GRADE INFLATION: CAUSES, CONSEQUENCES, CURES
Grade inflation at the University of Arizona has become a matter of serious concern. We are steadily approaching a time when most students will be getting A's in most of their courses. The average GPA of graduating seniors has risen annually:
1991 2.97 1993 3.02 1995 3.06 1997 3.09 1992 3.00 1994 3.05 1996 3.08 1998 3.10
No longer do students receive recognition corresponding to their achievements. Those who earn A's and B's are indistinguishable from those who receive them as a courtesy. As grades become increasingly confined near the top of the scale, they lose their meaning, and transcripts lose their value.
Yet if faculty members resist grade inflation, they put their students at a disadvantage relative to their peers. That is an inequity, as students quickly recognize. Many register their dissatisfaction on teacher evaluation forms. Many also vote with their feet, deserting the classes of hard graders.
The pressure to inflate comes not only from students, but also from administrators, legislators, and regents. How? The university's fortunes have been tied to its "through-put rate." This industrial terminology is no metaphor. Students are seen as products, their graduation rate as a measure of productivity. Under this view, students do not fail to graduate. Faculty fail to retain them.
WHAT CAN FACULTY MEMBERS DO ABOUT GRADE INFLATION?
Clearly, the impetus for change must come from members of the faculty, for it is they who assign grades. UA President Peter Likins agrees that grade inflation is a matter on which the faculty, not the administration, must lead.
What can individual faculty members do? First and most important, they can review their own grading practices. Grade inflation arose not by decree, but through an accumulation of many decisions by many teachers. It can subside only in the same way.
Second, faculty members can encourage discussion of grade inflation--and what can be done about it--within their academic units. A good question for units to consider is "What will work for us?". The best approaches won't be everywhere the same, and uniformity is not the object.
Third, if they belong to committees concerned with pedagogical matters, they can ask those bodies to consider remedies for grade inflation.
Fourth, they can state their grading practices publicly. One effective way to do this is to compute grade distributions using the linked grade calculator, then ask for them to be posted on this site, alongside the grade postings of colleagues.
Fifth, members of the University of Arizona faculty and administration are invited to subscribe to the Caucus on Grading listserv.
WHAT CAN UNIVERSITY LEADERS DO ABOUT GRADE INFLATION?
Though responsibility for alleviating grade inflation lies with individual teachers, there is also much that can be done through the university's structure of leadership.
In certain cases, changes in regulations can be made by the university administration. In other cases, the Faculty Senate, the Committee of Eleven, and other faculty bodies must lead.
Some changes can be instituted simply and with little controversy. Others would require wide consultation and extensive study. For discussions of several proposals, please follow the links to:
The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees three public universities, creates policies that university presidents must execute. Often these bear, powerfully albeit indirectly, on matters of grading and grade inflation.
Example: In the 1997Arizona University System Annual Report Card, the UA was cited as needing to improve "The rates at which students stay in school and graduate." (The Arizona Daily Wildcat, May 14, 1997.) A Regents spokesman added that the university president would be held accountable for such improvement.
Retention and graduation rates are indeed disappointingly low. But the Regents should consider the likely effect of requiring an outcome without saying how it may, and may not, be achieved.
How indeed? The pool of students doesn't change much. The body of knowledge and culture that the university transmits evolves only gradually. Tutoring, counseling, and other support services are expensive to provide and difficult to deliver to the many whom they might help.
The swiftest, least expensive, most pleasant cures for low retention and graduation rates are easy courses and high grades.
Students, their parents, elected officials, and Regents all contribute to a climate of increased demands. Grading has responded to those demands. The Regents should consider how they can fulfill their mandate without increasing pressure to inflate grades.
WHAT ABOUT FACULTY MEMBERS WHO CHOOSE TO GIVE HIGH GRADES?
The Caucus on Grading considers it an essential part of academic freedom that each faculty member be free to grade as he or she thinks right.
Our efforts do not imply criticism of colleagues. We recognize and respect the diversity that exists among departments, courses, classes, teachers, and students.
We do not see the solution to grade inflation in rules imposed from above, but rather in a gradual change in our academic culture, a change achieved through the innumerable, freely made decisions of all the teachers in the university.
WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS OVER GRADE INFLATION?
Not everybody agrees that high grades at the University of Arizona are the product of grade inflation. Some colleagues offer other explanations.
For brief statements of these positions--and for some of the arguments that can be made against them--the following links are offered:
LINK: Grades are higher than they were in the past because students now are better.
LINK: Grades should be high at Arizona because we do not accept students who, had they been accepted, would have earned low grades.
LINK: Students' grades rise naturally and properly as they accumulate credit hours.
WHAT SHOULD GRADES MEAN?
Grading measures the quality of student performance. Some members COG participants believe that grades are fairest and most accurate when they indicate achievement as follows:
A---Achievement of distinction. B---A high level of achievement. C---A fair level of achievement. D---A low level of achievement. E---Failure to fulfill minimum requirements.
These definitions are offered by way of example. They constitute one among many possible sets.
Individual teachers and academic units may want to work out their own definitions. They may also find it useful to develop descriptions of the amount, quality, and nature of student achievement to which each grade is appropriate.