A proposal to help curb grade inflation.

I have a stack of midterms I’m procrastinating grading, but I’m not simply going to babble on about some minor nuisance in my own life, I’m going to expound on a modest, but promising intervention into the problem of grade inflation which, I believe, costs us millions of dollars every year.

Here’s the basic problem: schools serve a mix of roles, including signaling, human capital formation, and pure consumption. Unfortunately, universities face a problem of grade inflation. I have encountered many students who were very angry that I should even dare to suggest that a C is an acceptable grade. This, despite the fact that C has never been sold as anything but “average- simple, common, adequate but ordinary”.

And why is grade inflation a problem? It makes the signal of a college degree less meaningful. And the result is that students have to pile on ever more credentials at ever more selective institutions to prove themselves. It also leads to students turning school into a GPA maximization game rather than an intellectual pursuit. For top students this isn’t a real problem, but for the rest it may be costly. So here’s my proposal…

Maybe we should be describing the grade distribution as being like the Fahrenheit scale… 73 is just about right; sure it’s a few degrees off, but it’s close enough for government work. 93 Is about as hot as you’d ever really want it to be. Any hotter is superfluous, and besides, this school doesn’t give A+’s. The 90’s are hot; exceptionally so, but the 80’s are pretty warm. Once in a while an 85 degree day can be quite nice, But you don’t really even want too many 80+ grades on your transcript. This is related to a fact that always amazes my students: in econ grad school an A means you over-invested in a class and wasted energy that could have been spent on advancing your dissertation. Too many B’s for a typical undergrad means that they aren’t doing enough intellectual, spiritual, social, and personal exploration outside of class. So what about F’s and D’s? Well, the analogy might fall apart here, but I don’t think we need to sell students on going for F’s, although I think one or two would probably build character.

I think that if this description spread through high schools and colleges then we might just calm the students and parents down a bit. Doing that might just allow us all to slow down enough that the students might actually learn something and retain it.


8 thoughts on “A proposal to help curb grade inflation.

  1. You have my sympathies.

    What are your thoughts on programs such as Evergreen (Washington State), or UC Santa Cruz in its older days, which do away with grades altogether and have written evaluations instead? I favor this approach outside of the natural sciences/mathematics since it becomes increasingly unclear grades mean in the social sciences/arts. Does an A mean that the student was able to memorize a Professor’s preferred answer for a given question (and promptly forget it the next day), or does it mean the student actually learned the material?

    Alternatively, perhaps students should prepare portfolios of their academic work. So much time is spent writing essays anyway. Surely students can keep a few of their best work as proof of their ability to apply their knowledge to a problem?

    • The basic problem is that a degree and a high GPA are cheap signals to interpret. Written evaluations provide richer information to potential employers but they’re more difficult to sort. So big companies will hire consultants to make algorithms to sift through them and we’ll end up with a whole new jumble of complexity. Now sometimes it works out (like in the market for PhD economists where grades don’t matter but publications, evaluations, and letters of recommendation matter), but for the job opening looking for an inexperienced 22 year old that probably won’t do.

      I think there’s something to be said for proposals to remove questions of credentials from the hiring process (I believe Ivan Illich recommended that), but again, some new form of signalling will have to emerge and there’s no guarantee that it isn’t worse.

      Ultimately I think it’s up to private industry to come up with something better. One thing they’ve started to do is put more weight on internships which is probably a significant improvement although it has yet to trickle back into academia in the form of a changed culture (i.e. students are still GPA maximizing). I think there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for a business that’s something like a temp-agency. Some firm could test and train people, provide a signal of aptitude and talent, and get paid by hiring companies.

  2. Good analysis. Grist to your mill plus a suggestion:

    I taught for about thirty years. The longer I taught, the more painful grading became to me. It was not because it was boring; curiously, it never became really boring. It was painful because come grading time, I knew that I would end up by cheating, at least a little: Ds became C-s; C+ became Bs, all Bs became automatic A-s. I was brave and held the line at As; those were deserved. The problem summary is this: The grades I distributed did not express the chasm I estimated to exist between the worst students’ work and the best students’. Once, in the MBA program where I taught (in addition to teaching undergraduates), an associated Dean had the bad idea of providing the anonymous distribution of grades given during the past two quarters by about forty faculty members. There was a single C. That’s how I knew I was the hard ass of the group!

    Analytically, I wonder if it’s not the case that the more expensive the unit of study, in terms of debts and opportunity costs, the more the students feel entitled to good grades. Faculty may be unable to resist the resulting pressure because they perceive it as not completely illegitimate. (I too would hate to pay $600 of a C-, even if I deserved it!) I wonder also if the growing number of courses taught by adjuncts (I hear it’s about 50%) does not contribute a lot to grade inflation: One bad student evaluation and you are out of a job!

  3. I agree with just about everything everyone has said here, but I hate to break the news about grade inflation to you. It’s a lost cause. Rick’s prescription is totally sensible, but has 0 chance of adoption.

    While I agree with 95% of what Jacques says above, I don’t think adjuncts contribute to grade inflation. Adjuncts tend to be hard asses because their own lives are so difficult. Nobody cuts them a break, so they don’t cut anyone a break, either. I adjuncted for 9 years. I was hungry all the time (and thin). I compromised with no one about anything. I wasn’t a hard ass. I was fair. Fairness mattered. Teaching mattered. Etc.

    Now that I have a full time position, I’ve basically flushed my erstwhile standards down the toilet. I’ve been teaching now for 21 years, and my experience almost exactly mirrors what Jacques says in his first paragraph. The longer I teach, the more painful it is to grade, for just the reasons he gives. I shudder to think what my grading will be like in ten years. I’m a disgrace to the profession, but in fairness to me, so is just about everyone else. Sad but true.

    Believe it or not, I teach at an institution that got rid of the C- grade in the year 2008. So a 70/100 is a C, a 69 is a D, and you need a C to pass Core classes (which I teach). Try holding on to your integrity under those conditions. Deprived of the C-, I find that I’m lost adrift in a nonsensical world. That’s my excuse.

  4. Well, Irfan: I have bad news for you. (You may well know everything I will say next but one has to inform the new generations endlessly.) Sartre wrote some fairly good light novels and a couple of morality plays but he was a big cheat himself. His acts of resistance during WWII consisted in seating in one of the best cafes in Paris and muttering to young women that if they went to be with him, they would be astounded by the size of his intellect. Late in his life, when asked why he did not tell the truth about the horrors of communism, he declared grandly that it was important not to cause dispair in the working class (“…ne pas desesperer Billancourt.” where stood a large Renault plant.)

    Neither of us has data about the adjuncts’ contributions to grade inflation but I think you were an exceptionally virtuous adjunct faculty. It stand to reason that most who have children to feed and a mortgage to pay wouldn’t risk making their customers angry. I think that in most schools, as was the case in mine, teaching evaluations by students are the only kind of evaluation: The students like you, you stay; they don’t like you, you go as soon as we can replace you.

    For twenty years, the highlight of my evaluation was that my tests were “unfair.” Comparison with others showed that my grading was harsher than average. I think one thing stood for the other, of course.

    One solution to the problem of grade inflation I would favor is a straight pass/fail system. It would give the benefit of doubt to most of the students who believe teachers err when they assign a B where an A- is owed. “Most” because, there would still be pressure around the “fails,” it would be fewer cases of pressure. As for career and grad school applications, in the absence of letter grades, they would depend in large part on faculty members’ letters of recommendation. I am a pessimist but I can’t imagine a situation were pressure would be brought to bear on faculty to write sincere, inspired and inspiring letters. These come from the heart.

    • Wasn’t Sartre drafted in the French Army in 1939, captured by the Nazis, and detained in a German prison camp? Granted, he was an army meteorologist. I guess in France it takes an existentialist to know which way the wind is blowing.

      I agree, though, that Sartre is pretty preposterous, whether as a philosopher or as a candidate for moral hero status. I’m simultaneously making my way through “Being and Nothingness” and his essays on colonialism and neo-colonialism. The ratio is about one part semi-brilliant insight to about nine parts rubbish or unintelligibility.

      You may be right about adjuncts, hard to know. I didn’t have children or a mortgage when I was one. (Still don’t, but that’s another story.)

      I think in a certain sense we already have a system that’s much like pass-fail. Instead of pass-fail, it’s A/C/F–high pass, low pass, fail. In my experience “B” grades generate more complaints than any other.

      My own favorite is the one associated with Harvey Mansfield at Harvard–he gives two grades, one the deserved grade, and the other the official grade that goes in the grade book. That system gets the best of both worlds. You preserve the non-inflated grade, but you avoid the complaints. I keep telling myself to adopt it.

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