Grade inflation has been in the public’s eye for a long time. The first of many empirical studies of the problem in American higher education reported an average increase of 0.404 points in grade-point averages at 134 colleges from 1965 to 1973. Surveys revealed that American college students in the 1990s devoted less time to attending class, preparing written assignments, and studying than their predecessors, but received the same or higher grades. In the fall of 2001, The Boston Globe reported that 91 percent of the seniors who had graduated from Harvard University the previous June had received honors, prompting an investigation that concluded grade inflation was indeed a serious problem at Harvard.
Grade inflation has many well-publicized roots, including the reluctance of faculty members to confront students who have received low grades, or to endanger their careers by getting low ratings from aggrieved students on end-of-semester evaluations. The American preoccupation with both equity and conformity also promotes uniformly high grades.
In addition many faculty members believe that giving low grades would put their students at a disadvantage when they compete for jobs or admission to graduate school with students from programs or institutions that grade more generously. In their well-regarded book on student evaluation, Effective Grading, Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson dissuade professors from bucking the grade-inflation trend: “It’s okay to pay for a hamburger at the current inflated rates, not the rates you paid in the good old days. … All you can do is use the coin of the realm.” The authors conclude that until academe tackles grade inflation collectively, professors should not act individually.
But calls for a collective response to grade inflation appear to have fallen on deaf ears. That is not really surprising, given the competition for students among American colleges and universities, and the fact that many universities care more about professors’ research than their teaching. Meanwhile, some professors and institutions have tried to deal with rising grades on their own. For example, Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor, created and maintains an oft-cited Web site on the problem. And Valen E. Johnson, of the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, wrote a marvelous treatise called Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, which is the clearest and most rigorous investigation of one cause of grade inflation—student evaluations of teaching—and of the effects of less-strict grading like students’ choice of easier courses, which has contributed to declining enrollments in mathematics and science.
A few universities have established grading standards, and their administrators monitor professors’ compliance. Perhaps the most heralded example is Princeton University’s adoption of limits on the percentage of A’s given in undergraduate courses. And in the M.B.A. programs at the University of Chicago and New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, online grade-reporting systems will not accept an instructor’s grades in certain courses if the grades exceed school or departmental standards.
National organizations of faculty members and associations of colleges and universities are positioned to begin collective action but, disappointingly, have largely ignored the matter of grade inflation. Neither the American Council on Education nor the American Association of University Professors has taken a public stance on the problem, proposed solutions, or even set up a study of the issue. The National Education Association has likewise done little. That silence stands in sharp contrast to the policy discussions by elected officials on the quality of higher education, and the frequent criticism of existing grading practices by conservative groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and by commentators—many of whom are academics—in the op-ed pages of leading newspapers around the country.
Faculty members have responded to those critics by declaring that faculty autonomy provides the greatest assurance of academic quality. The AAUP vigorously defends the right of professors to evaluate students, and its various standing committees trumpet faculty teaching responsibilities. For example, its statement on professional ethics proclaims that professors “ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit.”
But faculty members have not fulfilled the responsibilities associated with their proclaimed right to be the final judges of student performance. In shirking that duty, they have also neglected their broader obligations to society: Teachers weaken rather than bolster the commonweal when they fail to award meaningful grades. Grading laxness at all levels of American education has contributed directly or indirectly to a variety of problems, including declining scores on the SAT, decreases in the ability of American undergraduate and graduate students to understand prose, and poor training in mathematics and science, which puts American students behind their peers in many European and Asian countries.
Could more-realistic grading stem the tide? Ample evidence shows that students learn more when the bar for success is raised rather than lowered. For example, Valen Johnson’s Grade Inflation contains analyses demonstrating that students who took prerequisite courses from teachers who were tough graders performed better in upper-division classes than did students whose prerequisite courses were taught by easier graders.
That empirical result should be self-evident to experienced academics. Students are inclined to relax when they take courses from instructors who rarely award any grade lower than a B. If hard work is required to earn an A, while simply going through the motions will result in a B, many students will opt for the B. That will make more time available for other activities—including holding a job. And there is a chance that the instructor will succumb to entreaties to raise the grade to a B+ or A. But if students have to work hard even for a B, they will learn much more.
Whereas associations of doctors and lawyers are empowered to enforce professional standards of conduct, faculty associations cannot compel their members to comply with their statements of principles. Nonetheless, their inertness is not justified by their inability to control institutions’ or individuals’ grading standards. They can do much to raise professors’ consciousness about the importance of assigning grades that more accurately reflect students’ performance, instilling a greater understanding of grade inflation and its consequences. They can also offer guidance in evaluating student performance.
The actions of the American Federation of Teachers are instructive in that regard. The AFT has acknowledged the need for collective action to strengthen academic standards throughout American schools, and it has studied the feasibility of standardizing grading at the state and school level.
But more needs to be done. One or more of the organizations should establish committees on grading practices. Given entrée to the many chapters of the organizations, such committees could become clearinghouses that collect and report information about grading policies and practices—including actual grade distributions, if they are available—at colleges and universities across the country, much as the AAUP does for faculty salaries. Faculty members need somewhere to turn when they try to determine what other institutions have done to reform grading; now they must rely on informal networks of people interested in the subject. The associations could also offer conferences or workshops on best practices in student evaluation, which might lead to formal discussions about more-realistic grading standards at the institution or system level.
America risks severe economic and intellectual losses if academic standards continue to decline. American workers will find themselves ill prepared to compete in the global knowledge economy, further undermining confidence in our educational system. When the public becomes skeptical of the claims of colleges and universities about the competency of their graduates, governments intercede. The No Child Left Behind Act is an example of federal intervention in K-12 education; the new Commission on the Future of Higher Education is considering the introduction of standardized testing for students in college.
Predictably, the AAUP’s general secretary, Roger W. Bowen, publicly supported the commission’s proposals to make higher education better and more affordable, but he balked at suggestions to make it more accountable—suggestions that, according to those close to the commission’s deliberations, were driven in large part by concerns about grade inflation. Nor did Mr. Bowen mention any intention on the part of the AAUP to try to solve the problem of rising grades.
We professors have long been identified as the source of grade inflation and its adverse impact on society, and it is time for our organizations to take actions that will rebuild public confidence in our profession. We need to show that we are part of the solution, not the problem.