Why We Inflate Grades
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made headlines recently by announcing a plan to fight grade inflation: all grades received will be contextualized on student transcripts, allowing graduate schools and potential employers to see grade distributions for each course and thus to determine just how much value to attach to those ever-prevalent As and Bs. This move is the latest in a series of attacks on what is perceived by many (rightly) to be an epidemic in higher education today, particularly among those institutions that seem to do well in the national rankings.
Student anxiety about such policies is understandable. Graduating seniors are naturally concerned about their competitiveness during difficult economic times, while juniors and seniors worry that they may be passed up for fellowships, summer programs, or other academic opportunities on account of a lowered grade-point average.
Professors, too, have their concerns about grade deflation; we not only care about our students’ successes but also about the implications of anti-inflation policies on our own careers. While institutions are increasingly taking measures to combat grade inflation, there are several key pressures faculty members face when assigning grades, and these may cause us to feel uneasy or hesitant about immediately subscribing to a strict regimen of grade deflation. These pressures in no way excuse or minimize the ethical implications of grade inflation, nor do I seek to undermine the efforts of those striving to curtail what is indeed a significant and widespread problem in higher education today. My purpose is only to suggest some of the underlying causes of this epidemic from a faculty perspective; to point out some of the pressures faculty face as they assign their students grades. These pressures, as I see it, come from three primary sources:
Pressure from students: Most professors are experienced in the familiar end-of-semester scene in which a student comes to office hours to argue for a higher grade. Such discussions often involve a student’s disputation of minutiae from past exams, papers, and assignments, all in the hope of gaining a point or two here and there and thus retroactively improving his or her grade. Such discussions can be quite time-consuming, and they often come at the busiest time of the semester, thus bringing with them the temptation to do whatever it takes to close the matter and move along. There may also be a nagging fear that minor grading errors have indeed been made and that the student should be given the benefit of the doubt. With ever-increasing college costs and the inevitable sense of student entitlement and consumerism that follow, such discussions are becoming all too common. and are not always limited to the end of the semester. Even more important, many faculty members dread and even fear the negative classroom atmosphere that often results from giving students "bad" grades (i.e.. C or below, though even a B fits this category for many), particularly in courses dependent on student discussion and participation, such as a seminar or a foreign language class.
Pressure from administrators: Success with student evaluations is a career necessity, whether one is a young scholar seeking the elusive Elysium of tenure or one belongs to that now-majority of faculty members who teach part-time or on an adjunct basis and are dependent on positive student evaluations for reappointment. At teaching-intensive colleges and universities, in particular, student evaluations are often of paramount importance, and faculty members must do what they can to keep their customers happy. Many faculty members feel, and numerous studies seem to suggest, that generous grade distributions correspond to positive teaching evaluations, so many faculty members, under pressure from administrators to produce good evaluations, feel a temptation to inflate grades to secure their own livelihoods. Since administrators usually have neither the time nor the expertise to make independent evaluations of a professor’s teaching ability (imagine a dean with both the leisure and the proficiency to sit in on and evaluate in the same semester both a Russian literature course and an advanced macroeconomics course, without having done any of the previous coursework...) they must rely heavily on student descriptions of what goes on in the classroom, descriptions that are often contradictory and that unfortunately do not always cohere.
Pressure from colleagues: Some faculty who wish to curb grade inflation may feel that they are the only ones fighting the problem. If everyone else is giving out inflated grades, why should they be the ones to stand alone, only to incur the displeasure of students who may be confused by inconsistent standards? As college freshmen arrive on campus increasingly unprepared for college work, faculty members, inheriting a problem passed on to them by their colleagues in secondary education, often have the difficult task of trying to determine reasonable standards of achievement. It takes effort and planning for faculty to balance their professional responsibilities to both their respective disciplines and to their students’ positive academic experience. In an era where budget cuts affect most severely those departments and programs with low enrollments, no one wants to lose the bidding war for students, and many professors, particularly those in vulnerable fields, fear that a "strict constructionist" approach to grade deflation may cost them student interest and consequently much-needed institutional support, both of which risk being redistributed to more favored colleagues. Furthermore, the seemingly ubiquitous nature of grade inflation may simplify the ethical quandaries involved: if everyone understands that grades are being unfairly inflated, then there may, in fact, be no unfairness involved at all, since the very transparency of grade inflation thus removes any sense of deception that may linger in our minds.
There is a final pressure to grade inflate, and it comes from ourselves. It may be the disquieting feeling that our own efforts in the classroom have sometimes been inadequate, that poor student performance reflects poor preparation or teaching on our part, and that grades must be inflated to compensate for our failings. It may come from the difficulties inherent in assigning grades to elusive and ultimately unquantifiable phenomena such as class participation, essays, student presentations, and the like. In such cases, grade inflation ceases to function as a lazy or disinterested tool for maintaining steady waters; it becomes, instead, a corrective measure seeking to make restitution for our own perceived shortcomings.
If we are honest with ourselves about the pressures we face as we engage in what is one of our profession’s most unavoidable and routine tasks — assigning grades — we can begin to think seriously about the part all of us play in inflating grades. Examining the underlying causes of why we grade-inflate is the beginning of doing something serious about it.
Peter Eubanks is assistant professor of French at James Madison University.
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