A for Effort

August 8, 2014

Grade inflation was the subject of scathing articles a decade ago, with educators and others poking fun at elite colleges and universities where merit seemed to have been replaced with a Lake Wobegon attitude that everyone was above average -- well above average in fact.

A number of colleges and universities adopted policies designed to curb grade inflation. But one of the most prominent of those institutions -- Princeton University -- now appears poised to roll back the most controversial part of its policy: a limit of 35 percent on the A-range grades awarded in each course. A faculty report released Thursday made that recommendation, and it was endorsed by the university's president.

Princeton students have complained for years that they are disadvantaged in graduate school admissions -- some students went so far as to create a website where Princeton students could enter their grade point average and find out how much higher it would be at Harvard University. (A 3.4 at Princeton, the website claims, would be a 3.56 at Harvard, where the median grade is now A-.)

The Princeton faculty report, however, offered educational reasons for the shift, and questioned whether consistency in grading had actually been promoted by the policy.

And as Princeton appears to be making its change, three economists at Wellesley College published an analysis of their institution's campaign against grade inflation, pointing to unintended consequences and a failure to achieve some of the policy's key goals.

Rollback at Princeton

The faculty report at Princeton noted the unpopularity of the current policy with students. The 35 percent targets for A-range grades "are too often misinterpreted as quotas. They add a large element of stress to students’ lives, making them feel as though they are competing for a limited resource of A grades," the report says.

The report argues that while students may blame the policy for the difficulty in earning an A, that may not be the case. Grades started to drop before the policy was adopted, the report says, as the university paid more attention to grading.

"There was substantial grade inflation from 1974 through 2003," the report says. "Over this period, the raw average grade at Princeton increased from 3.03 (B) to 3.38 (above B+). Over the same period, the fraction of grades in the A range increased from 29.9% to 47.9%. Indeed, it was recognition of this trend that resulted in the adoption of the current grading policy in 2004 (effective for the 2005 academic year)."

But the report adds that "G.P.A. peaked in the 2002 academic year and subsequently fell sharply through 2005, anticipating by two years the application of the current grading policy." This suggests, the report says, "that the implementation of the current grading policy was only partially responsible for arresting the increase in grades that had occurred over the previous quarter century." What really may have played a key role was the increased level of faculty engagement in grading as a result of the discussions that took place before the policy was adopted.

To promote such engagement, the report urges that university ask each department to develop and share grading standards. This could promote clarity and also consistency from department to department, while not expecting every department to approach grading in the same way.

While urging a change in the policy, the committee rejected the idea that Princeton students were being hurt in professional school admissions or in winning fellowships as a result of average grades that are below those given at Harvard and Yale Universities. The committee had the issue analyzed by pre-med advisers, fellowship advisers and others, and noted that Princeton students have "impressive" success rates, and that there was no evidence that they were being held back as a result of more rigorous grading. The report quotes an official of the Rhodes Trust as saying that Princeton students have not been hurt in winning Rhodes Scholarships.

The committee was appointed by Christopher L. Eisgruber last year, shortly after he took office as Princeton's president. He announced that he would ask appropriate faculty panels to review the recommendations and bring them forward for a faculty vote, and he said he endorsed the plan.

"I agree with the committee that it is important to give students meaningful feedback and clear signals about the quality of their work, and that the numerical targets in our current policy were undermining our goals rather than advancing them," he said.

Unintended Consequences

The paper about Wellesley looks at a policy adopted in 2004 mandating that courses at the introductory and intermediate levels (100 and 200 level courses) could not have average grades that exceeded B+. The policy did not apply to the physical and biological sciences, or economics (where As were more scarce to start with). The research -- by Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan, and Akila Weerapana -- appears in The Journal of Economic Perspectives.

The authors found that the policy worked, in that grades fell in the departments that were required to change policies. Much of the drop took place at the top levels, not with more low grades being awarded, the paper says.

But changing student behavior in ways the policy envisioned was more difficult, the authors write. Many hoped that the shift would encourage more students to major in science fields, but that didn't happen. "Although we find an effect of grades on major choice, the switching of majors appears to be more of a function of switching between types of social sciences than from humanities and social sciences to the sciences fields," they write.

Further, it appears that students are punishing professors for tougher grading. Student evaluations of professors fell by statistically significant levels in departments that were covered by the grading policy. More students also said that they "would not recommend" these professors.

As at Princeton, Wellesley students complain about the impact of their policy. The report treats those complaints sympathetically, noting that students can point to fellowship or job applications with grade minimum requirements (at high levels).

"Any institution that attempts to deal with grade inflation on its own must consider the possibility of adverse consequences of this unilateral disarmament. At Wellesley College, for example, prospective students, current students, and recent alums all worry that systematically lower grades may disadvantage them relative to students at other institutions when they present their grades to those outside the college," the report concludes. "They point to examples of web-based job application systems that will not let them proceed if their G.P.A. is below at 3.5. The economist’s answer that firms relying on poor information to hire are likely to fare poorly and to be poor employers in the long run proves remarkably uncomforting to undergraduates. These concerns lead to pressure to reverse the grade policy. If grade inflation is a systemic problem leading to inefficient allocation of resources, then colleges and universities may wish to consider acting together in response."

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