Are college students more brilliant? The grade inflation debate

Brilliant! I loved the series of Guinness commercials that made fun of the British affinity for using the word brilliant. It is hard not to love using brilliant and I often join in after only a few days in England (resulting in much ribbing from my colleagues). Of course, the issue is that if everything is brilliant- is anything? Brilliant used to mean exceptionally good, but now it has been watered down due to overuse. All of this leads to me think of the grade inflation debate in higher education and whether today’s college students are more brilliant than in the past.

“Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily—Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity. . . One of the chief obstacles to raising the standards of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work.”  — Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard, Harvard University, 1984

The grade inflation debate is not new.  

While press reports bring the issue more into the public consciousness from time to time, faculty and students have had to deal with grade inflation for a long time.

Before discussing grade inflation in more detail, it may be useful to clarify what is meant by the term grade inflation.

Most faculty and researchers of the subject would generally agree that grade inflation is an increase in grades or grade point averages not consistent with an increase in student achievement.

I suspect if you questioned deans and provosts that most would suggest that grade inflation is occurring.

Unfortunately, good empirical data on the prevalence of grade inflation is lacking.

Arthur Levine and Jeanette Cureton found that undergraduates reported receiving more A’s than students in prior decades.

Cliff Edelman reviewed transcripts from more than 3,000 institutions and found that a third of undergraduates had G.P.A.s of C or lower.

Even if we had good data on student grades, this would be insufficient to full address the question of grade inflation.

For grade inflation to be true, students would need to be getting higher grades for the same work that would have received lower grades previously.

We simply have no data to broadly answer the question of whether this is happening in colleges and universities.

What is the purpose of grades?

I would argue that part of the problem around addressing grade inflation rests in the intellectual underpinnings of grades.

If we’re unclear on the purposes of grading, how can we truly understand the issue of grade inflation.

Are grades to differentiate between students? Are grades designed to rank students along a normal distribution?

Are grades to objectively measure the quality of a student’s work in a class?

If we put four faculty in a room and asked these questions, we’re probably more likely to come up with 8 answers rather than 1 clear one.

This is even more problematic when thinking about graduate school where a B is often required to maintain enrollment in a program.

I remember when I started teaching at the University of Alabama that we couldn’t give pluses or minuses on our final grades.

As a result, I essentially had two grades (an A and B) to differentiate most students and their proficiency in my course.

Over the years, I ended up giving every grade in the book, but for students meeting the minimum thresholds there were few options of differentiating student achievement.

In a chapter in the thought-provoking book, Grade Inflation:  Academic Standards in Higher Education, Mary Briggs argues that grading came out of the belief that one could scientifically measure the mind.

Continuing this logic, the decline in support for this belief in scientific measure of the mind resulted in faculty losing precision in grading.

In other words, the “decay of the intellectual foundations” of grading undermined the entire evaluation framework allowing other influences on grading to enter the process.

What can be done about grade inflation?

While we are unable to answer the broader question of grade inflation across higher education institutions, individual institutions may be better able to answer the question of whether grade inflation is a problem on their campus.

If a campus decides it has a grade inflation problem, what can be done?

Richard Kamber, in another chapter from Grade Inflation, proposes three possible solutions:

1)  Set caps on the percentages of grades allowed (i.e. Only 25% of grades can be A’s in a given class)

2)  Adjust grades up or down based on the average of a given class relative to a preselected ideal

3)  Add contextual information to a student’s transcript (i.e. The percentages of students receiving an A in the class)

Of course, another option is to go with the European notion of separating teaching from evaluation.

In many European higher education systems, the evaluation of a student’s work and grade in the class are in part or wholly determined by external evaluators. In this system, an outside expert reviews a student’s level of achievement and assigns a grade.

For our current discussion, this would eliminate motivations that may influence an instructor’s grading beyond a student’s work in class.

Where do we go from here?

I suspect we’re going to continue seeing books address the topic such as Valen Johnson’s Grade Inflation:  A Crisis in College Education as well as media reports periodically bringing the topic to the forefront of the conversation at individual institutions or higher education more generally.

Unfortunately, there are major conceptual and empirical issues that limit our ability to fully address if grade inflation even exists much less what we should do about it.

Moreover, it is even unclear what the problem of grade inflation really indicates—is it a devaluation of high grades or simply an increase in the grade awarded as compared to evaluation of similar work in the past.

Despite all of the problematic notions raised here, there are a few points worth noting that I believe can guide higher education in conversations around teaching, learning, and evaluation.

1)  The best data that we have do not show a clear increase of grades over time nationally.

2)  There is no consistent view on the purpose of grading which has implications far beyond the grade inflation debate.

3)  There can be a disparity in the grades given across disciplines which complicate issues of evaluation and grade inflation.

4)  Grading and associated norms within disciplines are rarely the result of intentional design on the part of faculty opening up grading to claims such as grade inflation.

5)  The relationship between teaching and grading warrants better attention from faculty and academic administrators.