The truth about grade inflation
1/30/2003 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
On Tuesday, an amazing thing happened. A college professor told
the truth about grade inflation. Writing in The Washington Post, Stuart
Rojstaczer of Duke University admitted that he no longer gives any grade
lower than a B. If he were to do so, he wrote, fewer students would sign up
for his courses and his teaching career would suffer. Not wishing to be
deemed a failure, Rojstaczer simply gives students what they, their parents
and the university all want: high grades, regardless of merit.
In his own defense, Rojstaczer notes that the phenomenon of
grade inflation is not limited to his classroom or school. Every major
university has seen a general increase in grades for the same work.
According to data Rojstaczer has collected, the average grade point average
has risen by almost half a grade since 1970. At this rate, he estimates that
by mid-century all grades will be A's.
The problem of grade inflation is not confined to universities.
According to a new study by the University of California at Los Angeles,
college-bound high-school students show substantially higher grades today
than they did 30 years ago. In 1972, 42 percent of students entering private
universities and 25 percent of those going to public universities had A
averages. Today, 70 percent of the former and 53 percent of the latter have
such an average.
One possible explanation for this trend is that students simply
are smarter today than in years past. But this is clearly not the case.
According to the College Entrance Examination Board, the average combined
score on the Scholastic Assessment Test (formerly known as the Scholastic
Aptitude Test) has fallen from 1059 in 1967 to 1020 in 2002. However, this
greatly understates the magnitude of the decline because in 1995 the SAT was
"renormed." In practice, this statistical legerdemain added 100 points to
everyone's score -- 76 points to the verbal score and 24 points to the math
What this means is that for anyone who took the SAT before 1995,
if you want to know how well you would do today you must add 100 points.
Keep this in mind when some friend brags about how well his child did on the
test. You can knock 100 points off for grade inflation in comparison to how
your generation did.
Of course, the issue of grade inflation is not new. A recent
report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences notes that there have
been concerns about the problem since at least the mid-1970s. The roots lie
in the vast expansion of college enrollment in the 1960s, as the postwar
baby boom generation came of age.
As the baby boomers moved through the universities, a number of
factors contributed to grade inflation. A key one was the Vietnam War, which
encouraged professors to go easy on their male students, lest they lose
their student deferment and be drafted into the Army. At the same time,
education philosophy was changing, causing universities to drop many
required courses in areas such as mathematics, science and languages.
Reinforcing the inflationary trend in grading was the growth of
student evaluations in promotion and tenure decisions for professors.
Obviously, students tend to give good reviews to those who are easy graders.
And as graduate school became the norm for increasing numbers of college
students, there was more of a premium on good grades. In this sense,
credential inflation -- requiring more and more education to do the same
job -- has contributed to grade inflation.
Unfortunately, grade inflation is not costless. One consequence
is that students are discouraged from taking science courses, where the
nature of the subject matter has held down grade inflation, in favor of
those in the humanities, where it is rampant. Over time, this has caused
universities to drain resources from science programs. Eventually, this will
harm economic growth by reducing technological innovation and advancement.
Another problem is that gifted students are discouraged from
giving their best. Why should they, when other students doing half as much
work get the same grades they do? At the same time, professors have no way
of encouraging their best students because they can't give grades higher
than an A. The result is a general dumbing-down of achievement and quality
in our higher education system, while students and their potential employers
are deluded into thinking that everything is OK.
Lately, there has been a bit of a backlash against grade
inflation, following the disclosure that half of all grades at Harvard were
A's in 2000, up from a third in 1985. Moreover, according to the Boston
Globe, 91 percent of seniors graduated with "honors" that year -- far more
than at any other Ivy League school. This led the university to put a cap on
such honors beginning in 2005. It's not much, but it's a start.