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Grade Inflation - Visualized

Roger_DooleyRoger_Dooley Posts: 106,143Founder Senior Member
edited August 2011 in College Life
There's a nice chart here that illustrates undergraduate grade inflation from 1920 through the present:

Undergraduate grade inflation

The big surge seemed to happen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After leveling out for a while, grades began climbing again in the 1980s.

The full report is here:
http://www.gradeinflation.com/tcr2010grading.pdf
Post edited by Roger_Dooley on
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Replies to: Grade Inflation - Visualized

  • InvolvedmomFLInvolvedmomFL Posts: 301Registered User Member
    In the comments below the article a college professor notes that some years ago students understood that a C meant acceptable and that an A meant outstanding attainment of the learning objectives. Today, too many students have an entitlement mentality when it comes to grades. This attitude starts VERY early in their schooling.

    I teach 3rd grade, and I can't tell you how many times I've had students' parents requesting conferences to ask why their child did not receive an A. The crazy thing is that they do not ask this question in hopes of making adjustments to meet their goal of getting an A. Rather, some of them truly believe that they have an A coming their way regardless of their child not doing homework and finishing in-class assignments to the best of their ability. I just shake my head sometimes as I think about the rude awakening these parents will get as their child gets older.
  • Got2BeGreenGot2BeGreen Posts: 497Registered User Member
    Many of my students seem to think that an "A" means "didn't make any serious mistakes." I often had students who received a B or B+ come to me and ask what they did wrong. I told them they didn't do anything wrong, but their papers just weren't exceptional. That didn't go over well.

    It's hard to keep a stricter grading system when everyone else around you is inflated, but I just can't justify NOT keeping room at the upper end for the really outstanding work.
  • Roger_DooleyRoger_Dooley Posts: 106,143Founder Senior Member
    >>an "A" means "didn't make any serious mistakes."

    I think that perception is increasingly widespread. When I was in engineering school, almost all grading was on a curve normalized around a "C," and an "A" was reserved for the top few students.
  • aegrisomniaaegrisomnia Posts: 1,025Registered User Senior Member
    It's worse than you guys think. As a university TA, I would actually read students' answers (this was for a proof-based applied math course in the CS department) and deduct points for partially incorrect answers. I would even give zero points on a problem for which no useful work was done (even if the student wrote three pages of inane hypothetical nonsense). You wouldn't believe how many of them feel like they should get an A just for giving it a shot.

    Once, a student asked how much work he'd have to do to get full credit on the homework. I told him that since he was allowed to take homework home and work on it as much as he wanted, I felt justified in demanding perfection and reserved the right to deduct points for anything less. I think I heard his tiny undergraduate brain explode in his skull a few seconds later, as he grasped the reality of the situation.
  • DescarteszDescartesz Posts: 1,736Registered User Senior Member
    If you think of grades as comparative, wherein students in a class are compared directly to each other only, then clearly grade inflation has occurred. However if you think of grades as more absolute, awarded based on persistent standards, then the evidence of inflation is far slimmer, at least at some schools. For example, the acceptance rates at HYP in the the 1970's were in the low 20's, now they are single digits. Hence most of the students who would have earned C's and many who would have earned B's are now absent from the grade pool. It is, thus, quite possible that average performance levels at some schools has actually increased over the decades as admissions have become more competitive and the higher grades reflect that. It would be interesting to see an analysis which corrects for expected performance increases based on the higher test scores and GPA's associated with increased selectivity. I do not see that this study has done that.
  • Roger_DooleyRoger_Dooley Posts: 106,143Founder Senior Member
    That's the difference between math/science/engineering & liberal arts classes. In the latter, three pages of inane nonsense is likely worth at least a B, if not an A. It's too bad - while I acknowledge that there isn't always a single answer or approach that's correct, the grade should at least reflect the quality of the thought process.
  • caltannercaltanner Posts: 540Registered User Member
    It's interesting to see this happen, analyze it, and discuss its repercussions.

    But can anyone propose a solution to this problem? How can we actually maintain that "C" is truly average? Is government intervention necessary?

    And finally, is fighting grade inflation even a worthy pursuit?
  • DolorousEddDolorousEdd Posts: 1,274- Member
    That's the difference between math/science/engineering & liberal arts classes. In the latter, three pages of inane nonsense is likely worth at least a B, if not an A.
    This seems like an utter falsehood, in my experience. You're telling me that in a history or philosophy class, a student is like to get an A for rambling on in an illogical and incoherent way? If this was your experience, then you seem to have had some pretty poor liberal arts professors (technically the liberal arts includes math and science, but that's generally forgotten by "liberal arts" bashers). If this was the case, then please do not generalize to the whole.
  • goodManThinkinggoodManThinking Posts: 86Registered User Junior Member
    aegrisomnia said: "I think I heard his tiny undergraduate brain explode in his skull a few seconds later, as he grasped the reality of the situation."

    That is the most snobbish thing I've heard anyone said in sometime. Good job turning the discussion from grade inflation to bashing the undergrads. I'm not trying to defend them but I think anyone using anecdotal evidence to make generalized statements shouldn't feel any better about their intelligence. Just saying.
  • aegrisomniaaegrisomnia Posts: 1,025Registered User Senior Member
    But can anyone propose a solution to this problem? How can we actually maintain that "C" is truly average? Is government intervention necessary?
    We could simply eliminate the GPA system altogether. If we make everything pass/fail, then over-achievers will be forced to take harder courses rather than slavishly studying to get 4.0 rather than 3.0. Students would have to be evaluated more on the courses and the extracurriculars than on a number... much less prone to gaming, since it makes the game much simpler.
  • aegrisomniaaegrisomnia Posts: 1,025Registered User Senior Member
    That is the most snobbish thing I've heard anyone said in sometime.
    I aim to please.
    Good job turning the discussion from grade inflation to bashing the undergrads.
    I was an undergraduate once, and as such, feel that I have room to give them a hard time. I've paid my dues.
    I'm not trying to defend them but I think anyone using anecdotal evidence to make generalized statements shouldn't feel any better about their intelligence.
    Really, I was only trying to give an example of one student who seems to epitomize (in my mind) the problem of grade inflation. Kids (even in my generation!) feel like they are entitled to good grades in school. It is my personal pleasure to free undergraduate students from this delusion.

    (That being said, I have had many undergraduates who have impressed me greatly... who are more interested in learning than in getting an A+. I like to think I was that kind of undergraduate and that I'm still that kind of person, but that might just be vanity.)
  • aegrisomniaaegrisomnia Posts: 1,025Registered User Senior Member
    And for what it's worth, I don't think that this is a liberal arts / STEM issue. I think we should pay liberal arts (non-STEM ones) teachers more than STEM ones, since it really is harder to objectively grade that kind of stuff. I do not envy humanities TAs when it comes to grading.
  • hazelorbhazelorb Posts: 3,102Registered User Senior Member
    To be fair, a lot of college in the 1920s was rich white kids. Getting a college degree was not about getting all A's, it was about attending college. Now, it is about getting a high GPA. I think that both sides of this inflation issue need to be considered (both the inflation itself as well as the historical perspective on attaining high grades) and not just use one or the other to explain it.
  • goodManThinkinggoodManThinking Posts: 86Registered User Junior Member
    I think the grade inflation issues might be more of a problem with non-STEM. Although that is pure speculation because the available data only shows the average GPA. I think the lack of objectivity is probably a bad thing. Objectivity is what gives Science the respect and trust.
  • bernie12bernie12 Posts: 2,357Registered User Senior Member
    goodManThinking: I don't find it snobbish. I'm an undergrad, and many of us really think this way. I think we're snobbish for thinking that we deserve high grades for simply doing "a lot of work" even if it isn't good work. I get the feeling that grad. school and prof. school probably are more likely to provide reality checks that many will not get in undergrad (especially at selective private schools). I've taken a couple of grad. level courses and they grade and are significantly less forgiving than undergrad. Simply "showing your work" does not cut it. I think half of the problem is indeed the professors as many have gotten us used to extremely forgiving demands and grading schemes, so when we are finally being graded "for real" in a course, we construe it as being graded "harshly".
    "For example, the acceptance rates at HYP in the the 1970's were in the low 20's, now they are single digits. Hence most of the students who would have earned C's and many who would have earned B's are now absent from the grade pool. It is, thus, quite possible that average performance levels at some schools has actually increased over the decades as admissions have become more competitive and the higher grades reflect that. It would be interesting to see an analysis which corrects for expected performance increases based on the higher test scores and GPA's associated with increased selectivity. I do not see that this study has done that.":
    Does this mean that Emory should suddenly have a 3.5 average graduating GPA if we ever have an admit rate under 20% (Vandy has dropped below 20%, should they suddenly have 3.5ish+, should Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and MIT have it as well)? That doesn't make much sense as the average SATs and admit rate here have been fluctuating along w/average UG graduating GPA. Class of 2009 for example was about the same (maybe lower admit rate too) as the last two classes that graduated but their average was 3.35 while the later ones were 3.38+. Also, at most really selective schools, the GPAs have increased at a much higher rate than the incoming stats. Grades should be somewhat higher but not as much as they are now. And even if so, it means that said universities aren't keeping up with the level of students they admit (I mean serious, almost 1/2 of grads. here have 3.5+. Wow, we must really be challenging students or better: Our students are just so awesome that they worked so hard to maintain those grades). They are hardly challenging the students of today. To many, college will be the same as high school or easier. This seems odd. Also, other studies suggest that amount of time dedicated to academic work has declined a lot across the board (selective schools are hardly immune, it's perhaps only a little better). Not only this, but because of easy access to As, the courses that students take now are apparently not as rigorous as they used to be (schools still have rigorous courses in both sciences and non-sciences, but less people take these). Apparently, many people easily avoid very writing and reading intensive courses at levels not really seen in the past. The question is, how rigorous are the universities if they are that easy to avoid? The studies make clear that in the past, it was much less common which actually indicates that perhaps there were more rigorous courses/professors, or at least more that most students had to take. So some people may say we deserve those grades (trust me, I notice this is often questionable. I've seen easier classes be curved in some strange ways. Students in moderate-hard classes pressure the prof. to adjust grades even when they are doing minimal work), and if we do, they should realize that they aren't difficult to get now, whatsoever. We may "deserve" them, but most didn't work hard for them. Often we show up to classes knowing that if we do a little work, we'll at least get a solid B especially in a humanities/social science course. And in sciences, if the whole class wants to buck, they can just not study hard and do poorly on exams and be "average" and have that average curved to a B- normally (sometimes C+, but very rare at private schools). For example, one professor last year in organic chemistry had very easy exams compared to another beloved professor, but people in his class knew this and thus didn't study at all (they believed the difference between the tough, beloved prof. and this person or any other prof. is working and doing nothing at all) and thus their averages were 52-59 whereas the beloved profs. were 70-72. Needless to say that the average in the easy profs. course was also curved to a B- just as the beloved profs (yes 55 in easy class=70 in hard one). Basically, we go into certain classes or profs. anticipating higher grades than others w/significantly less work comparatively. Why go to a tougher, more competitive, class where I need a passing grade on a normal scale to get a B grade when I can go to a class full of lazier (as in already planning to be lazy) students where I can fail every exam and get a B grade? This is the logic.

    Here is a comment (about an Emory professor) I saw on a certain professor critiquing website about a chem. class for non-majors (which coincidentally alludes to the different grading standards and difficulty between many science courses and the social sciences/humanities, and business):
    "he sucks... unclear/ unhelpful/ rude/ teaches incorrect information! should be an easy class but averages are in 80's"

    Since when do test averages in the 80s not qualify a course as easy? Do they have to be like 95? Apparently, last year when this class was taught, there were even more complaints because averages were 76-80. I bet the prof. had to curve for the class to shut up. It ought to be embarrassing when you are at a top 20 institution and you feel entitled to a grade because you feel a class doesn't cater to your interests and only chose it because it is "supposedly easy". I love how the difference between hard and easy is having to do something vs. doing nothing and taking an exam every now and then. Or in the sciences, 80-85=easy, 70-79 is hard (and is thus sometimes curved).
    Many of us undergrads. probably do have a sense of complacency and entitlement stemming from how easy a lot of high school came to us (even when taking AP/IB. I mean, many profs. curved their classes and taught to the exams). Some students even rate professors lower when they don't give them studyguides or back exams that allow them to specifically gear their learning toward an exam. It doesn't matter if they are a good lecturer or have an engaging teaching style, it's that they don't tell them exactly what will be on the exam (even in upperlevels, some students still ask: "how is this relevant to the exam" or "will this be on the exam"). It really shouldn't be a surprise that grade inflation or positively skewed grades exists. I'm really betting that if one only accounts for incoming stats. at selective schools, the GPA would probably be between 3.0-3.25 at most (or if the environment is as challenging as the institution claims). Many top schools (or schools in general) are more country club like and merely offer challenging courses without challenging you. They've somehow found a way to make the two mutually exclusive (some challenging courses, but w/o overall challenging environment). I've had to more or less seek challenges. Fortunately the challenging courses usually meant significantly better professors.
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