was worthless. But she got all the teaching awards, because the students loved her. She was "tough but fair."

    I know from experience that the majority of modern college students can't handle real college, as it is traditionally defined. So what are all those college teachers doing? The "bad guys" like me openly curve the class. The "good guys" rig the system so that nobody can fail, but nobody learns anything.