Professors consider cause of grade inflation

TEMP ORARY February 20, 2012 1

Is your hard-earned “A” truly hard-earned?

A’s are now awarded more than ever — especially at private colleges — and researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy have the data to prove it. Their most recent research, available at, indicates that A’s make up 43 percent of all letter grades given, a jump of 23 percentage points from 1960. Together, A’s and B’s account for the vast majority of grades at private colleges, coming in at a whopping 86 percent. It seems that B is now perhaps the new C.

Good grades can’t be bad, right? Wrong. If the average grade becomes a B, professors have less grade range to distinguish exceptional work from merely adequate work. Dr. Jeffery Long, associate professor and department chair of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, believes that grade inflation not only puts at risk the motivation of truly exceptional students, but also poses problems on a larger scale. “The biggest risk is to our whole society, where people expect to receive high praise for merely adequate work. The entire society may strive to achieve less than it once did, while being surpassed by other countries,” Long said.

Surprisingly, this trend is not new. Grade inflation has been occurring since 1930, with the average GPA at private institutions jumping from about 2.3 then to 3.2 in 2006.

Are students getting smarter? According to Rojstaczer and Healy, the answer is no. Research shows that student engagement, literacy and dedication to study is at an all time low. R.W. Schlosser Professor of English Dr. David Downing believes that grade inflation must be considered in the context of a larger issue, what he might call work deflation. “In the ’60s, college students spent about three hours studying outside of class for every hour of class; by the ’90s, it was down to two hours of studying outside of class, and now it is an hour or less,” he said. “It just adds to the irony that students are getting the highest grades ever for doing the least amount of work.”

If student engagement is lacking, why are professors doling out such high grades? One possible reason is that professors are now considering how students will evaluate them after the course is over. “I feel that this concern looms too large in people’s minds,” Downing said. Contrary to the idea that a “popular or perish” syndrome exists for faculty here at Etown, Downing contends that student evaluations only play a small part in how teachers are assessed by tenure and promotion boards. It also seems that Etown students play fair with their feedback. “We routinely see professors who are rigorous graders receiving very high course evaluations,” Downing said.

Other professors, like Long, aren’t so sure that evaluations do not influence grades. While Long recognizes that a correlation does not exist between teachers who receive good evaluations and give good grades, he maintains that some influence must exist. “The fear of poor evaluations will certainly influence how a professor grades,” he said. Is this teacher-student evaluation dynamic healthy? Some educators, such as Long, would argue that grades distort the teacher-student relationship because they encourage the wrong type of motivation.

Grades serve as extrinsically motivating factors for students; they must maintain a certain GPA to keep a scholarship or gain entrance into graduate school. But as Long pointed out, “Grades are just one factor in student engagement, and definitely not the most important one.” If students are only motivated by the grade stamped on their work, then they are more likely to choose the easiest assignment and less likely to explore an interest that could prove challenging. “I would prefer that students sought to study and learn more from intrinsic motivation,” Downing said. I think that all teachers would agree.

Intrinsic motivation arises out of interest in learning itself. In my opinion, if professors want to motivate students intrinsically, they must avoid at all costs the idea that how competent students are in employing the practical skills taught in class is more important than the skills themselves. Avoiding attempts to quantify the quality of a thought is the only way to successfully get students to learn for learning’s sake. This is not to say that assessment is unimportant; we must have evaluation in order to recognize areas of weakness and improve. But what is the best method for assessment? Many (myself included) would argue that grades are not the answer.

“Grading and evaluating create a culture of hypocrisy,” Long said. “Students will do work and behave in a way that they hope will give them a good grade and professors will fear to be very blunt in their criticisms, in case the students will retaliate in their evaluations.”

Long and other critics of the current grading system suggest that written and verbal feedback should fill the role of grades. As a student in my last year of college, I wholeheartedly agree. In an ideal world, academia would need no currency beyond ideas. Grade inflation is yet another reason why the abolition of grades is necessary: as teachers award more A’s and B’s they are diminishing the ability for truly exceptional students to be recognized.

More importantly, grade inflation shows that although letter grades are meant to enforce consistency, they simply are not doing so. Embracing written and verbal evaluation will increase student engagement by attaching more meaning to student work. Embracing a system that does not reduce student work to a letter or number could present difficulties for graduate school applicants, but to use an old cliché: nothing worth having comes easy.

One Comment »

  1. EarlSarsuelo February 22, 2012 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    Professors should prefer that students sought to study and learn more from intrinsic motivation. Motivate students that practical skills themselves are far more important than the skill itself.

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