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July 14, 2011

Two critics of grade inflation have published a new analysis finding that the most common grade at four-year colleges and universities is the A (43 percent of all grades) -- and that Ds and Fs are few and far between.

Further, by comparing historical data to contemporary figures, the authors charge that there has been an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988 in the percentage of As awarded in higher education.

The study was published Wednesday in Teachers College Record and was conducted by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired professor of geology, civil engineering and the environment at Duke University, and Christopher Healy, an associate professor of computer science at Furman University. For their study, they collected historical data from 200 four-year colleges and universities and contemporary data from 135.

While they found As widespread in every sector and region, they also found differences, Private colleges tend to be more generous on grades than do public institutions with similar levels of selectivity. As appear to be more difficult to come by at some less-selective colleges and universities and at Southern institutions.

Grade Distribution by Sector and Region

Sector/Region Average SAT % As % Bs %Cs % Ds % Fs
By sector            
Private, nonprofit university 1245 48.2 35.8 11.4 2.2 2.3
Private, nonprofit college 1192 47.7 36.6 11.3 2.4 1.9
Public flagship university 1172 42.3 34.5 15.5 4.1 3.6
Public satellite university 1056 41.7 32.0 16.0 4.8 5.4
Public commuter university 1017 39.0 31.8 17.5 5.4 6.3
By region            
Midwest 1135 45.0 34.0 14.0 3.7 3.3
Northeast 1153 45.1 35.7 13.0 3.1 3.1
West 1079 44.6 33.0 14.4 3.7 4.2
South 1102 39.7 33.1 16.7 5.1 5.4
Total 1115 43.0 33.8 14.9 4.1 4.2

Rojstaczer and Healy write that the abundance of As is a real problem.

"When A is ordinary, college grades cross a significant threshold. Over a period of roughly 50 years, with a slight reversal from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America’s institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent," they write. "The evolution of grading has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance. At the other end of the spectrum, some students who were once removed from school for substandard performance have, since the Vietnam era, been carried along. America’s colleges and universities have likely been practicing some degree of social promotion for over 40 years."

These trends have an impact on graduate schools, they write, in that admissions offices must rely more on standardized tests. And Rojstaczer and Healy write that there is a negative impact on students as well. "When college students perceive that the average grade in a class will be an A, they do not try to excel."

While more regulation by colleges or departments of grades could change the patterns, Rojstaczer and Healy predict that won't happen at many institutions. "It is likely that without the institution of grading oversight, either on a school-by-school basis or nationally, meaningful grades will not return to the American academy."

 

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