Grade Inflation ... Why It's a Nightmare*


Mr. Dresner is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and a member of HNN's group history blog, Cliopatria.

My institution successfully passed through accreditation review, a multi-year process which examines everything from physical plant to institutional identity, missions and standards, goals and how we measure progress towards those goals, governance structures, faculty culture, and every other thing they can think of. Their initial recommendations included strong support and encouragement for student learning assessment, and more effective coordination (i.e. centralization) of governance to speed up the process of improving educational effectiveness. Data driven allocation of resources, as well. It was during their last visit that I realized that there is a connection between grade inflation, accrediting agencies and the drive for standardized curricula and quantitative learning assessment.

"Learning Assessment" is one of the hottest topics in educational administration, under the rubric of the No Child Left Behind legislation mandated testing. It is also making its way into higher education, starting with public institutions' core education courses, but departments are being called upon to monitor and document the progress their majors make at upper levels as well. My department is engaged in setting up assessment for our courses and majors at all levels, not because we believe in it, but because our chair is a savvy and forward-thinking veteran. We developed quantitative learning assessment for our World History surveys. We are working on a system for on-line portfolios for history majors, and we videotape our senior symposium. We've talked about ways of assessing upper-division courses. It may seem odd for us to do this, when we don't see much point, but my chair is right: accrediting agencies and department reviewers consider these exercises "state of the art" and without them we will undoubtedly come in for criticism.

Our forward-thinking approach made us one of the stars of our accreditation reports; we were held up as a model department. Now I do think that my department is a good one: we take teaching and mentoring seriously, we do research which people in our respective fields find interesting, and we work together quite well. Our average grades are well below most humanities departments; even below most social science departments, and compare well to the natural sciences, so grade inflation is not a pressing issue with us. Faculty from other departments, employers in the community and graduate schools, all seem quite satisfied with our majors, and our major numbers and enrollments have been rising for about four years. Still, we're 'assessing' everything, and I'm inclined to think that my chair is right about the need to do this sooner rather than later, on our own schedule and in our own way instead of waiting for mandates and deadlines from above.

Because those mandates and deadlines will come. When is your next departmental review? When is accreditation renewal? Find out now, and plan accordingly. This is a multi-year process: it took us a year's worth of biweekly meetings to work out our World History instrument; it'll take months to get our on-line portfolios up and running; then we have to gather at least four or five years of data before we have enough to take a good look at. Maybe we could have done it more quickly if we borrowed ideas and tests and such from other departments? We did borrow, and read and learn, but our program -- like yours -- has quirks and particularities that required us to tinker with what we borrowed.

What's the connection between grade inflation, accreditation and review, and assessment? Grade inflation (and its primary/secondary equivalent, social promotion) has made grades and advancement difficult to rely on as a measure of academic success. Stakeholders are looking for alternative ways to gauge the quality of our product, and tools to aid and inspire us to more effective teaching. Since the institutions themselves have not committed to a solution, governing bodies, including accreditation agencies and government, are seeking to impose one. For primary and secondary education, this has come in the form of high-stakes testing, including NCLB assessments and Massachusetts-style graduation tests. If we are going to avoid similar 'solutions' being imposed on post-secondary education, we need to develop alternatives which credibly address the problem.

Grade Inflation

First, we have to acknowledge that grade inflation is a reality, and more pronounced in some fields than others. At my own institution, the highest grades seem to come from pre-professional programs (nursing, education, agriculture, management, communications) and artistic fields (drama, dance, music), and cultural studies (women's studies, Hawaiian studies). Other departments with lower averages might still have a grade inflation problem, depending on the average quality and work of their students. History's average over the last decade has been around 2.9 on a 4-point scale, on the B/B- cusp, one of the lowest in Social Sciences; our internal discussions suggest that our survey World History average is on the high C+ side. We don't have a stated standard of grading in the department, but our average and median grades tend to come pretty close, and we rarely disagree seriously on prizes or theses, where multiple readers grade the same work. That doesn't mean that we don't have a grade inflation problem, but it could be worse.

Grade inflation has three primary causes: student culture, pedagogical culture and institutional culture. The expansion of the student body since WWII has brought students with a wider range of abilities to college, and also drew in the best students from previously under-represented groups. It has also widened the gap between the level of colleges themselves: there are now significant differences between the average quality of students at various institutions, differences enshrined in things like the Petersen Guide 'tier' rankings. Because of the view of the bachelor's degree as a baseline credential for professional employment, many of these students are unengaged with their educations, and consider college an extended form of high school, where attendance and endurance matter more than engagement. This is particularly true of pre-professional students, who may take their major courses seriously but who don't engage with general education or distribution courses, but anyone with experience teaching intro-level courses recognizes the phenomenon. Plus, students take grades very personally: the grade is about them, not about their work. So differing standards seem unfair, and students respond poorly to the implicit criticism of low grades, particularly when they get accustomed to unearned high grades at earlier levels or in other courses. The ideology of 'student as consumer' has changed the power relationships within the academy, placing satisfaction higher than intellectual growth as a measure of success.

This is reflected in, and exacerbated by, the abuse of quantitative measures of teaching effectiveness. There is considerable research on these instruments, most of which shows strong influence from appearance, class format, even class time, but the only studies I'm aware of which claim that students are generally good judges of teachers are the ones that assume it as a proposition. Our own instrument is at least honestly titled the Perceived Teaching Effectiveness Form, but it is used in a mindlessly straightforward fashion by tenure/retention committees and administrators: for an untenured faculty member, failure to score above the norm is considered a career-threatening flaw. Technically, PTEF results are confidential, but failure to disclose them in contract dossiers is considered prima facie evidence of poor quality. Lip service aside, other evidence of teaching effectiveness, including creativity, technology use, syllabus adherence, and high quality content, is not even secondarily important. So teachers are strongly motivated to produce high scores, and one of the easiest ways to produce high scores is by demanding little and giving easy, high grades. The situation is complicated by the increased demands being placed on teachers: pedagogical innovation and new technology; higher publication standards; higher teaching loads and larger classes. The need to bring in majors and raise enrollments is another factor making raising standards difficult. Unless it is done in a uniform fashion, it will result in students shifting to 'easy' classes, and those faculty and departments who raise standards will face the wrath of administrators and budget committees. Student retention and graduation rates are used as measures of institutional effectiveness, which mitigates against failing (or even discouraging) even the most unprepared students.

Finally, partially as a result of the above-mentioned forces, and partially as a result of intellectual currents usually grouped under the term 'relativism', there has been a shift away from hard-and-fast standards, absolute grades, and critical responses to student work reflected in grades. Some of this is a result of experimental pedagogy: intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards; self-directed curricula, self-esteem building. Some of this is a result of new ideas about knowledge: post-modernism, feminism, relativism and multiculturalism have added dimensions and reduced certainty. These are not fundamentally bad ideas, but their inconsistent application and misapplication, along with the student and institutional issues above, has degraded the authority of faculty to set standards to which students feel obligated to adhere and the willingness of faculty to use grades as both reward and punishment.

Why is Grade Inflation a Problem?

This is something which is more often assumed than explained, but a clear understanding of the problems associated with grade inflation is essential. The problems go beyond a vague sense of moral or intellectual decline and have practical, long-term implications. Inflated grades interfere with teaching and learning, with hiring and tenure, with the quality of our work environment and with the academy's relationship with the wider community.

The first and most obvious effect of inflated grades is that it becomes harder to use grades as a shorthand form of communication with any nuance. Sure, individual teachers can explain "what grades mean" semester after semester, but when minimally acceptable work is worth a C, or a B or an A, depending on the course, it is hard for students to keep track. Narrative responses to work help, but, unless an assignment involves revision, students tend to ignore anything except the grade; conversely, narrative responses without a grade will tend to be interpreted in the most positive possible light, so the ultimate grade comes as more of a shock if it is not as high as expected.

The disjunction between graduate training institutions and student expectations at the institutions at which most Ph.D.s get hired makes it likely that faculty starting out will have difficulty connecting with their students and will have standards somewhat higher than the norm for their hiring institutions. Harvard's Career Counselors refer to the "H effect", the assumption by interviewers that a Harvard-educated Ph.D. will be disappointed by the quality of local students and have difficulty teaching at their level. To some extent it is justified, particularly since new faculty mentoring is rarely structured or effective, and it results in an elevated rate of dismissal from first hires. These are rarely reflected in official 'tenure rate' figures, as those refer only to faculty who apply for tenure, whereas most institutions will dismiss untenurable or borderline candidates at earlier stages of review, which does not count. If I have one word of advice for newly hired faculty under our current regime, it is: do not admit that you have difficulty with any aspect of teaching, because even an honest attempt to grow and improve will be taken as evidence that you have serious problems. This also distorts our sense of the academic market, as the turnover creates more openings than would exist under a more humane system, thus making it seem like there are more jobs available for the new Ph.D.s.

The corollary to the disjunction is the breakdown of morale and collegiality which comes from struggling against what feels like constantly falling standards. New Ph.D.s trained to high levels of professionalism discover that their efforts to 'raise standards' are met with hostility by students (who don't want to work that hard) and suspicion by fellow faculty (who understand the implicit criticism). The very real differences between departments in grading become factions, and the sense of a threat to academic freedom by standards imposed from outside makes nearly all academics bristle and stiffen. So, instead of addressing the question directly, it becomes a festering issue that won't be discussed, and the only solution is for departments with high standards to grit their teeth and bring them down to the norm in order to effectively compete for students, and therefore resources.

Finally, grade inflation has led to public dissatisfaction with educational results. The same forces that have driven the primary/secondary assessment movement seem to be pushing into higher education as well. Granted, much of the critical reportage about higher education is poor quality, anecdotal, and political. But there remains a steady and credible strain of business and political and social organizations concerned about the process and results of higher education. And it is these groups, through their influence on state and national legislators and, through the US Dept. of Education, their influence on the regional accrediting agencies that is pushing us towards assessment, and will continue to push until we, or they, find a solution to the problem.

Solutions Already Being Tried

There are a few active attempts to solve the problems of grade inflation and educational effectiveness. Some of them are at the level of the individual school; more come from 'suggestions' of accrediting agencies; post-graduation testing is already standard in graduate school admissions and certain professional arenas.

Colleges and universities have tried a variety of techniques to deflate grades. Some have adjusted their grading systems: Princeton instituted a limit to A-level grades. Harvard adjusted its GPA calculation to narrow the A-/B+ gap and that has reportedly been effective in reducing the A-level overload slightly. Most institutions don't go much further than passing around department-level data on grade averages, though a few institutions have followed up with enough pressure and discussion to bring the outliers closer to norm. Some have tried acculturation through discussion, but without hard data there is mostly a chorus of 'it doesn't work that way in our department' and the discussion ends. Tenure, for all its charms, is a serious barrier to making progress at the institutional level: it both insulates its possessors from pressure to change and provides strong motivation for grade leniency to the untenured. Academic freedom, precious though it is, is used to insulate faculty against discussions of content, workload, grading or pedagogy.

The accreditation agencies have their own ideas. They use their accreditation review to promote the scholarship of learning and integration of current 'best practices.' Many of the themes of these best practices are encapsulated in the push for the development of 'Master Syllabi' for both multi-section courses and for departmental curricula, that would clearly lay out learning goals, particularly those learning goals which could be demonstrated, assessed, evaluated in some kind of graded fashion. Interestingly, they do not seem terribly interested in grade inflation. Perhaps they've given that up as a losing battle, but instead they focus on 'learning assessment' using metrics separate from those used to evaluate students for grades. Pre/post-testing, portfolios developed over time, post-graduation interviews and graduate tracking are emphasized. There is little discussion of how 'best practice' applies to different disciplines, or different levels; we're supposed to figure that out ourselves, but without deviating significantly from the 'standards of best practice' that they articulate.

Syllabi seem to be very important to these agencies. Collecting syllabi was an important part of the accreditation review, and they pushed to make syllabi more public and accessible through internet publication. Syllabi have grown, as others have noted, to articulate clear goals and standards for students, contain an outline of the course that goes well beyond a 'reading and assignments schedule' and introduce students to the discipline, where the course fits in the discipline, and to general academic practice through discussion of how to handle reading and writing assignments, labs, discussions, etc. This, in addition to a growing collection of boilerplate text: disability accommodation; advising; civility; academic honesty; offensive material disclaimers. Any ambiguity or reservation about the idea of 'syllabus as contract' seems to be over and done. How this is supposed to be superior to addressing these issues in a course catalog or in class is, honestly, beyond me, but my syllabi have been selected as 'model syllabi' several semesters running, so I must be doing something right.

One consistent strain running through our accreditation, and others I have heard of, is pressure to strengthen centralized institutions of governance. I got to meet with the accreditation team on their last visit, because of my position on the CAS Curriculum Review Committee. They were quite concerned about the way in which general education standards were set and enforced, particularly about the independence of the individual college governance bodies from the University-wide Congress and its committees. Several of their recommendations included weakening or eliminating separate college governance of curriculum. They were also clearly concerned about the Curriculum Review Committee's lack of mandate to review the workload and pedagogical aspects of new or revised courses. While they did not directly address the questions of tenure and academic freedom, it was pretty clear that a more centralized, less 'free for all' approach was preferable. 'Post-tenure review' with an eye toward continued teaching effectiveness is already being put in place or seriously discussed throughout the American academy, and some have argued that tenure is, or will soon be, both obsolete and toothless.

A few institutions have largely abandoned grades as a measure of the success or ability of college graduates, or found ways to supplement those grades with standardized norms. Ironically, the most widespread form of national post-graduate testing is graduate admissions tests. Lip service is paid to grades, recommendations are carefully read for faint praise, and personal statements give admissions officers some way to tell applicants apart. But the existence and ubiquity of the use of these standardized tests is perhaps the most damning form of self-criticism possible: the very academy which grants grades cannot rely on them as a measure of quality or achievement. Professional accreditation in several fields is test based (nursing, teaching and accounting come to mind immediately), recognition that completion of the relevant bachelor's degree may not, in fact, indicate technical mastery of crucial material. The tests, of course, influence the curricula: some departments have gone so far as to include a 'preparation for the test' course as a component of the major.

What's Next?

My suggestions, which most readers will cheerfully ignore in favor of their own, focus largely on the nexus between grade inflation, student evaluation of teachers, and tenure review. In the short term, some form of open grade norming -- perhaps as simple as putting the class or department median on transcripts along with the student's grade -- would reduce the opacity of grades. In the long run, outlier departments must be called to account, and discussion of grades, standards and norms must be ongoing, data-driven and interdisciplinary. Reform of social promotion and grade inflation at the primary and secondary level would help immensely.

The training of Ph.D. students also needs to be shifted in more practical and professional directions, starting with an emphasis on teaching as a skill in graduate school. Not just tossing TAs in sections, but mentoring, review, professionalization; also, graduate coursework should include not just dissertation-related topics but general education in areas which students will most probably have to teach. I, for example, got through graduate school without taking a single course of Chinese or Korean history, though as a modern Japanese historian in a small department I spend a great deal of time teaching China, along with World History (at a previous post I taught East Asian Civ and Western Civ), and only about 1/3 of my teaching time in Japan. General education and teacher training would not be useful only for academia-bound students: the ability to structure a presentation, to impart useful information clearly, to see both the broad sweep and sharp details of an issue, would benefit people in many professional fields.

After hiring, a thorough reform of the institutional culture is necessary, and though that seems daunting, it can be done effectively at a departmental level before being done at an institutional level. One essential component is an environment in which teaching techniques and issues can be discussed without fear that sharing concerns or difficulties will be used against you in retention and tenure. Faculty need some form of confidential mentoring, or some form of mutual discussion which allows everyone to display strengths and be critiqued (instead of creating an artificial division between 'master' and 'student' teachers). Tenure/retention review should include both quantitative and qualitative material, and problems, if noted, must be followed up with mentoring and support. Such review should not stop with tenure, and I am one of those who feels that it would be possible to design post-tenure review that would allow the most egregiously bad faculty to be removed from the classroom without threatening academic freedom. But these reviews and discussions must be sensitive to disciplinary differences and to variation in the student population in order to be meaningful: the techniques which work with upper-division English courses will probably run into problems in world history surveys, and lab techniques don't translate well into philosophy; and sometimes lecture really is the best way to impart information and understanding, though it's terribly old-fashioned.

If these or similar methods are not adopted, if grade inflation continues and no strong articulation of standards is forthcoming, the worst-case scenario is easy to project. National standards for college curricula, enforced by NCLB-style testing in non-professional subjects, have already been discussed by national legislators. Accrediting agencies and federal funding would force schools to address their curriculum to these tests, which would entail the functional loss of academic freedom with regard to syllabi and classroom activity. Faculty who failed to follow institutional guidelines (which would be very closely modeled on national guidelines and adjusted to the tests) would be penalized, probably with dismissal, and tenure would be obsolete. Students would be forced to take more general education courses, but would have fewer choices regarding how to fulfill their requirements. At this point, college really would become an extension of high school.

We are faced with change: things will not simply continue as they are for very long. We must decide what sort of change we prefer. I would prefer that we be accountable to ourselves, individually and as an intellectual and teaching community, and that others respect that system because it produces high quality results. If we cannot demonstrate those results, and that accountability, it will be imposed on us in a form which we may not recognize or appreciate.

*This article is dedicated to the Invisible Adjunct.

Related Links

  • John Merrow:"Grade Inflation: It's Not Just an Issue for the Ivy League"

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    More Comments:

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    I have a theory about this interesting case study.

    Is it not possible, or even likely, that it is an example of a professor becoming better at "correcting 12 years of rot" (to use the terminology introduced at the beginning of the earlier thread above) ? Once upon a time, e.g. maybe 20+ years ago when teenagers watched less TV and better quality TV, wasted less time on computer games, etc., students came to college already knowing how to write papers.

    After the shock of his first few years, Mr. Calder reacted appropriately, skillfully revamped his syllabus and classroom techniques to add in necessarily remedial elements (without dumbing down the overall goals, it seems), and thus his grades REflated to about where they would have been had he been using the standard teaching approach of a generation or two ago, with students who had come from the high schools of a generation or two ago.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    This is a useful and comprehensive article, for which the author should be commended. I have a few suggested alterations to the analytics, the perceived challenge, and the proposed remedies, as follows:

    1. Inflation is a trend over time, not a level. Is the problem one of an already compressed grade scale, or a steadily more compressed grade scale, or both ? More on the dynamic process of grade inflation would be helpful.

    2. Recruiters and grad school admission committees stopped looking primarily at undergrad grades decades ago. They use a battery of measures, the crudest yet most powerful being the reputation of the undergrad institution. U. of Hawaii is not UCLA nor is it Klondike State.

    3. A similarly ancient and widespread technique is the "grading curve". If strictly adhered to, there can, by definition, be no grade inflation or deflation.

    4. If I understand correctly and the new coming standardized tests establish a minimum hurdle (over it you get full funding, under it you are penalized) as opposed to a sliding scale (a wide range of funding levels based on test score averages), I don't see why colleges should have to "address their curriculum to these tests", provided that whatever they do, they keep scoring at a comfortable margin above the minimum. Only the far below average performing schools would really have to worry about the national standards tests, and, in that case, they might actually be better off with a curriculum geared to the tests, or their students might be better off taking remedial classes and then transferring to other more successful colleges.

    Overall, it seems to me that if college departments do what they have always should have been doing -offering an interesting, relevant and high quality curriculum, recruiting qualified students to it, and rewarding students with grades based on fairly-measured achievement- then curbing grade inflation and coping with national standards and accreditation boards should be doable without great changes.

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    "You mention the issue of "social advancement" in high school. If this is the case how can you, the college professor, repair twelve years of rot? It sounds like the universities are being made to shoulder the blame for the failings of others".

    The (implied) conclusion here does not follow from the (implied and undoubtedly valid) premise.

    Any individual professor is indeed very limited in his or her ability to "repair twelve years of rot".

    Notwithstanding serious exceptions, universities are not, however, generally being "made" to "shoulder the blame" for dumbed-down high school educations. They have tremendous, if not total, freedom to decide whom to admit. That is a great difference between America and other countries, and it is one of the reasons why our colleges remain the best in the world, despite our high schools being generally mediocre in international comparison.

    The "rot" is spreading upwards, however, in addition to setting in for other reasons, as Professor Dresner points out. It still seems to me that the best remedy is for colleges to remain selective, resist pressure to dumb-down admission standards, and stay competitive by preserving and improving the quality of their programs.

    Jason Blake Keuter - 1/27/2007

    The real problem with combatting grade inflation is the massive unemployment of professors that would result. Any call for "honest" assessments of student learning, based on meaningful academic standards poses the very real threat of the majority of students presently enrolled in college flunking out of college. This is of particular concern for departments that rely on general education requirement courses to maintain their existence - those huge classes every one laments that would be a lot smaller if no one had to take them...those courses that subsidize the mental masturbation of professors and graduate students in seminars that inquire into the infintestimal.

    Thus robbed of such a large bulk of tuition paying, anti-intellectual philistines, departments like history, English, philosophy, etc. would find themselves considerably shrunk in size and professors would no longer be needed and those few who remained could no longer hyper-specialize in order to acquire greater professional status within whatever specialized nitch they've decided gives them the greatest hope of advancement.

    As you can see, ending grade inflation would really end public funding of the university. The university exists to grant and perpetuate middle class status. Its intellectual mission would quickly be revealed for the pretense that it is should it, in the name of intellectual integrity, actually uphold meaningful intellectual standards. The university would thus find itself purged of the majority of students and a considerable number of faculty and substantially shrunk as an institution.

    This article on grade inflation doesn't really address this issue. It laments that grade inflation is a by-product of academic departments looking to survive; it recognizes that good grades keep students and their tuition in the university; but it doesn't really confront the plain and obvious fact that professors are an elite, engaged in a profession not really valued by the public that pays for it. Professors who don't like grade inflation cringe at the need to compromise their integrity in order to maintain a professional existence that is built upon half-truths and hypocrisies - half-truths and hypocrisies that they themselves create.

    Utlimately, then, this well-meaning and well argued article on grade inflation skirts the elephant in the room: professors, like medieval clerics believing tithe payers to be damned infidels, feed off those they deem inferior and corrupting and know it and wish (nay! fantasize) that they could extricate themselves from the materialistic Babbits that foot the bill of their glass bead game.

    Jason Blake Keuter - 1/26/2007

    I had a conversation with a parent who was upset because her child was upset because he had a project due and he was convinced I would give him an F if he didn't do it perfectly. I won't say when, to preserve the student's confidentiality. The student in question was 18 years old. Apparently, my request that he:

    1. have a main point


    2. clearly state it


    3. support it with actual historical details that are actually RELEVANT to the main point

    and then

    4. Edit out any information he had that wasn't relevant

    constituted an essentially near abusively unreasonable set of unrealistic standards. Never mind that his point could be sophomoric.

    In response to a question in government class, this student in question indicated that the major historical event after which the constitution was written was.......World War II! That the rest of the class didn't laugh him out of the room should give you a good idea of the gross pervasiveness of student ignorance. Before someone blames it on "previous" schooling, keep in mind that students routinely demonstrate that they do not retain BASIC, ELEMENTARY, EASY TO REMEMBER factual information. I know because I tell them and they forget it. But here comes the legions of rationalizers: pedagogy is "dull"; curriculum is "dehumanizing" and "robotic"; and to the response that there are a minoirty of students who do remember things, and show a consistent ability to remember new things, and can evaluate and analyze and apply knowledge to novel situations and think logically....the insistent believer that school is part of the social chains that bound the person that free would become a renaissance thinker..this person stigmatizes the intelligent and capable student as "privileged" or worse, a functionary of a sick system.

    Future historians will look back on our time and conclude our schools were overtly corrupt cynical scams; that almost all educational credentials were fraudulent; that it was obvious and that almost all counterpoints to the contrary are laughable. They will also conclude that a blind and thoughtless insistence on the total rightness the idea all failure being due to things outside of the individual and thus not indicative of the individual's capabilities was to blame. They will further conclude that the result was an unconscienable waste of resources (time, effort and money) on people intellectually limited people who did nothing with them that could've been used on people who gave ever indication of being able to use them productively.

    Beyond middle school, education in real academic disciplines is a thing the majority of people CAN NOT DO. It is an inherently elite activity. Students that can't hold a thought in their mind for more than five seconds; students that can't hold an idea in their head while they read looking for things that connect to that idea -

    students who can't pay attention, concentrate and think about things without herculean efforts from teachers to "motivate" them, have absolutely no business being in an academic class. And everyone knows it. So what we do is shamefully enroll students in US History and they finish knowing nothing about it; they enroll in English class and leave with vocabularies as stunted as those they came in with; ask them the next year what books they read and they won't be able to remember the title, the author or anything else. Incessant prodding will elicit vague images.......Watch them bomb math test after math test, until the teacher either gives them "extra-credit" to "bring their grade up" or spoon feeds them answers or spends countless hours after school banging their head against the wall of the student's basic ineptitude. Watch the student get it, and watch the teacher take from this confirmation of the BS philosophy that everyone can learn. If it takes that much effort, you're defying that person's essential nature. And if you say the person is actually learning the academic discipline, you're telling a sick joke or talking yourself so blue teaching them the same damn thing over and over again that your brain was deprived of oxygen for a dangerous duration....

    The demand of students and parents and fellow teachers and fanatical believers in an obviously historically repudiated, Rousseauian Human Capacity are in unholy conspiracy against obvious truths and those who cannot bring themselves to join in the delusional dance of cultural destruction and degeneration.

    I have no answers. This can only collapse.

    John Allan Wilson - 9/11/2005

    How can this be news? Pass the tanning butter and who brought the Hibachi?

    Nathaniel Brian Bates - 6/8/2005

    As a teacher on the elementary level, I think that I have a perspective on this question that may be relevant. I think that the problem is less related to Grade Inflation and more to the ethical dilemna of cheating. Cheating it the ultimate "Grade Inflation". There are students who honestly do not understand why cheating is wrong. It is not so much that they cannot do the work. They honestly tell me that "everyone else does it", and hence that they WILL not do the work. If this problem can be addressed, then I believe that Grade Inflation will deflate naturally, given that students will BELIEVE in the learning process.

    Yes, less television and more engagement would be nice. However, we have to begin by understanding why cheating has become acceptable. Our own theories will not suffice. We need to ASK the question of the students themselves, and be prepared for their answers.

    Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

    An alternative explanation for the origin of grade inflation brought forth in "Insight" magazine, edition of 25 May 1998, is that during the Viet-Nam War because student deferments enabled male students to avoid the draft many professers passed out unseserved grades in compassionate efforts to assist students to dodge the draft.

    The nightly news stories of the bloody war in exotic Southeast Asia kept the war foremost on most folks' minds, regardless but 26% to 25% of the G.I.s who served in-country in 'Nam were draftees and something like 95 to 98% of those G.I.s who served in-country were never directly engaged in combat with the enemy or ever put at immediate grave risk from the enemy.

    In 19666 the U.S. population was not much more than half the size of today's and Viet-Nam's approximately 100 G.I.s KIA a day hit that population much harder than does the three or four lost today in Afghanistan & Iraq combined. Regardless a drafted lad's chances of ending carrying a rifle on the field of battle in Viet-Nam were slim, nonetheless there was tremendous pressure on all concerned responsible or potentially responsible for assisting a lad to avoid being drafted. Grade inflation was one natural consequence, because to stay in school in order to avoid the draft, one had to achieve passing grades.

    Once the war was settled & student deferments no longer a factor to encourage kids to go to school or remain there, it had become an engrained habit in the academy to inflate grades. In contrast, back in the good old days, when Yours truly was in school a common topic for discussion among students was how various professors graded. Does he grade on a curve? If so, what kind of curve? In those days, the "Gentleman's 'C' was nothing for which to be ashamed. Granted, if one wanted to go to graduate school, the Gentleman's C would not cut it.

    Julie A Hofmann - 8/17/2004

    This really is a great article, and I very much agree that faculty need to take ownership of assessment before they find it imposed via outside agencies by administrators looking to the bottom line. My own experiences with assessment have been mixed -- from seeing it as yet another marker of the commodification of education and the misuse of the word 'accountability' that seems to pervade our society, to developing useful tools for teaching and getting me to re-think some of my own strategies.

    In terms of the latter, my experiences are similar to Mr. Calder's. (Dr. Calder's?) A couple of years ago, I attended a 'best practices' workshop given by the private college where I was teaching as an adjunct. There was a lot of resistance to the idea of assessment, mostly because the faculty who had had any experience with matrices and rubrics had seen them misused by outside agencies and administrators to punish faculty and put constraints on their teaching. I have to say that I was also pretty resistant, although more from the perspective that so much of grading history essays is, to my mind, not quantifiable (I know that's not true for all history faculty -- a colleague in grad school had a list of concepts, people, and events that needed to be mentioned in each answer, and graded largely on their presence or absence, but I don't write questions where that can be done). Despite my inability to create rubrics for grading, I did profit from several of the other exercises. The first was the section of the syllabus where we had to list the desired course outcomes (a word I really hate -- I like goal much better) and the methods by which we would assess them. The second was preparing a discussion of an assignment for our colleagues; we passed around assignments and asked each other what we could do to make the assignments clearer and more relevant to the students.

    Skip ahead to last year, where I was emplyed as full-time faculty for the first time. It was our bi-annual Program Assessment year, and part of the assessment report was to describe how our couses addressed the college Gen. Ed. outcomes. I should mention that this is a community college and that the Gen. Ed. outcomes are nowise concretely related to Gen. Ed. curriculum or transfer requirements -- it makes things interesting, to say the least. Still, we all sat down and went though the outcomes for the accreditation files -- and I think many of us felt a bit deflated as we watched our courses reduced to such things as, "fulfills the info. literacy, critical thinking, multicultural awareness, and communication outcomes." That type of assessment seemed to deny the very existence of the idea of learning a discipline -- and to an extent, our expertise in those disciplines. The exercise was valuable to a newbie in terms of understanding what administrators want and the tensions over assessment -- just what _are_ we selling to the students? It certainly reinforced the notion that we have to justify why our disciplines are important in order to get more faculty, funding, etc. History qua History isn't all that important (and actually, in lots of public colleges in my state, it's only one of many options available to fulfill a general social science requirement) -- History is important because it will help the student fulfill the outcomes!

    Fortunately, I was also able to see the truly good and useful side of assessment that Mr. Calder mentions. I was under instructions to do _some_ committee work, and managed to get onto the college's Critical Thinking Assessment Group. The Chair pulled in people from about 12 disciplines, and I've never learned so much about teaching strategies. I should probably mention that I'd never really worried about those things before -- my evals have always been pretty good, and haven't changed much as a result of working in this group. What has changed is that I have fewer complaints about grades and assignments. I think it's because we had to create assignments that not only clearly delineated the steps the students needed to take, but also explained _why_ the assignment was useful and relevant. I was really surprised at the difference between 'this paper is a book review' and 'you'll be writing a book review, because in history, it's important to be able to read a secondary source critically and identify and analyse the author's thesis, use of sources, etc.' By defining our expectations and the reasons behind them for the students, I got my own little refresher course in what points _I_ was trying to get across. We also had to make up assignment-specific rubrics, but were allowed a lot of freedom as to how they were set up. Mine are really just matrices with a list of what I'm looking for on one side, and check boxes for A-F (or excelled-failed to meet requirements) on the right. Wile there are no point values assigned to particular areas, the graphic representation of the checks (and whether I check on the 'high' or 'low' side of a box is not only helpful in assigning a grade, but it also helps to keep my grading much more consistent. I also have more time to make substantive comments. Best of all, the students have access to the matrices, and can see what I'm looking for ahead of time. When they come to talk about their grades, it's less in terms of complaint, and more in terms of asking for specific explanations and suggestions on how to improve. Productive office hours are so nice.

    Finally, sharing the assignments with my colleagues helped to refine the expression of my expectations, and also gave me some great ideas and the confidence that, no matter what our discipline, we really were very much on the same page in terms of standards and grading. We tested this by reading student assignments together, and were generally no more than a couple of percentage points off. I can see this translating into more solidarity amongst the faculty and a more consistent experience for the students.

    I realize I've been somewhat long-winded here, but just wanted to demonstrate that my own experiences seem to bear out what both Jonathan and Lendol Calder said. Assessment can be useful and can make us more thoughtful teachers, but really needs to be owned by faculty, and not imposed by administrators or (much worse) outside agencies.

    Julie A Hofmann - 8/17/2004

    Not having access to the article makes it difficult to comment, but I would argue that the idea of public honor is next to non-existent in the US at present. If it were, we'd see a lot more lawsuits for slander and libel, and people wouldn't jump to be on reality- and talk shows on TV. I thought the second comment would clarify the first, but it really is quite confusing. Perhaps Mr. Todd could offer a clear thesis to those of us without access to the article and explain its relevance?

    Andrew D. Todd - 8/13/2004

    I do not use the word "sinecure" lightly.

    A relative used to be a probation officer, about twenty years ago. She went to great efforts to get people to go straight, and had the odd success. This should have made her a stand-out in her department. She was about the only person there who really had a vocation, and meaningful alternatives. However, unknowingly, she was at cross purposes with the effective program. The effective program was to increase the number of prisoners in the United States from about 400,000 to about two millions, and use them as a captive industrial labor force. The state introduced a system of questionnaires and quotas to prevent probation officers from tempering justice with mercy, and she was eventually forced out. Her experience was analogous to that of Tom Murton, the semi-notorious reform prison warden. Toward the end, there was a disagreement about whether the probation officers should carry guns. My relative hated the idea. She thought of herself as a social worker. However, the "new class" loved the idea, because it made them almost like cops.

    Bill Clinton brought the same approach to "ending welfare as we know it." Under this sort of regime, a caseworker who cares very much will be driven up the wall in fairly short order. If you want to get the desperate mother of small children away from a brutal husband, the first thing you have to do is to find her a place to live, and the money to pay for it. However, the caseworker's most basic job is to discourage applicants from applying. That sort of job becomes attractive only for someone who is willing to cultivate a contemptuous attitude toward the clients. The Social Security system runs on a presumption of eligibility. That is, it assumes that a sixty-nine-year-old beneficiary is the best judge of his potential employability. If the same principle were applied to the mothers of small children, we would have Swedish-style family allowances, and, unless the scope of benefits were to be radically expanded, the welfare bureaucracy would become substantially inoperative. What we actually have is a system designed to coerce welfare mothers to take minimum-wage jobs mopping floors, or to put up with domestic abuse. The result is that the bureaucracy requires bureaucrats with a certain lack of moral fastidiousness.

    About a year ago, the state of New Jersey tried to outsource welfare administration to India. Welfare administration, in the new regime, works out to calling prospective employers up, and asking if they have jobs open, rather than taking the applicant's word that she could not find a job. This can be done equally well from Bombay as from Trenton. The welfare caseworkers protested noisily, and the scheme was halted. Outsourcing was only possible because the welfare caseworkers had already allowed themselves to be maneuvered into dereliction of duty. Someone in Bombay cannot do a very good job of having a heart-to-heart talk with a thirteen-year-old Newark slum girl about her boyfriend. This "new class" of bureaucrats to manage the poor, in both its penal and welfare divisions, recruited from precisely those college students you most dislike, is in effect the same old slaveholder class in a new shape. That is why I think the experience of the University of Virginia _is_ applicable.

    By comparison, schoolteachers are a long way up the peck-order, being allowed to do good instead of harm, and elementary schools do not have to take anyone who walks in the door. Education schools have rigorized their curricula, not with classroom courses, but with very large chunks of practice teaching. The best way to find out if a student is any good is to see how she interacts with real live children. In our education school (West Virginia University), the practice teaching component of the elementary education program is now up to about a year.

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/12/2004

    There is a tension in education which renders your point only mildly helpful outside the realm of disciplinary mechanisms: the tension between the well-meaning multiculturalism and Scholarship of Learning which claim we should cleave to the patterns and culture of the student as the best way to achieve our educational aims; and our educational aims, which are, frankly, intellectually and culturally transformative.

    I think your attempt to transfer 'honor' onto modern grading is stretched, very stretched. And I think many of my students (not to mention actual welfare caseworkers and probation officers) would be rather unhappy at having their career plans dismissed as 'government sinecures.'

    Andrew D. Todd - 8/12/2004

    I'm sorry you didn't get much from the Waggoner article. I was originally trained as an anthropologist before I became a historian, and perhaps that enabled me to see what he was getting at. It helps to have read Bertram Wyatt-Brown as well, Waggoner only touches briefly on the "primal honor" discussion. You have to be careful not to uncritically impose your own values on an alien society.

    The way the social system was set up in the Old South, the vast majority of students had what they wanted once they had been to the University of Virginia, even for a short period of time. The whole point of going to the University of Virginia was to become known to the members of the southern elite (see p. 170). The situation was very much the same at Oxford or Cambridge, of course, or Eton and Harrow, for that matter. Being sent down for a spectacular prank was as good as graduating. If the prank was stylish and original enough, it would be widely remembered. What would have really hurt would have been to simply refuse admission in the first place.

    In the Ancien Regime, of which the Old South was an offshoot, the basis of wealth and power was property, either in the form of land or slaves. Someone who went to the University of Virginia had to have property in the first place, of course (a handful of grinds and scholarship boys excepted, of course). However, if a planter had gone there, it meant that twenty years later, one of the southern grandees might remember him, and the planter would then be able to gain power by mediating on behalf of his neighbors. The other side of the coin was that it was very bad to be seen to submit to insult. That would be the behavior of a shopkeeper. It would result in shunning, or ostracism.

    Parenthetically, I can think of a boy at my old prep school, thirty years ago, whom I remember not for any positive achievement, but for "streaking," ie. running nude in a public place with the intent of creating a disturbance. He was at pains to take twenty dollars worth of bets in advance, which, in terms of schoolboy economics and the subsequent inflation, was a meaningful sum. I don't say that I admire Wayne ____., but if I had a job in my gift, probably of a military character, which required audacity and steady nerve, I might very well prefer him above another man of whom I knew nothing. There is much less chance that he will panic halfway through, and forget the good reasons for doing whatever it is that he has to do. In wartime, there is sometimes a need for such men. (*)

    Your students, on the other hand, live in what one might call the Government Sinecure State. The way the civil service regulations are set up, a person with some kind of bachelors degree will have preference for jobs such as welfare caseworker or probation officer, the sort of job that _you_ would never want, but it beats working on an assembly line. Next preference goes to the people with a year or so of college. According to the material in a civil service test tutor book I consulted, a college class lasting fifty minutes is credited approximately equally to an hour and a half working at McDonald s. This doesn't seem particularly just, but there it is. The result is a type of student who looks for gut courses. It is simply a question of where their vested interests lie. Flunking a student in the year 2004 may have many of the same implications as caning a student in the year 1840.

    Returning to the Ancien Regime, I suppose the future Duke of Wellington could have been said to have flunked out of Eton, circa 1780, not in the sense of failing grades, but in the sense of being removed in disgrace. He was a shy little boy who hid from the school bullies in the shrubbery. When word got back to Wellington's elder brother and guardian, the elder brother angrily removed him, and shipped him off to an inexpensive provincial school in France, the sort of place no one had ever heard of. Wellington was very happy there. The headmaster's wife was one of those exquisitely civilized Frenchwomen, in the tradition of the salon hostesses. It was a good place to grow up, but his contemporaries were not the kind of men who would be able to pull strings for him in later life. As it turned out, Wellington was not the kind of mediocre man who needed string-pulling. Interestingly, Napoleon was attending an approximately similar school at about the same time.


    Ref: Elizabeth Longford, Wellington, The Years of the Sword.


    Reading Own Johnson's _Stover at Yale_ (1912), one finds an approximately similar system. Before a football game, the coach tells 'Dink' Stover that they have no chance of winning:

    [reprint 1968, Collier Books, New York]


    "'Stover, Look here,' said Tompkins abruptly, 'I'm going to speak straight to you, because I think you'll keep your mouth shut. We're in a desperate condition here, and you know it. There's only one man in charge at Yale, now and always, and that's the captain. That's our system, and we stand or fall by it; and in order that we can follow him four times out of five to victory, we've sometimes got to shut our eyes and follow him down to defeat. Do you get me?... No matter what happens, no criticism of the captain-- no talking outside. You may think he's wrong, you may know he's wrong, but you've got to grin and bear it. That's all. Remember-- keep a closed mouth.'"

    (p. 81-82, ch. 8)

    "'Dink, we're in for a licking... that's a great Princeton team,' said Tompkins quietly, 'and we're a weak Yale one. We're going to get well licked. Now, boy, I'm telling you this because I think you're the stuff to stand it; because you'll play better for knowing what's up to you.'"

    (p. 93-94, ch 9)

    "'Now, boys, its over. We've lost. It's our turn; we've got to stand it. One thing I want you to remember when you go out of here. Yale teams take their medicine. '"

    (p. 113, ch10)


    Jonathan Dresner - 8/9/2004

    because I just read the article. There's lots of points you could be making, few of which are going to fly very far in my opinion, but I really hope I didn't just waste my time. That's much more about student discipline than about any of the instittutional, cultural or pedagogical issues at stake here.

    I mean, it's nice that the students don't (usually) challenge us to duels anymore, and I haven't heard of a faculty member horsewhipped (though lawsuits are a roughly equivalent experience, I'm told, and they do happen) in a while. But, as Tom Paxton once said, "some of them cats owned slaves," so more has changed than stayed the same, I think.

    On the other hand, failing a student seems to have been entirely acceptable, and 'retention' was unknown, so in some ways we have clearly regressed.

    I have to think about the concept of public honor. Consider this: as a faculty member, I am bound by professional ethics and federal law not to reveal a students' grade or other course-related matters to anyone but other authorized employees of the university or to the student, without written authorization from the student. But my students can post anonymous reviews of me on a dozen websites.

    And the way things go, it'll take more than a single dead faculty member (it's happened, both by students' hands and their own) to shock anyone into action. Nor is religious revival a particularly likely or likely to be successful event (as others have noted, we are a most religious nation as it is).

    No, not helpful at all. Next time, an abstract, please?

    Andrew D. Todd - 8/7/2004

    Wagoner, Jennings L., Jr., Honor and Dishonor at Mr. Jefferson's University: the Antebellum Years, History of Education Quarterly, 26(2):155-179, Summer 1986

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/6/2004

    An interesting thought; I wonder if anyone actually has sufficiently long and deep data sets to even prove an association, much less a causal relationship. I'm suspicious of single-cause explanations, and the variation among disciplines in grading suggests that there are other processes at work as well.

    And the discussions of grading are not all that far in the past: students still talk about professors' grading habits, and they certainly ask us directly often enough.

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/5/2004

    It's possible.

    It would be nice to think that enough of us are doing something right, and that's making our students better. But two reservations: first, I don't think the use of these pedagogical tools is widespread enough (or old enough) to account for the long-term and broad trends; second, if students really were learning more effectively, you'd think we'd notice that in our classes.

    Part of what you might have been seeing with the older essays could also be technological. Let's face it: word processors and the internet as a research tool have raised the bar a bit. Not as much as we'd like, but a bit.

    Lendol Calder - 8/5/2004

    No, I'm not surprised to hear about your commitment to careful teaching; your essay bears abundant witness to it. I hope our exchange has clarified that there are two broad movements for reform in higher education today, "generalist" movements which you and I deplore (led by accrediting agencies, the AACU, et al.), and the scholarship of teaching and learning (the books to read: "Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," the NSF's "How People Learn") that proceed on the assumption that serious inquiry into learning must be grounded in the disciplines. Sam Wineburg ("Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts") is on record as saying "There is no such thing as generic critical thinking."

    I'm afraid my description of how I teach overshadowed my question, which I will ask again: is it possible that some grade inflation can be traced to pedagogical innovations like clearly stated outcomes and the use of grading rubrics? It's not an absurd theory; recently I read several dozen history essays from the 1960s in our college's archives and they were plumb awful, several grade levels below what I expect and get from most students today. There are many variables that could explain this, I know, but it seems to me that increasing use of outcomes + rubrics must inevitably cause grades to go up, unless people stick to using grades for ranking.

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/4/2004

    Mr. Calder might be surprised to hear that I agree with him, as well. I do believe in pedagogical innovation, if it serves specific purposes; I believe that student learning is the ultimate goal of teaching. What I do not believe is that generalist accrediting agency committees (or educational 'experts' from other fields) have any idea how history is different from philosophy or chemistry or business management. I've read far too many books and articles about 'revolutions' in teaching -- methods and technology -- which had about as much relation to what I teach as a Ford to a frog.

    A revision like you describe is fine, if the purposes of the course can be revised to reflect what you are accomplishing. In my world history surveys, for example, I am obligated to cover not just historical methods, but a vast array of specific information.

    I actually do a lot of the things you describe: detailed syllabi; discussion of assignment goals and grading standards; assignments that build on each other, or smaller assignments that add up to larger works; classes and assignments structured around engagement instead of memorization, discussion instead of listening. But there's only so far I can go before I run into problems with the definition of my courses: I am supposed to cover a pretty wide range of material (not just in World history, either), not just build skills and pick and choose issues because they are conveniently structured for my assignments. If we as a department decide (and don't run into trouble from the curricular committees) to shift modes, fine; until then I have to balance skills and cases with coverage.

    Grades are not about sorting out students, for me, they are about evaluating the work being done. I'd have no problem giving a lot of A and B grades, if my students gave me a lot of A and B work.

    Lendol Calder - 8/4/2004

    Thanks to Jonathan Dresner for a thought-provoking essay. It may surprise him that I agree with much of what he says, given that I am an advocate of the scholarship of teaching and learning for historians. Certainly we who are pushing for more serious inquiry by history professors into matters related to student learning agree with Dresner that assessment regimes are coming, that probably they cannot be stopped, and that most likely they will be stupid regimes unless we act now to devise preferable alternatives. Where I differ from Dresner, it seems, is that I think of the scholarship of teaching and learning as the best alternative to stupid assessment. This message is hard to get out, though, when the accrediting agencies pushing SoTL aren't always up to speed on the best practices of assessment, one of which is that good assessment must be discipline-specific.

    On the matter of grade inflation, I note that my own grades have slightly inflated (approximately, from C to B) since I began teaching ten years ago. This, despite the fact that I expect a lot more from students today than I used to. How can this be? I think it has something to do with the intellectual shift I made some years ago from course designs based on "teaching" (i.e., me talking) to designs based on "learning" (i.e., the "best practices" Dresner views with skepticism, which we should all share. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.) In the beginning, I made only minimal efforts to clarify for students my goals, expectations, and grading standards. Used to be, I had no idea how to scaffold learning exercises that would produce the results I wanted, but was unable to articulate. In the old days when I lectured every day and asked for a couple of papers, I taught the way I was taught, following the script that says "I said it, that means they learned it." Today my courses look very different. Students now write seven papers in the survey, not one or two. They have rubrics to explain in detail what will be graded as an A, a B, and so on. Class time now eschews coverage of material and is used instead for uncovering answers to the essential questions of the course. And so on and so on. Is it so surprising then, that as I have become a better teacher, student learning has improved and grades have gone up? Only if one assumes grades are for ranking. But it's not surprising at all if one thinks of grades as a shorthand for indicating how well students perform the outcomes my department and I have established as defining what it means to do history. Maybe in physics only a couple of students can perform at an A level. But history is Everyman's field and competent historical thinking is within the reach of most undergraduates. With effort on their part and intelligent guidance from teachers, why shouldn't most students perform at levels of competency (B) or excellence (A)?

    No matter what we do as teachers, the bright students will do well. No matter what we do, the lazy and truly dim students will do poorly. What has changed in my courses mostly affects students in the middle. Clearer goals, articulated expectations, and actual teaching instead of just talking seems to help the average students do a bit better. Hence, grade inflation. My question is, how far does my experience go (switching from mere talking + ranking to better pedagogy + outcome-based grading) to explain grade inflation in general?

    Andrew D. Todd - 8/4/2004

    How do I know what Mathematics instructors think? How do historians know anything? Put in some time on the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and form your own conclusions. Broadly speaking, the limiting factor on Mathematics education is the availability of people who both know Mathematics and are willing to teach young children. There is an ongoing issue of the unqualified high school math teacher who is afraid of Mathematics, and projects her fear onto the students. It's rather a catch-22 situation. That means that there are limits to the extent to which you can simply order everyone to be better prepared.

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/3/2004

    What you are pointing out, essentially, is that different courses operate at different levels. That's why most school have some sort of tiered numbering system, indicating levels of difficulty and specialization; class titles help, too.

    And you're right, the numbers I offered are aggregations, conflating intro- and upper-division courses. It may be that the majors with the highest GPAs are the ones that admit the most prepared students, at least in their specialities (though, with the exception of music, I'd be inclined to disagree) or perhaps they are the ones most likely to take their majors seriously and neglect their general education courses. But anyone who has taught knows that when they see certain majors (which do vary by school) on the sign-up sheet that they have more work coming for less reward.

    Your 'translations' of grades are cute, but there's nothing in my experience to suggest that they are authoritative: in other words, that's what you think they mean, but what do math instructors think they mean? Is it, in fact, remotely the same at Harvard, U Iowa, UH-Hilo, Pomona Community College? That's what we don't know.

    Placement exams are an interesting adaptation: they recognize that high school grades are a poor indication of student mastery of skills. And they promote the remedialization of the academy: students should be tested for basic skills before they enter, not after, or else truly remedial courses should not be counted for graduate or general education credit, but they are. (This is an issue we're struggling with actively at the moment).

    Ralph E. Luker - 8/2/2004

    I will never forget the memo from the President's office at one of the colleges where I taught. It simply said that the percentage of faculty salary increase for the coming academic year was directly tied to student retention. I understood his bottom line, but the integrity of the grading system was protected that year only by the integrity of individual faculty members. Limited protection.

    Andrew D. Todd - 8/2/2004

    Grades perform at least four different functions that I can think of:

    1. Sending signals, getting students to work, etc.

    2. Deciding who is to be rusticated.

    3. Deciding who is to go to a cognate professional school (eg. law school).

    4. Deciding who is to going to enter the discipline.

    These are very different purposes, and they do need separate grading systems. The latter two are reasonably addressed by external examinations. There is nothing wrong with external examinations per se. One can reasonably critique the GRE for being a multiple choice examination which does not require the candidate to actually write things or perform mathematical calculations, etc. One can call for an external examination to be made more authoritative, after the manner of the old University of London external degree.

    It is an error to compare grade averages between disciplines, and say, "we've got more or less grade inflation than you do."

    For example, you note that at your institution, the art, music and dance programs have comparatively high GPA's. Practically speaking, it is impossible to get into an art or music school without already being an artist or musician. They have auditions, look at portfolios, etc. Generally speaking, the vast majority of classes are closed to nonmajors, because they would not be able to keep up, and the art and music schools have no real tradition of participating in general education. For all practical purposes, a BFA is a graduate degree, at about the same level as a liberal arts ABD. A MFA is comparable in scope to a Ph.D. The requirement is quite simply to produce an exhibition, that is, a series of related paintings.

    Now let's take Mathematics departments. Two thirds of the classes (sections) a typical Mathematics department teaches are, by it's own reckoning, not of college level, ie. below Calculus. There is usually a slow Calculus course for business and biology students, and a regular Calculus course. Only about ten percent of the total classes are above Calculus level (which is to say, above the level covered by the college board advanced placement exams). Perhaps five percent might be upper division/graduate. The vast majority of Mathematics classes contain students who have a history of failing Mathematics, and are resigned to failing yet again. Mathematics departments commonly have initial placement examinations, to separate out the sheep from the goats. In terms of prerequisites and class scheduling, someone who was obliged to start in a sub-Calculus course would find it extremely difficult to meet the requirements for a Mathematics or hard science degree within four years. The placement exam, conducted before any classes, is thus the key exam. It practically closes off the the hard science fields to those who are not either well prepared in high school, or exceptionally determined. Physics departments are practically identical to Mathematics departments in this respect, given the close linkage between the two disciplines.

    An A in College Algebra would translate as approximately: "What on earth are _you_ doing in this bonehead class with all these meatheads. Come and talk to me so we can get you transferred somewhere suitable." There is an alternative translation which runs: "We both know you are competent to teach this class, but the idiotic regulations require you to take it, so why don't you just come in for the final exam and skip everything else." One such case known to me was that of a mathematician who decided he wanted to teach Mathematics to small children, and was therefore required to take an even more boneheaded form of College Algebra known as Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers.

    Both of these cases are so overwhelmingly different from History that comparison is meaningless.

    Derek Charles Catsam - 8/2/2004

    Plus, if the grade inflation started in high school and thus covered up the rot, it makes it tough then to deal with compensating in one semester. And if you are a junior person, it does not take a lot of evaluations borne of motivations along the lines of "Give me a D will he, well take this!" to skew the numbers. I don't think we should live in fear of bad evaluations, but there surely are realities for younger scholars facing all sorts of pressures -- keep enrollments up, keep those students taking a course at a time paying and returning, they are, after all, "customers." I am not lamenting my job at all -- I find that if you are rigorous but fair most students will respect it and will work harder. But it does not take too many complaints by students irrespective of whether they earned that D, especially if those complaints go right to the chair or higher, to make you think twice. We professors are human too, as you all know.

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/2/2004

    You're both right, to some extent. Some colleges and universities have the ability to be very selective; most, however, are not able to set strong absolute standards for admission. Some, mostly smaller institutions, need tuition money because they don't have substantial endowments or other sources of incomes. Others, mostly public institutions, have a mandate to serve the citizens of their states, and even there state subsidy sometimes runs second to tuition as a revenue stream, so there are two pressures for more open enrollments.

    That said, I also believe that we as teachers have an obligation to teach the students we get. We can complain about them (and we do) but we still have to try to get them through the course of study that results in a decent 'college education.' Inflating grades to pass the problem along is not an acceptable answer.

    Grant W Jones - 8/2/2004

    How much of the problem of grade inflation is the result of the primary schools not doing their job? "At this point, college would becaome an extension of high school." Are your 18-year-old freshman, as a rule, ready for college?

    You mention the issue of "social advancement" in high school. If this is the case how can you, the college professor, repair twelve years of rot? It sounds like the universities are being made to shoulder the blame for the failings of others.

    Jonathan Dresner - 8/2/2004

    Thanks for your comments.

    1. Both. There is evidence for trend over time (see the side links on the Liberty and Power blog) and, as a teacher, I am quite sure that we have a compressed scale which seems to be getting worse, not better. I don't have the data to do a more comprehensive analysis, as the data on my school to which I have access only goes back ten years.

    2. That's true, to some extent, but again, they wouldn't have to do that if grades meant something transferable between campuses.

    3. First, getting academics to agree to 'strictly adhere' to a curve system is difficult. Second, the stability of curved grades depends on the stability of the student population: if your students' work declines in average quality, but your curve doesn't change, you are inflating the grades.

    4. The likely format of national tests would privilege specific information over cognitive process (except for test-taking cognition), and it's likely that the standards will, in fact, be uncomfortably high in very specific areas. The Massachusetts graduation test and NCLB did not establish comfortable minimums, but set rather high standards which many students failed. The question of remedial and transfer students is a very, very sticky one, tied up with the financial aspects of education and the problem of secondary education. But I suspect, if these tests come in and have teeth, that the temptation to raise transfer and admission standards to cut out likely failures (as is happening in primary and secondary schools with regard to NCLB) would be strong. In that case, we still wouldn't be teaching....

    I mostly agree with your conclusion, but the changes which need to be made are not simple tweaks: they require a committment from the institution to overcome serious entrenched resistance.