May 2010 Archives

This site, authored by Stuart Rojstaczer, gives plenty of quantitative data about grade inflation at the university level, which by the measures given seems to be pervasive at most schools. Near the bottom he gives the reason why any of this matters, which is as reasonable a case as I have seen:

While local increases in student quality may account for part of the grade inflation at some institutions, the national trend cannot be explained by this influence. There is no evidence that students have improved in quality nationwide since the mid-1980s. 

There are many factors that contribute to grade inflation and quantitative assessments of causes will likely prove to be inconclusive. An oft-cited reason for grade inflation in the 1960's was the kindness of faculty members toward students trying to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War. 

The influence of affirmative action is sometimes used to explain grade inflation. However, much of the rise in minority enrollments occurred during a time, the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, when grade inflation waned. As a result, it is unlikely that affirmative action has had a significant influence. 

The author believes that the resurgence of grade inflation in the 1980s principally was caused by the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education. Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase. In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content. Both intellectual rigor and grading standards have weakened. The evidence for this is not merely anecdotal. Students are highly disengaged from learning, are studying less than ever, and are less literate. Yet grades continue to rise.

Internal university memos say much the same thing. For example, the chair of Yale's Course of Study Committee, Professor David Mayhew, wrote to Yale instructors in 2003, "Students who do exceptional work are lumped together with those who have merely done good work, and in some cases with those who have done merely adequate work." In 2001, Dean Susan Pedersen wrote to the Harvard faculty: 

"We rely on grades not only to distinguish among our students but also to motivate them and the Educational Policy Committee worries that by narrowing the grade differential between superior and routine work, grade inflation works against the pedagogical mission of the Faculty....While accepting the fact that the quality our students has improved over time, pressure to conform to the grading practices of one's peers, fears of being singled out or rendered unpopular as a 'tough grader,' and pressures from students were all regarded as contributory factors...."

Naturally, these trends have spread into the independent school realm as well, for much the same reasons. The topic continues to be one that most private schools seek to avoid, especially ones without strong leadership at the helm that can resist the pressures from influential families and trustees. I have been fortunate in that I am one of the toughest graders at my school, yet I have almost no complaints about my standards from students or families. It helps, I find, to be clear about the standards up front and make no apologies about them, but then to assist students in meeting those standards at every stage of their work (particularly in the craft of writing).

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