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The Grade Inflation Myth

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Even in schools where there is evidence that grades have increased, however slightly, we have no reason to believe that this increase is attributed to the actions of individual professors grading too generously, despite the claims of a professor writing for The Washington Post who wrote, "The younger members of the (faculty) have never even known what a C was all about-let alone what a Gentleman's C was" (Twichell 1997:C23).


The posting below takes to task the current claim that grade inflation is a major problem at U.S. universities. It is from Chapter 15, "NOW I KNOW MY ABC'S: Demythologizing Grade Inflation," by Jeremy Freese, Julie E. Artis, and Brian Powell in THE SOCIAL WORLDS OF HIGHER EDUCATION: Handbook for Teaching in a New Century. Edited by: Bernice A. Pescosolido, Indiana University and Ronald Aminzade, University of Minnesota. Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, California, London and New Delhi. Copyright ? 1999 by Pine Forge Press, A Sage Publications Company, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320, e-mail: Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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pp. 186-189.


MYTH 1: Grade Inflation Is An Increasingly Significant Problem At Most Colleges And Universities

To examine the question of whether undergraduate grades are increasingly inflated, we must first clarify what is meant by grade inflation. Grade inflation is a separate issue from whether the requirements of undergraduate classes have become easier or whether the expectations of professors have changed. Instead, the question is simply whether the grades given by universities are higher now than they were in the past. If class requirements or professors' expectations have slackened without a concurrent change in the distribution of grades, then one would think this is a matter better addressed by recommending that professors assign more extensive or difficult work rather than by revamping universities' grading policies.

When our home university, Indiana University, first began altering faculty to the supposed problem of grade inflation, the senior author (Powell) dutifully checked whether or not he was part of the problem by examining his grade distributions from the first sociology class he ever taught (in 1980) through the first class he had taught at Indiana (in 1985) and all classes since. He found that his grades had remained essentially the same over this period. His reaction to this was ambivalent. He was pleased that he had been consistent over time, as this meant that the grade inflation that was supposedly rampant within the university could not be his fault. At the same time, he also had thought that he had become a better teacher since the first time he taught and that students were getting more out of his classes, and so he would have thought that students should be getting higher grades in his classes now than when he first started teaching. One of our colleagues has remarked that his goal is to have everyone receive an A (although this never has come close to being realized) because for everyone to earn an A would imply that he had imparted mastery of the material to all students.

Satisfied that he was not to blame for grade inflation, the senior author became suspicious when he discussed the problem with his colleagues in the sociology department because all of those who had looked back at their grades also reported little change. Obviously, if grade inflation was indeed rampant at Indiana, then someone had to be responsible for it. We checked the department's records and found that our colleagues had been telling the truth; the average grade given within our department have remained consistently between a 2.7 and 2.9 over the past two decades.

Perhaps instructors within the sociology department were impervious to the pressures that had led to grade inflation elsewhere in the university. Yet, we found that average grades throughout the university have been remarkably consistent over the past two decades. In the fall semester of the 1973-1974 academic year, the average grade was 2.90-hardly a difference worth considering as a crisis of standards or pedagogical integrity.

Media reports of grade inflation have focused on elite schools, for example, Harvard, Stanford, and Duke universities. These reports are not inaccurate; there is clear evidence of an increase in the average grades at these schools, although, as we discuss later, possible explanations of this change extend far beyond the frequent lament that professors are lowering their grading standards. The evidence of grade inflation at public universities and "non-elite" private colleges, however, is much more suspect. The best evidence to confirm or disconfirm claims about grade inflation at the national level would seem to come from the large surveys by National Center of Education Statistics that include college transcripts as part of their data. Using these data, Adelman (1995) finds that over the past two decades, the mean grade point average (GPA) for all college students who earned bachelor's degrees actually declined from 2.98 to 2.89. In short, when the nation's undergraduates are considered as a whole, there is not only no such thing as grade inflation but quite possibly a slight grade deflation. The absence of rising grades is not a feature of just one department or one university but rather of undergraduate life in general. The most prominent exception is at the nation's most elite schools, which have received the majority of attention from the media on this issue but still house only a small minority of America's college students.

Even in schools where there is evidence that grades have increased, however slightly, we have no reason to believe that this increase is attributed to the actions of individual professors grading too generously, despite the claims of a professor writing for The Washington Post who wrote, "The younger members of the (faculty) have never even known what a C was all about-let alone what a Gentleman's C was" (Twichell 1997:C23). As sociologists. We try to teach students how to distinguish between individualistic and social structural explanations of behavior. And yet, discussions of grade inflation often deteriorate into individualistic attributions of certain professors giving higher grades. Indeed, an apparent assumption of grade inflation is that nothing has changed structurally within certain universities or within higher education that can explain increasing average grades. On closer inspection, we suggest that claims about grade inflation and its origins must take into account a number of demographic and institutional factors.

CHANGING GENDER, RACIAL, AND AGE COMPOSITION OF STUDENTS Over the past several decades, virtually every college and university has experienced increases in the number of female, Asian American, and "nontraditional" students. Evidence shows that female students work harder, have a greater commitment to academic performance, and do better in college than male counterparts. Indeed, because the sharpest rise in coeducation occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the undisputed grade changes in this era may have been largely due to the rise of coeducation. Similarly, for a variety of reasons, Asian Americans earn higher average standardized test scores (especially in mathematics and the sciences) and high school GPAs on matriculating in college and tend to do better than members of other racial/ethnic groups while in college. At Indiana University, the number of Asian Americans has increased six-fold over the past 20 years. Among nontraditional students, a large number are returning women, who as a group, have been highly successful in the classroom. Any one of these compositional changes could explain fluctuations in a school's overall average grades; all should be taken into account in any examination of why some schools' grades might be changing.

IMPROVING STUDENT CREDENTIALS For elite institutions at least, today's incoming freshmen have better credentials (e.g., standardized test scores, high school grades) now than they did just 20 or 30 years ago. Competition for admission to elite universities is extremely keen, more so than in the past. Although we do not argue that incoming freshmen at all colleges and universities have better credentials than they did 20 years ago, those schools with the greatest increases in grades are precisely those with the most dramatic rises in the quality of their incoming students.

CHANGES IN THE CLASSROOM Since the 1970s, most colleges and universities have made extensive changes in curricula, Schools now require fewer courses, especially in the sciences, mathematics, and foreign languages. Schools have given more latitude to students in course selection and have encouraged independent studies, tutorials, and internships. A byproduct of these changes may have been slight increases in grades. Students historically have performed better in their elective courses than in required ones, especially science and mathematics. Indeed, some have argued that humanities and social science departments are primarily responsible for grade inflation because the average grades in these departments generally are higher than those in natural sciences and mathematics. This argument, however, ignores the fact that these disciplinary differences occurred before the alleged rise in grades. Rather, the minor increments in grades might be a function of changes in the distribution of courses, and not of the shifts in grading strategies of professors.

THE RISE IN PROFESSIONAL SCHOOLS As students and parents increasingly seem to equate a college education with occupational training, more schools have expanded their professional programs. More students at Indiana University, for example, are graduating with professional degrees in business, public administration, education, nursing, health sciences, and recreation, while fewer students are earning degrees in liberal arts. This shift offers yet another explanation for the minor increases in overall grades. Grades typically are higher in professional schools than in liberal arts programs. In 1995-1996, the average course grade at Indiana's College of Arts and Sciences was 2.81, as compared to 2.90 in the business school, 3.21 in the optometry school, 3.36 in education school, and 3.43 in social work. Differences in grades among these schools have not varied appreciably over time, but the changing distribution of students within these schools has, accounting for an overall slight increment in grades.

WITHDRAWAL INFLATION Although there is equivocal evidence of grade inflation, there is persuasive evidence of withdrawal inflation. More students are exercising their option to withdraw from a course. If more students withdraw, then grades may fluctuate even if professors maintain the same grading standards. As an illustration, 4.8% of all students registered in classes at Indiana University in 1978-1979 withdrew, compared to 7.4% in 1995-1996. Although we cannot know with certainty all students' reasons for withdrawing, our experiences in the classroom suggest that students who withdraw often are faring poorly. If we assume that the average grade of students who withdraw is a D, then the 2.6% increase in withdrawals that occurred at Indiana should translate into an approximately .05 increase (on a 4-point scale) in the average grade, which is actually greater than the observed increase in grades in that period (.04). Thus, although universities and colleges may wish to reexamine policies regarding withdrawals, we should not confuse problems resulting from such policies with those resulting from changing faculty grading standards.


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