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Grade Inflation Seen Rising

March 12, 2009

A professor who has crusaded against grade inflation by gathering and publicizing data has released his largest analysis to date -- and it suggests that grade inflation continues to be a broad problem across much of higher education. The figures may embarrass some colleges and renew a debate over whether students experience enough rigor.

The new analysis found that the average grade-point average at private colleges rose from 3.09 in 1991 to 3.30 in 2006. At public colleges and universities, the increase was from 2.85 to 3.01 over the same time period. The study also examines -- and seeks to refute -- the idea that students are earning better grades simply because they are better prepared. The greatest increases in grades appear to be coming at flagship public universities in the South and at selective liberal arts colleges.

The study was done by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who created GradeInflation.com to document these trends. For this study, he significantly expanded the numbers of institutions examined, and the time frame.

In addition, Rojstaczer says that his new study shows that it is possible to tame grade inflation. He finds that Princeton University has largely done so, by making an issue of grades and encouraging professors to give a broader distribution of grades. Further, he finds that there is one sector that has held the line against inflated grades: community colleges.

Rojstaczer's findings will probably resonate with professors, many of whom regularly bemoan grade inflation and say that students are conditioned to expect good grades just for showing up, and that professors who refuse to go along get punished with harsh course evaluations. Many professors who are off the tenure track or who are pre-tenure report great fear of being punished by students (and then not rehired) if they gain a reputation for tough grading, and studies have found correlations between being an easy grader and earning good ratings at RateMyProfessors.com. But other researchers question this study and conventional wisdom and say that reports of grade inflation are themselves inflated.

Various professors start campaigns against grade inflation, but Rojstaczer has stuck with the issue. He gained national attention in 2003 with an op-ed in The Washington Post called "Where All Grades Are Above Average," an article in which he confessed to having let two years pass without awarding a C. The Web site followed, but the new data represent more colleges than ever before and come after several years in which he didn't update the statistics.

In an interview, he said that he releases this information because he believes that not much more is really needed to tackle grade inflation. "People say this issue is complicated and difficult. It really isn't. It's incredibly simple," he said. "You get so fat that it effects your health. You lose weight. I really don't see all the problems in reducing GPAs that everyone else seems to see."

He noted that once Princeton deans said that the issue mattered and encouraged tougher grading, there was a significant change. "How difficult is this?" Rojstaczer asked. Other colleges and universities have seen the opposite trend. At Brown University last year was the first time, for example, a majority of undergraduate grades were A's, up from 42.5 percent a decade earlier.

The issue matters, Rojstaczer said, because "the alternative is a student body that frequently misses class, never prepares in advance, studies about 11 hours a week if they are 'full time' students, and drinks itself into a constant stupor out of boredom. That's not an acceptable alternative anywhere."

Clifford Adelman, a senior analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and a leading education researcher, has conducted extensive studies of grades and degrees, using national data sets, and he believes that grade inflation is marginal -- and that the issue receives far too much attention. (Adelman has criticized the quality of Rojstaczer's past work, and Rojstaczer has in turn been critical of the critique.)

"If grade inflation is so rampant, how come at least a third of kids who start in four-year colleges don't graduate?" Adelman asked.

"My point is not that there is no grade inflation, rather that inflation in the judgment of human performance is something that cannot be proved," he said. In many cases, he said, there is a far more significant shift going on that gets missed in the discussion of grade inflation. "A significant proportion of grades that are not really grades" are being given, Adelman said, as students and professor embrace "alternative signs of student academic behavior" in a way that "devalues grading."

Added Adelman: "I see grade devaluation as a more serious problem for a variety of reasons that Stuart would never consider, but that academic administrators and enrollment managers everywhere instantly understand when the trend is pointed out." Adelman said that he stands by his earlier work, based on national data, that there is not a national surge in grades.

Community College Standards

Rojstaczer's work focuses on four-year institutions, and most of his criticisms relate to traditional college age students. But he notes in his new report that data from community colleges suggest that professors in that sector have been getting tougher in recent years, and have never abandoned the C. Rojstaczer had data from the entire California Community Colleges system (the largest in the United States) and selected other community colleges -- and he found none of the patterns that bothered him in the four-year sector.

Michael R. Chipps, president of Mid-Plains Community College, in Nebraska, said his institution and other community colleges take grades seriously for a number of reasons. One is that community colleges use grades to track how their students do when they transfer to four-year institutions (and he noted that many community college graduates perform better than students who started at four-year institutions). In addition, he noted that because community colleges admit students with a range of academic backgrounds, accurate assessment is seen as important to help students enter the best possible programs and to track their progress.

"Community colleges want the rigor to be sufficient, so that our students can not only prosper in the world of work, but seriously compete with students at the senior level institutions," Chipps said.

Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, which is based at the University of Texas at Austin, said she hoped the study would lead to more questioning of grades as a measure. "Notoriously, grades are unreliable, and they include measures of just about everything -- attendance, class participation, involvement in group discussions or campus events, and faculty bias -- as well, hopefully, as some aspects of student learning," she said. "I don't know anyone who believes that an A in English 301 means the same thing in my class as in the class down the hall, much less in the class across the country."

As to community colleges, she said that close student-faculty interaction at community colleges encourages frank evaluations. "Teaching and learning is what community college faculty do."

At a reception for college composition instructors Wednesday night in San Francisco, professors from community colleges were not surprised that grade inflation seemed less present at their institutions than at four-year institutions -- and they were proud of their standards, too.

Sandie McGill Barnhouse, who is chair of the Two-Year College English Association and who teaches at Rowan Cabarrus Community College, said that community college professors see it as part of their mission to teach students of a "diversity of entering skills," so there is no assumption that everyone in the class will do well. She said that many community college students haven't had great high school experiences and so aren't the type to demand an A on everything.

Sharon Mitchler, associate professor of English and humanities at Centralia College, a community college in Washington State, said that she thinks grading at community colleges may be more honest because that's the way students want it. Her students, she said, are focused on how improving their writing will help them professionally, and they want to see that the course will give them new skills they can use, not a letter grade.

"If I gave out all A's, my classes would think I'd lost my mind," she said.

 

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