Deflating Grade Inflation

Published September 27, 2006

National Review Online

Is there anything the general public can do about the politically correct academy? In a word, yes. It’s easy to write off the academy as hopeless. Take the Larry Summers affair. Although the public, and Harvard’s own students, overwhelmingly supported Summers, the tenured faculty won that battle. The professors held the power, and by definition, tenured faculty cannot be dislodged.

Yet there’s actually a lot the public can do to change the academy. Take grade inflation. With grade inflation now a general practice, it’s impossible for a few scattered professors, however courageous, to overcome it. That would only punish students who dared to take their courses. Even Harvard’s famous Harvey “C-” Mansfield had to give in and assign his students two grades: a public (inflated) grade and a private (real) grade. Nonetheless, although it isn’t widely known, there are actually plenty of good practical strategies for solving the problem of grade inflation. It only requires public attention and involvement to break the vicious circle of grade inflation and replace it with a virtuous one. So let’s take another look at the seemingly familiar problem of grade inflation, because new work and new developments now point the way to successful reform.

A professor I knew used to tell a funny story about a businessman who’d hired a Harvard graduate. This executive crowed about bagging a Harvard man: “and he’s got a B average, too!” That’s the punch line. At Harvard, and other elite colleges, a B average is now virtually sub-par. A B+ performance would have been average-to-decent, while an A- performance would have meant something closer to what this businessman thought he’d gotten. In effect, grade inflation allowed this student to pull the wool over his employer’s eyes. And that advantageous little bit of deception helps make grade inflation an exceedingly difficult problem to solve.

It’s tough to deny that grade inflation exists — although some radical professors still do. (For useful data, see Since the 1960s, average college grades have crept steadily upwards, with little indication of comparable increases in student achievement. On the contrary, standardized test scores indicate that as average student achievement has gone down, average college grades have gone up — way up. One study of 4,900 undergraduates at all types of institutions found that between 1969 and 1993, the number of A’s increased nearly four fold. Another study (called “A is for average”) found that only between 10 and 20 percent of students receive grades lower than a B-. True, there is evidence of somewhat higher standardized test scores at the best schools, but those increases do not match the magnitude of grade inflation. And grade inflation itself has spread far beyond the elite schools.

Yet the problem is greatest at good private schools. In 1966, 22 percent of Harvard grades were in the A range. By 1996, that number was 46 percent. And in 1996, 82 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with academic honors. At the University of Chicago, the average grade rose from 2.5 in 1965 to 3.26 in 1999. Humanities courses, with more subjective standards (and more radically egalitarian professors), have significantly more inflated grades than courses in the hard sciences. And this difference seems to have increased over time.

A number of factors have combined to cause grade inflation. (On this and related issues, see the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing?) Grade inflation appears to have started in the 1960s, when radical faculty members, who themselves had used graduate school as a refuge from the draft, were reluctant to assign low grades to students who might lose their academic deferments. Meanwhile, the rise of student evaluations (on which many teachers depend for hiring, promotion, and pay increases) has created a motive to trade easy grading for student praise — especially among those vulnerable, part-time “adjuncts” who increasingly shoulder the university’s teaching burden. The elimination of required math and science courses has created still more inflationary pressure. And the official addition of pluses and minuses at many institutions has enabled what is effectively the substitution of an A, A-, B+, B scale for the old A, B, C, D scale (while allowing students to fool employers who remain ignorant of the shift).

Of all the contributing factors to grade inflation, race preferences are the most controversial. The AAAS report I cited above goes out of its way to dismiss the notion that affirmative action (so-called) may have contributed to grade inflation. After all, says the report, grade inflation began several years before large numbers of “diversity” admits entered the academy. Yet the same report notes that increased commercial competition among universities in the 1980s contributed to grade inflation. So if consumerism created additional grade inflation pressures some years after the initial surge, why couldn’t preferential admissions have done the same?

Relying on The Shape of the River, by former Princeton president William Bowen and Harvard president Derek Bok, the AAAS report notes that, on average, black students actually do somewhat less well in college than white students with the “same” SAT scores. Supposedly, this proves that preferential admissions do not contribute to grade inflation. I find this unconvincing.

In the Bowen and Bok sample, there are a great many more blacks with low SAT scores than whites. Those relatively few whites with low SAT scores admitted to top schools likely had relatively strong high-school grades (high grades would be needed to compensate for low test scores, a compensation less likely to be required of affirmative action admits). It is in no way inconceivable that black grade averages somewhat below those of white admits (with what were probably fairly strong high school grades) could nonetheless be inflated. In fact, it is likely. Grade inflation is most powerful at the bottom of the range.

Arthur Andersen and Enron
But let’s move on from this old argument over grade inflation to a new and more hopeful phase of the struggle. Grade inflation is a solvable problem, and there are already signs of progress.

Strangely enough, the Ward Churchill fiasco at the University of Colorado may actually have set the ball rolling for a new wave grade inflation reform. It’s no secret that the questionable decision to grant Churchill tenure has seriously damaged the University of Colorado’s prestige. No doubt as part of an effort to help restore his school’s sagging reputation, University of Colorado president Hank Brown recently floated the idea of disclosing class rank on student transcripts as a way of fighting grade inflation. (See here and here.) When President Brown graduated from U. Colorado in 1961, his own class rank was on his transcripts. But the practice fell by the wayside during the era of grade inflation.

President Brown’s proposed reform makes sense in light of the game of informational cat and mouse that grade inflation has become. In their fascinating study, William Chan, Li Hao, and Wing Suen explain grade inflation using the example of an accounting firm that slants its analysis to make risky companies look healthy. An accounting
firm might be able to win more business if it is willing to mislead the public about a shaky firm that wants to look strong. The accounting firm risks, however, having the value of its seal of approval diluted. If ever the firm were to be found out by the general public, its reputation would be shattered, as Arthur Andersen’s was in the wake of the Enron scandal.

Chan, Hao, and Suen show that grade inflation works something like a dishonest accounting firm.Top schools start inflating their grades, usually with the justification that is would be unfair to grade such good students on a curve. Some employers continue to believe that a B average is pretty good. But even sophisticated employers who understand that a B isn’t what it used to be will expect grades to cluster at the top of the range only at the best schools. Then, however, grade inflation gradually spreads from top schools to a much wider range of colleges. Grade inflation becomes a way of appearing to be an elite school. Lesser schools will suppose that, by means of grade inflation, they can fool employers into thinking they are dealing with a top-quality school. Just as an accounting firm gains more business by lowering its standards, so too do colleges attempt to raise the value of their degrees by inflating grades. And just as a shady accounting firm helps its weak clients and hurts its good ones, so too grade inflation helps mediocre students and middle-range schools, while hurting good students and good schools. And let’s be clear about what “helping” and “hurting” mean here. Grade inflation “helps” middling students and middle-range schools by duping employers, whereas it hurts good students and good schools by degrading the value of their accomplishments.

If this deception is ever exposed, the system runs the risk of crashing. For an accounting firm, such deception is intolerable, as large amounts of money are at stake. For a university, its reputation is less immediately tarnished; employers, and the public at large, do not register so quickly the problems with grade inflation.That’s where a spectacle like the Ward Churchill fiasco comes in. Although it was not a matter of grade inflation, the obvious lapse in standards revealed by the granting of tenure to this supposed American Indian called the quality of the University of Colorado (and implicitly, of the academy as a whole) into question.

The resulting loss of public confidence put pressure on Colorado to restore its reputation (and with it, contributions, applications, etc.) through an ostentatious raising of standards. Thus we have President Brown’s proposal to disclose class rank. And thus is revealed a fundamental truth: Universities ultimately depend upon public regard, and can therefore be forced into action through public criticism. In the matter of grade inflation, where simple solutions like reporting class rank already exist, heightened public discussion, and exposure of embarrassing statistics, are the keys to reform. Public exposure can break the vicious cycle of “contagious” grade deception, and put a virtuous cycle of prestigious reform in its place. If enough schools are shamed into following the lead of the University of Colorado, schools that haven’t reformed their grading practices will increasingly come under suspicion.

Restoring class rank is clearly one way to solve the problem of grade inflation. Under inflation, most grades are “compressed” at the top of the spectrum. Class rank would effectively restore a comparative curve. Opponents of class rank will complain that students with very similar grade averages are being pushed into different ranks. But that’s the point. Ranking defeats the strategy of bunching everyone’s grades at the top.

Yet disclosing class rank isn’t the only potential solution. Quota systems could also play a role. The could be limits to the number of A’s that could be assigned in a given class. And quotas could also be used to limit the number of honors graduates. In effect, limiting the total number of honors graduates, and keeping the usual three-level honors distinction (summa cum laude, magna cum laude, cum laude), would be a way of restoring class rank at the higher levels, without directly designating which students are in the lower ranks. If quotas for graduation honors were publicly adopted by a group of prestigious schools, it would create strong pressure on schools that refused to join the system.

Another way to defeat grade inflation is to include more information on transcripts. For example, beside a student’s course grade, a school could include the average grade in that course. This would expose and devalue the inflated grades in easy classes. Central Michigan University Professors James Felton and Peter T. Koper have proposed a very promising version of this reform. The professors devised a simple way to calculate what they call a “real GPA” on the basis of a student’s nominal GPA. To find a student’s real grade in any given class, the average grade in the class is scaled to be a 2.0, or a C, and then the student’s grade is adjusted relative to this. If a student ends up with a grade of above a C, he has done better than average in the class.In effect, Felton and Koper use another form of comparative ranking to reveal and compensate for grade inflation. Adoption of this reform would actually reverse the pressures that drive grade inflation. Professors who routinely gave high “nominal” grades would be stigmatized as low “real” graders. Students would begin to avoid “gut courses,” and administrators would start to punish, rather than reward, the professors who taught them.

There have already been close faculty votes on grading reform. In 1997, the Duke Arts and Sciences Council voted 19-14 to reject an early version of nominal/real grade reporting, with science and math professors mostly in favor of the change and most humanities professors opposed. Grades in humanities courses are dramatically higher than in the natural sciences, and many humanities courses are swollen by students in search of easy grades. Even so, the Duke vote was close. And some months from now, the University of Colorado faculty will be voting on President Brown’s proposal to restore class rank.

That’s where we come in. With faculty votes this close, public scrutiny could make the difference between success and failure for President Brown’s drive to restore class rank. And if class rank comes back to Colorado, the pressure of publicity could spread it further. As more schools adopted grading reform, other schools would come under pressure to explain why they’d refused to do so. And with that, the value of degrees and transcripts from schools with tougher standards would rise.

Grade inflation is a cheap way of tricking employers (and students themselves) into believing in achievements that have not been achieved. Putting high grades within easy reach of all students undercuts everyone’s motive to work and punishes students who actually do work hard. This hurts all of us, since society as a whole would benefit from a little more work, higher achievement, and perhaps just a bit less partying, at schools that are supposed to be devoted to excellence. So let’s start a national conversation about the many existing proposals designed to combat grade inflation. Above all, let’s keep an eye on President Brown’s drive to restore class rank to the University of Colorado. Oddly, the shame of the Ward Churchill affair may ultimately end up achieving some good — precisely because the public really can do something about the problems of the politically correct academy.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at theEthics and Public Policy Center

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