Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education

September 18, 2008

The term "grade inflation" was coined in the US in the early 1970s against the backdrop of double-digit price inflation. Conventionally, it refers to an upward shift in grades awarded to students in the absence of a similar rise in students' actual achievements. This was widely believed to have happened on a sweeping scale in American higher education, and its re-emergence 30 or so years later led some of the most prestigious American higher education institutes to take drastic countermeasures.

At Princeton University, faculty were persuaded to vote for a draconian "capping" policy in which A grades can make up no more than 35 per cent of all the grades given in any department or academic programme in any given year. At Dartmouth College, undergraduate transcripts now routinely indicate the class size for each course taken, and the median grade earned.

Strong medicine, you might say. But you might also inquire whether the remedy is not designed to treat just the symptoms of the ailment rather than its underlying cause(s).

You might also ask this: if an upward shift in grades awarded really is matched by a demonstrable rise in student achievement, is there anything left to be worried about? What is the problem with all students in a class getting the top grade, if they all deserve it? And if you did ask this question, you would be bound to ask another: what exactly is the purpose of grading students at all?

These are subversive questions. But (after all) subversive questions are the only ones worth asking. These particular ones formed the subject matter of a conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in October 2003; papers presented at that conference have now been brought together in a volume that may not be easy reading for us Brits.

This is not because the chapters are not well written (they all are, without exception). Nor is it because they lack depth or rigour. The analytical history of grading in American higher education (from Harvard of 1646 onwards) by Mary Biggs, a professor of English at the College of New Jersey, is as good as you are going to get in 30 or so pages. Read this first, and then turn back to an insightful, lively chapter on "Understanding grade inflation" by Richard Kamber, chair of the department of philosophy and religion at the same college. Then fast forward to chapter nine, where Kamber reveals that virtually none of the regional commissions that accredit American universities have the slightest genuine interest in grade distributions or in "good grading practices". Then remind yourself that peer review of grading does not exist at the taught-degree level in the US (a topic addressed in three pages by Harry Brighouse, a professor of philosophy and educational policy studies at Wisconsin-Madison). You will then, in a roundabout way - for this volume could have been much better organised - have grasped the essentials of the problems the book is designed to address.

Of all the reasons given over the years for grade inflation in higher education in the US, the one that stands out is the adoption of student evaluations of teaching (SET), which "took hold and proliferated", as Biggs explains, at the end of the 1960s, and which were quickly harnessed to hiring and promotion decisions by essentially lazy university administrators. The average American university instructor is indeed the master of his grades. But all too often, he is - or is forced to be - the servant of his students.

The truth is this: undergraduates are - by definition - almost completely unqualified to pass judgment on the quality of the instruction they receive. But, as customers, they will usually, alas, be ready to "purchase" high grades, through SET, if the system allows.

Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education

Edited by Lester H. Hunt. State University of New York Press. 224pp, £34.75. ISBN 9780791474976. Published 10 July 2008

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