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by Walter Brasch

About 1.8 million students will graduate from college this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At least one-third of them will graduate with honors. In some colleges, about half will be honor graduates.

It’s not that the current crop is that bright, it’s that honors is determined by grade point average. Because of runaway grade inflation, the average grade in college is now an “A.” About 43 percent of all college grades are “A”s, according to a recent study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, and published in the prestigious Teachers College Record.  About three-fourths of all grades are “A”s or “B”s.

Throw out the universal curve that applies to everything from height to house prices. That curve is reality. College grades are not.

At one time, the universal curve applied to college grades: “A”s were about 10 percent of all grades; “B”s were about 20 percent; “C”s were about 40 percent; “D”s were about 20 percent; and “F”s were about 10 percent. That grade break-down, which could be more or less, depending upon a number of factors, isn’t even ancient history—it’s more like an ethereal ghost that no one understands.

Drs. Rojstaczer and Healy report that in 1940 about 15 percent of all grades were “A”s. While grades of “B” have remained stable at about 35 percent for the past six decades, grades of “C” have dropped sharply from 35 percent to about 15 percent.  Grades of “D” have dropped by half over the past six decades, while grades of “F” apparently are issued only to those students who didn’t show up for class or whose brain is bottled in formaldehyde in a science lab.

Several studies show a high correlation between high grades issued by professors to students and high evaluations of professors by students.

Why that matters is that professors are pragmatic. College administrations have taken an easy way to evaluate professors’ teaching abilities by having students fill out a multi-question survey at the end of the semester. Professors know that 19-year-olds will typically rate “likable” and non-demanding professors higher. Add those evaluations to a few meaningless professional papers delivered to a couple of dozen yawning academics at boring conferences and a list of university committees the professor was appointed or elected to, and opportunities for tenure and promotion increase.

Although there are thousands of excellent professors who excel in all areas of teaching and scholarship, many professors, even those with a string of academic letters after their names, may not even be aware they are not as rigorous as they should be. After all, their own professors, wanting to be liked and promoted, may not have demanded significant academic sweat, so they aren’t aware of what reasonable criteria should be for their own students. There is also the reality that collegial “get-togethers” and participation on useless college committees—and being liked by one’s colleagues—may be an easier route to tenure and promotion than doing rigorous scholarship and demanding the same from students.

Because of grade inflation, students avoid professors who believe the grade of “C” is the average grade and who set up standards that require students to do more than show up, read a couple of hundred pages, and answer a few questions. Fewer students in classes usually results in questions from administrators who may claim they believe in academic rigor and integrity, but who have the souls of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Some departments traditionally grade tougher than others. Science and engineering departments tend to have lower overall grade averages than those in social sciences and humanities. Education programs tend to have the highest grade averages. It’s not unusual for the average grade in elementary education courses to be an A-minus, and in secondary education to be a B-plus. That means either our future teachers are brighter than the light from a supernova—or that some of the profs who are teaching our future teachers don’t know there are more than just two letters in the alphabet.

In some classes, at all educational levels, we don’t even require students to know anything more than hand signals, preparation of crib sheets, and techniques of paraphrasing five different articles and calling the result a research paper—assuming the professor even requires that much. The one class in which most students can legitimately earn a grade of “A” without cheating is Cheating.

Add into the slurpy mix of academics a few inconvenient pressures. Athletics coaches want to make sure their pack of future draft picks stay academically eligible. A significant minority of students spend more time trying to plea-bargain the professor into raising the grade than they do studying for the exams. And when plea-bargaining fails, hovering overhead are the helicopter parents who want to make sure professors truly understand how brilliant their darling children are, and how (horror!) a B-minus not only is the wrong grade, but can damage their darling little Boo-Boo’s fragile psyche and chances to become a Fortune 500 CEO. Besides, the parent reasons that buying a college degree is like buying a car—if you pay the money, you should get a car.

If the professor doesn’t yield to parental pressure, there’s always some administrator with jelly for a spine, and a pencil-brain that equates quality of education with how many children she or he can capture and put into brick-and-mortar buildings. The pursuit in college has been of achieving a critical mass of students who earn high enough grades to stay in college, sometimes for six years, rather than in developing knowledge and critical thinking skills—traits that administrators all claim they believe but don’t do more than pay “lip service.”

The problem of runaway grade inflation is that the exceptional student receives the same grade as the above average student, and the mediocre student can slide into a degree. Until professors stand up for academic rigor, even against the prattling of their administrators and the practices of their more “likable” peers, and are willing to push not only themselves but their students beyond their limits, there is no reason for students to expect academic rigor—and every reason for them to expect to be able to graduate with honors.

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and professor emeritus from a Pennsylvania state university. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health and environmental effects of deep earth drilling in the Marcellus Shale.]


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Comment Preferences

  •  It's true-- (5+ / 0-)

    student evaluation forms are a major source of pressure for grade inflation. So is Administration pressure to increase the student retention rate, and the practice of giving huge classes to adjuncts who are less empowered and less able to hold firm against student demands for inflated grades.

    It not only means we are pressured to assign higher grades for middling work, it means we are pressured to assign less work-- fewer pages of reading per week, fewer papers.

  •  I had friends like this in law school. (4+ / 0-)

    It's a rude awakening when you're in a class full of people who were top 15% in college and only 10% of the class can get an A once you're in law school.  

  •  A case of grade deflation (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sychotic1, northsylvania, scott5js

    At one point before I went to teach at UMass-Amherst in the mid-1970s, there apparently was a policy that an F grade in a course did not count against your GPA.  You'd simply get no credit for the course.  The result was that students getting a D in a course would go to the professor and beg for an F.  

    The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Bertrand Russell

    by accumbens on Tue May 07, 2013 at 07:39:26 AM PDT

  •  Hmm, not sure. (12+ / 0-)

    First, I'll admit that I've only been a professor for 10 years, so I don't have direct experiential evidence of the "good old days." But I find these discussions to be oversimplified, and remedies -- when they're even offered (none in the diary) -- to be counterproductive and pedagogically indefensible.

    The easiest and most common suggestion -- forcing every class into a predetermined curve -- is profoundly silly, and I'm always disheartened when otherwise intelligent folks propose it. I could write a whole book on its fallacies, but just off the top of my head:

    --Classes have wide variation in their student draw. Perhaps this is less so at large universities where lower-division classes have 500 students, but at my college, where the classes typically run 15-35, the average capability in the classes is widely variant. I've had classes where I wasn't sure anyone had a pulse, and classes comprised of 50% honors students (only our top 7% are admitted to the honors program). If I graded them on the same curve, I would be forced to give the exact same performance different grades depending on which section it was in. Also, some profs routinely draw better students for whatever reason, so why would we expect their distributions to be the same as others?

    --One of the perverse aspects of the panic over grade inflation is that it fails to distinguish between an "easy" professor and one who is skilled at motivating students to perform well. Think back to college -- we all know there is wide variation in the degree to which professors are able to convey complex ideas in a lucid, understandable manner, and also variation in their ability to motivate students to care about the material and give their best effort to the class. But, when well-meaning deans distribute spreadsheets with everyone's grade distribution for the purpose of shaming the "easy" profs, they're often, in effect, shaming the better teachers.

    As for the longitudinal data; again, I haven't been around long enough to fully process it. But there are other potential factors that need to be considered. The college-prep high school track, for example, is more rigorous now than when I was there 25 years ago. Most of our freshman class will have already taken the college-level intro to my subject -- an option I didn't even have at my high school -- but because of our degree plan, majors have to take it again from us. So they're bound to do well. Also, pedagogy has changed. Unless you somehow believe that people who think about it for a living have never come up with a single method of improving teaching, perhaps we are, on average, communicating in a more effective manner. I don't know -- but those are at least factors you'd need to rule out before declaring that we've all gone soft.  

    Hope you fall on your burger and fries.

    by cardinal on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:03:44 AM PDT

    •  My college student son (4+ / 0-)

      has mentioned good professors and easy professors.  He does not equate the two.  And while he may be accepting of an easy professor he wouldn't in his major or in a class which he sees as fundamental to his learning.

      "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity"

      by newfie on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:21:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  All of the above (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Both the diarist and you are right.

      There are administrators who rely almost entirely on student evaluations because they want "numbers" to assess faculty performance. Results: departmental soap opera, popularity contest, and grade inflation.

      Then there are administrators who leave faculty alone to do their jobs, take student evaluations with a grain of salt, and intervene when there is an obvious problem. Results: no drama, effective teaching.

      Unfortunately, when leadership in the college administration changes, the first thing they usually do is switch from model 2 to model 1 because they must have "accountability."

      261.A wealthy man can afford anything except a conscience. -Ferengi Rules of Acquisition

      by MaikeH on Tue May 07, 2013 at 01:33:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I used to have teachers that "graded on the curve" (7+ / 0-)

    so that only X amount of students would get an A no matter what their score was.  That is bullshit.  Although OVERALL those numbers may hold, they don't hold true for each class.  That and working class kids have to be the brightest of the bright just to get into higher education...real grinders.

    Yes, there is likely some grade inflation, but the curve is also bullshit.

    "I watch Fox News for my comedy, and Comedy Central for my news." - Facebook Group

    by Sychotic1 on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:10:52 AM PDT

  •  Should a grade be a comparison (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cardinal, elfling

    to other students in a given course?  What if the top 10% of a given class are not very bright, don't perform well and would not achieve the same grade given a different set of classmates?  My current college student would likely give top "grades" to the professor in whose class he has his worst grade.  Certainly the lower grade bothers him.  But at the same time he evaluates the professor on the professor's ability to treat the subject matter and on what he (my son) is learning.  The grade he attributes to his own level of ability in that subject.  I cannot say he enjoys the lower grade but he does appreciate the professor's skill and has worked tirelessly to improve his performance in that class.

    Aside from comparisons of the percentage of the various grades, the remainder of what you wrote appear to be your subjective opinion.  I take it that some of it must be from your own experiences and, as is evidenced by other posts, it is an experience that at least some others have had.  Okay, and then what?  Not sure what you propose.  

    I, personally think grades should be a measure against a desired level of proficiency not a measure against a current group of students. If a grade would be measured against a degree of proficiency in the subject then you can theoretically have all A's or all F's in a given course. In either case measurement of the effectiveness of the professor should take that into account - all A's may mean that the professor is an excellent educator or using a standard of proficiency that is too low.  You can make a similar assessment with a preponderance of F's.

    And then, how much does this effect the end goals? - obtaining and succeeding in one's chosen field.  Not all school's are created or treated equally.  Students from one particular school for a given field are more valued than students from others.  That would possibly bring market pressure to the sub-par performing schools - I know more than a few students who make their college selection (in part) based on outcomes - as much as they can make that determination.  

    "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity"

    by newfie on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:13:41 AM PDT

  •  Retention is more important to admins (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    than any concept of academic rigor.

    I'm glad I went to school in the good old days.

  •  Students are "consumers" of education (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Who rate their professors as though they were evaluating vacuum cleaners or barbeque sauces.

    Perhaps the professors need to be more creative in finding ways to recognize excellence outside of letter grades and GPAs. How about something along the "extra credit" concept? I'm thinking of a tier of honors that is only achieved through original work that gains some kind of national recognition, along the lines of "Rhodes Scholar" "National Merit Scholar", etc.

    When I was in college, lo those many years ago, there was actually something known as a "gentlemens C" which was all that was required to maintain an air of scholarship and gentility.

    Education Departments have always been known as "gut" classes (again, terminology from the Bronze Age). I took a Children's Lit class that was wall-to-wall athletes looking for an easy A to drive up their GPA.

    “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” FDR

    by Phoebe Loosinhouse on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:17:22 AM PDT

  •  Anecdotal evidence (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    American university's reputation for grade inflation is notorious in England, as I found out when applying for an MA program. I still walked out of U London with well over the points necessary for a high honours degree, and that success was down to having a good background in critical thinking and writing skills given to me by profs in the States. This despite the fact that all my degrees there were in studio art.
    As someone who moved around a lot, I had classes in private universities with 6-10 people in a class, and some at state universities (one in Texas!) with 100. I can think of only two classes I have had that were a waste of time. Either I was extraordinarily lucky, or that the American universities I attended were actually pretty good.  

    You..ought to be out raising hell. This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes. -Mother Jones

    by northsylvania on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:31:08 AM PDT

    •  I have friends who lived (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      in France for a short period.  The "poor" quality of US education was well known.  Yup - and it didn't sit well when each of their kids ranked top in their respective grades.  

      "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity"

      by newfie on Tue May 07, 2013 at 09:42:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is not new news (0+ / 0-)

    Back in the 1970s, my engineering school had about the grade distribution you describe.  Within that, non-required courses tended to have a higher distribution than required courses.  Why is that?  Well, in most colleges, you can drop a course with no record left behind for some number of weeks into the term, and if you're willing to have a "withdraw" on your transcript, you can do so much later.

    As a result, if you think you're going to get a "C" or worse, you drop the course.  In at least a few majors back in the day, there was at least one "C-centered" course whose job was to cull the number of students seeking that major.  

    So grade inflation has been around a long time.  The more demanding days you allude to go back to the days when "gentlemen C" Ivy League graduates (one was named Dubya) would do well.

  •  Last class I taught (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    That was in 1975: an evening 2nd term calculus class. with mostly older students.
    I had gotten flack from my department for grading too hard. Nevertheless they handed me a homework list that I took seriously.
    It soon became apparent that almost all my students were trying to see how little work they could get by with. I had asked them to leave their homework papers on the desk when they came in. Few or none would be on the desk when I came in. I would say "Are there any homework papers?" and papers would start trickling in. This game went on and on. I did not put my foot down because students might all drop the class.
    I knew this would be my last class and I had little to lose when it came to grading time. Mostly C's. A few B's and D's. No A's. I don't remember any F's.
    I do believe a student who is only willing to do enough to get by is a C student at best. If I had a class made up entirely of capable and interested students it could be all A's and B's. I had no compunction about giving better grades to students who were genuinely interested.

    Censorship is rogue government.

    by scott5js on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:59:08 AM PDT

    •  Are you sure (0+ / 0-)

      that these older students were trying to get away with the least they could? Most older students work, many full time, with families to support and care for. They just may not have the time to do a lot of homework.   I know I took many classes where the homework seemed to be make-work. I still did it even though I could easily get an A on the exams and know the material without doing it  because I had scholarships I needed keep.  I also worked and was raising a child. I graduated from the University of Washington with a  3.8 GPA.  And more than few classes, maybe a third of them were a waste of time.

      Be well, ~*-:¦:-jennybravo-:¦:-*~

      by jennybravo on Tue May 07, 2013 at 01:48:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Hoping I would forget (0+ / 0-)

      As I said, homework papers would trickle in when I said I wanted them. Students were hoping I would forget.
      As for their workload, I may have been on the tough side. There are different opinions on what to expect of students.
      The second semester of calculus is all or mostly integral calculus. It requires a real commitment. It is not a cookbook subject. Solving problems often demands original thinking.
      I remember when my sister took calculus. She did not enjoy it but she put her nose to the grindstone. I think she got a B. She is now a CPA.

      Censorship is rogue government.

      by scott5js on Tue May 07, 2013 at 02:31:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  In medical school? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I have heard that in medical school they tell you that "If you are not interested in this course we have plenty of applicants who would be." Well, I read this a long time ago, so I don't know about today.

    Censorship is rogue government.

    by scott5js on Tue May 07, 2013 at 09:08:20 AM PDT

  •  I just turned in my grades less than an (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    hour ago.

    I ran the average and the median.

    Average 2.7

    Median 3

    I push it as far as I dare.  My evaluations are often not good.  Our department chair now tells us not to assign reading.  I kid you not.

    I put real rigor into my classes; however, were I to hold  standards to what they really should be, probably fifty percent of the class would fail.

    I agree that some young profs were educated under grade inflation rules, and truly have no idea what academic rigor smells like.

    If I pushed it any further, I would lose my job, tenure or no tenure.  I don't think professors can change this.  Administrators want to collect those tens of thousands of dollars of tuition from whomever shows up because the alternative means shrinking colleges.

    Ironically, it is clear that the vast majority of students can do the work and achieve far more than they expect from themselves.

    Administrators are responding to the general public who demand college degrees because of the belief that one cannot be a part of the middle class without a degree.

    I don't believe this can be changed by even the most courageous professors.  The social pressure to elevate nothing to something above average is astoundingly strong.

    Although were any given college president to announce that the entire campus was to enforce a new and accelerated commitment to excellence and that s/he would back professors in this endeavor, a single campus could change in a matter of a few semesters.

    Grade inflation may even be a global phenomenon at this point.  Some of our People's Republic of China students are acting more privileged than the average American.  Some of them seem to think that instructions are for the other guy.

    •  Home work? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      I put real rigor into my classes; however, were I to hold  standards to what they really should be, probably fifty percent of the class would fail......

      ...Ironically, it is clear that the vast majority of students can do the work and achieve far more than they expect from themselves.

      If you truly believe the vast majority of students can do the work, why would you fail 50 percent of them?  Is it home work that would cause the failing grade?

      Be well, ~*-:¦:-jennybravo-:¦:-*~

      by jennybravo on Tue May 07, 2013 at 01:55:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Grade inflation is not everywhere (0+ / 0-)

    For instance, in Germany, grades of "C," "D," and "F" still account for the majority of grades. In some "core" freshman classes, in fact, "D" and "F" grades alone account for the majority of grades. There is also quite a bit of variation between disciplines: for instance, a "B" average in engineering is relatively common; in law, however, a "B" average would be considered outstanding.

    Another point to think about: in graduate education, in many fields a "C" grade is functionally equivalent to the "F" as an undergraduate. It is regarded as unsatisfactory for the purposes of satisfying graduate degree requirements, and can even lead to dismissal in some programs!  

  •  When I graduated from San Diego State, (0+ / 0-)

    in electrical engineering, the average GPA for the College of Engineering was 2.6.

    This was in 2006.

    The fact that a high average GPA is considered a bad thing by ABET certainly helps,  as does the attitude of engineering professors. After all,  either the bridge falls down or it doesn't. We had the second - lowest average in the whole university,  and we students were actually proud of it.

    The hardest general ed classes I took were in community colleges. My calculus 2 class started with over 50, because the professor took all crashers. 17 took the final,  and two of them failed it.


    "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees." -- Emiliano Zapata Salazar
    "Dissent is patriotic. Blind obedience is treason." --me

    by Leftie Gunner on Tue May 07, 2013 at 11:30:50 AM PDT

  •  I don't grade on a curve, as (0+ / 0-)

    it seems entirely arbitrary to hold the number of As, Bs, etc. to fixed percentages; it is always possible a class may surprise me, with more or fewer top performers than was the case the last time that course was taught.

    But I do grade according to standards based on past expectations of optimum and minimum proficiency, expectations based on many years' experience of teaching that particular course at that particular institution. Grading under experiential expectation works best under three circumstances: when the instructor has a good understanding of his/her institution, its admission standards, and the social/cultural milieu of the students it recruits; when the instructor has several years' experience and and from that experience a good sense of the range of student performance he/she will encounter; and when the instructor is tenured and thereby partly insulated against much of the pressure to inflate grades.

  •  Are grades meant to be percentiles or (0+ / 0-)

    are they meant to show proficiency?

    Your goal, as a teacher, is to have every student in your class achieve proficiency. (In K-12, there are some who would make it mandatory or you'll be fired.)

    A classroom should be able to earn all high grades if the students have the background, apply themselves, and do the assigned work. If 10% of your class is doomed to fail regardless of their proficiency at the end... those at the bottom will drop. And so on, until the class that started with 100 students is down to 10 and you still have one poor schmuck - the one who stuck it out all year - who gets the F. Or maybe, if the professor is feeling a bit guilty, a C.

    Sure, sometimes the kids don't apply themselves. Sometimes the kids are overmatched. Sometimes the professor is terrible. Those are all reasons students won't master the material and will get low grades.

    Microsoft is infamous for a technique called stack ranking. That is, on a team of 10, two people end up ranked as stars, 7 are ranked mediocre, and one is ranked a failure. This happens no matter how talented the group is at the start or how hard they work or how successful the team is as a whole. It eats morale alive and it kills creativity.

    Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

    by elfling on Tue May 07, 2013 at 07:19:41 PM PDT

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