Grade inflation

There’s a lot of talk about grade inflation and the worry that our academic institutions are rubber stamping laziness and a lack of critical thinking. Some even charge that grades are somehow connected to tuition so that as college prices have risen, administrators are under greater pressure to give students “what they paid for,” which is to say, an immaculate resume.

I used to buy into this theory, but after TAing a few classes, I’m not sure how correct it is. First, some rise in grades is probably attributable to the selection effect. As the flexibility of the core curriculum increases, people take the classes that they like and also the classes that they know they can succeed in. There are also just more classes, allowing students to more carefully place themselves in the right class for their level (“I’ll take the middle physics class rather than the beginner class or the advanced class.”) I also think that it’s very conceivable that college students these days are more driven than in days past. This is just my prejudice, but the influx of poorer students I think leads to better grades. Such students really want to succeed and given their circumstances, may need to succeed. For some, good grades might mean escaping a life of hardship, and for others, good grades secures their scholarship, semester in and semester out. Thus, these kids come to play.

Finally, and this is just my TA experience talking, students are more in contact with the people grading their papers. In the past, college was much more authoritarian and hierarchical, and thus the feedback on a bad paper was likely to be minimal. What I find is that when I tell a student that they need to do something different, they do. When faced with this response, what else can I do but give them a higher grade? Again, this points to something else that might be underlying grade inflation; students do way more assignments. With the proliferation of computers, a lot more words are written per semester, and I think this just makes students improve much more over the course of a semester.

Maybe all this points to what the grade inflation alarmists have been saying all the time: we need to raise standards. I think this might be right, but notice that this would add a much different valence to the grade inflation debate. It wouldn’t be that we are rewarding laziness and ineptitude, but rather that our standards have not caught up to the startling intelligence and potential of the school-going populace. We’re using metrics for what counts as good work that are woefully out of date for the skills of today’s students.


1 Response to “Grade inflation”

  1. 1 daniel
    July 23, 2010 at 6:37 am

    Great points, Jordan.

    Your description of the feedback process is a great example of the way educators have improved in recent decades. The new education believes that all students can achieve. You can tell the best schools by the progress their students make.

    It makes sense to me that elite schools have more A’s than other schools – they screen for students who are ready to make progress towards some of the highest standards in the world. On the other hand, colleges with high acceptance rates are more and more likely to be handing out meaningless A’s. In my eyes, typical of the way that the gaps between haves and have-nots are expanding.

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