Grade Inflation


Via GradeInflation.com via Mark Perry via HotAir comes this telling picture.

Be sure to read the original site. Although Stuart Rojstaczer doesn’t have much data from Community Colleges, he does show that grade inflation has not struck these institutions with equal force.

This trend must continue—not indefinitely, of course: it stops when all earn all As all the time—as long as enrollment increases. The greater the percentage of the population who attends, the more we must see either grade inflation or class simplification or both. Rojstaczer also identifies the “student as customer” grade-inflation driver.

All this is on average, of course. There will still be plenty of isolated schools and courses where students are held to a rigorous standard. See Rojstaczer’s plot on the difference between liberal arts and sciences, for example.

Interesting twists and turns to the curve, no?

More perhaps later. Busy day today.

UpdateFor starters, we’ve dumbed down college.

20 Comments

  1. It looks as though the academic community chose to start the grade inflation at the time of the Vietnam war as a means of providing deferrals from that unpopular war. Too bad they did not revert to the mean afterward.

  2. Global warming for sure. Does it correlate better than CO2? Hmmm…

    Fight global warming: fail a student.

  3. Re: Al. Let’s not forget the student rights push for Pass/Fail grades at right about the same time.

    Borderline A/B students don’t seem to realize that A- is a gift.

  4. Q: What do they call the man/woman who graduated at the bottom of his/her class at medical school?

    A: Doctor.

    An old joke.

    The school’s customer is the student who once just wanted a degree as evidence of education and ability. The potential employer now wants evidence of a “good” education and superior ability and uses grades and the school’s reputation for that. The customer is still the student who wants maximum grades with minimum work (some measure of efficiency) and is apparently willing to pay (or borrow) for it.

    High quality employers use a rigorous vetting process that demonstrates the candidate’s level of education and ability. This has/will reflect on various schools’ reputations. The correction will be gradual but it will come.

  5. I don’t know if I should take solace in the fact that the mid-80s downturn coincides with my undergrad years. Was my GPA a cause or effect?

  6. We have similar problems in the UK. There have been several reforms to the education system that have results in schools, exam boards and some politicians all benefiting if grades continue to inflate.

    Until recently, there was a reluctance to admit there might be a problem, and anyone brave enough to poke their head above the parapet was told that they were disrespecting the hard work of teachers and students, and that they should be taking pleasure in the continued improvement of grades because it showed how much better educated our children were.

    This was running in parallel with employers complaining that they were unable to recruit properly literate and numerate school leavers, and were having to resort to paying for remedial classes to bring them up to a standard where they’d be useful.

  7. High quality employers use a rigorous vetting process that demonstrates the candidate’s level of education and ability. This has/will reflect on various schools’ reputations. The correction will be gradual but it will come.

    Speed,
    The correction has been in progress! That’s what we do when hiring graduate assistants. Students’ GPAs are valued accordingly.

  8. Colleges, with the (possible) exception of engineering and the hard sciences, have two functions:

    1. Extract approximately $100k from each citizen and turn it over to the most liberal/Marxist subset of our society in exchange for a credential that each citizen must obtain to get a job and
    2. In the process of extracting the $100k, confine each citizen to an environment that performs essentially the same ‘service’ as Mao’s re-education camps. (Which, come to think of it, would explain the proliferation of Mao, Che, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel, and Cesar T-shirts on campus.)

    Demonstrably, they have earned and continue to earn a hearty ‘Mission Accomplished!’

  9. Dr. Briggs:

    I am not sure how a greater percentage of the population attending college will force grade inflation. Increasing the size of a group does not necessarily mean the new members are less capable or will be incorrectly assessed as more capable. Nor does it necessarily require that individual performance standards should decrease, or must even change at all.

    Also it’s unclear why, over a period of a century, each academic cadre would falsely inflate the next cadre’s grades. As both would soon be in the same employment market, false grading would tend toward deflation of that competitive advantage.

    Apparently each cadre actually holds their pupils in higher esteem than they themselves were held. This seems to be in opposition to the folkway where instructors hold their students in thinly-concealed contempt, although this may merely be a common teaching device (since both cannot be true).

    I would be interested in seeing how college grade inflation in this period correlates with measures of predecessor contributions such as availability and quality of childhood nutrition, childhood medical care, prenatal care, and immunizations. Public policies promulgated these benefits over that particular time period; I wonder if we are not simply observing an effect in grade inflation.

    Also, I wonder why the data set goes back only one century. Certainly we have had colleges since the colonial period. Why not include these data?

    A wonderful puzzler on many fronts.

    V/r.

  10. Devil’s advocate: What if teaching, examination and assessment have all improved over the past eighty years? It’s not as if there’s an elite trying to protect itself by making sure only a few get As, and grading on a curve – which would stabilise GPAs – is of course not an option. Isn’t the final goal to have as many students get high grades as possible? Is it possible we have made some progress towards that?

  11. Eric and Leon raise the point that many factors contribute to the change in average GPA. I’ll add two more: proliferation of non-technical majors and an increase in the number of institutions offering degrees. Blaming it on one or two variables such as population increases or baby-boomer professors is simplistic. Additionally, higher education has evolved over the decades. The mix of major and minor factors contributing to this one measure is not static and thus charts such as the one above misinform as much as they enlighten.

  12. Eric,

    Quote “I am not sure how a greater percentage of the population attending college will force grade inflation…..”. Really? Would increasing the number of professional athletes in let us say the NHL not cause a decrease in average ability? The Olympics is approaching. Is this all a fraud since anyone can compete at this level? Why do you assume that academic ability is different? Either more students are failed or grade inflation occurs. Of course the grade inflation could be hidden if the overall average was maintained by a statistical adjustment. Thus we see that inflation is occurring in addition to that expected by a simple increase in class size. It is interesting that in competitive chess a great deal of effort is made to maintain the integrity of the ratings, which otherwise drift for reasons that I won’t get into. Why can we not do something similar in academia? Is there less politics in chess and more pride in an earned rating?

    Quote “…..each academic cadre would falsely inflate the next cadre’s grades. As both would soon be in the same employment market…..”. Professors are not competing in the same job market as their students.

    Quote “Apparently each cadre actually holds their pupils in higher esteem than they themselves were held. This seems to be in opposition to the folkway where instructors hold their students in thinly-concealed contempt, although this may merely be a common teaching device (since both cannot be true).” Unearned high grades are not awarded due to esteem, they are awarded in order to avoid poor teaching evaluations, student complaints, and pressure from the university administration. In fact, the awarding of undeserved grades leads to the contempt that you refer to. Only instructors of high moral fiber and stamina can resist this. In those cases grade inflation is not seen, although there is a reduction in class size if the course is not compulsory.

    Quote “…..childhood nutrition, childhood medical care, prenatal care, and immunizations…..”. Significant improvements in these areas predate the time period that we are referring to.

    To Leon: This is the argument that has been used in the UK for the last few decades. It has become harder and harder to keep a straight face when saying this, even in the UK.

  13. From an Op-Ed in the WSJ …

    … Over the long term, online technology promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education. The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

    … The coming revolution is essentially about finding a new balance in the way education is organized—a balance in which students still go to school and have face-to-face interactions within a community of scholars, but also do a portion of their work online.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304019404577416631206583286.html?mod=rss_opinion_main

  14. Mr. Briggs
    One cause for grade inflation reflected in above graphs is the driving force to support academic programs at private and public institutions of higher learning, the currency of academe, FTES, full time equivalent students. The departments and schools derive financial support based on their FTES. A class that is less popular for various reasons such as difficulty or requiring extra work will have low enrollments while large lecture sections will have many students so that departments or schools can balance small classes with large lecture halls. However, the popular classes to teach are small ones because there is less grading to be performed and usually they are occupied by the better students.
    If departments and schools want to expand by adding more students to their programs, one way to do this is to redefine a full time equivalent student as one taking 12 semester units. The lighter load means that the student doesn’t have to attend as many classes in a semester and can seek employment. However in so doing the student has set them selves up to take longer to graduate. In addition, to grow departments and schools have reduced the academic requirements to be admitted into the department or schools academic program. This of course means that the students academically less proficient and weaker in study habits so that in order to keep them attending classes the faculty subtly grade easier with and this keeps the students progressing through the curricula.
    The diversity of non-academic programs that a department or a school can offer depends upon expanding the number of students entering the academic programs so that the extra demands for faculty involvement in special programs, research, sabbaticals, travel to conferences, special student support activities, student clubs, etc. forces larger classes to be scheduled
    The real issue that is not revealed by looking at the GPAs of a students either in entering or graduating from academic program in higher learning how has the level and quantity of knowledge of students in the 1960 to 2010 time frame changed? There are barometers that could be used to establish the changes in academic proficiency of students called tests like SAT, ACT, and GRE.
    In my own case I had an opportunity to observe the learning requirements for 8th grade students in 1920 for basic subjects such as mathematics, English, history, government, science, and elocution. Needless to say in our propensity to push everyone into high learning has watered down the knowledge base of students. A few years ago, graduates from Princeton University were interviewed about their understanding of science. One question they were asked was, why is there summer and winter in the northern latitudes of the earth? The most common reply was the earth is closer to the sun in the summer. Yes the educational system has dumbed down our young minds to almost dysfunctional intellectual levels.

  15. Prof Briggs! Prof Briggs!

    William Sears said you teachers lack high moral fiber and stamina! And that you stopped educating new teachers! And that colleges are hives of scum and villainy! And that adding exactly one more NHL team would cause hockey stick shaped goal inflation!

    We’re telling on him!

    🙂

  16. The upturn in the graphs also correlates very well with the onset of the self-esteem movement in child-rearing and education in the 1960’s. Seems to me that this should not be ignored as a potentially large contributing factor. On the other hand, perhaps this is evidence that it worked – making students feel better about themselves has apparently caused a sharp increase in grades! Hurrah for self-esteem!

    I won’t even touch the potential link between necessary grade inflation and mandated enrollment quotas of typically lower-performing student demographics…

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