Grade bandwagon runs wild

July 19, 2002

Top universities in the US have been caught up on the grade inflation bandwagon, and they fear that they cannot get off.

After the disclosure that Harvard University had been awarding honours to more than 90 per cent of its seniors, the Washington University School of Law adjusted its grading scale.

Concerned that its graduates were at a disadvantage in a job market flooded with honours students, the law school inflated the median grade from a B-minus to a B-plus.

"It's a way of dealing with the problem that doesn't really solve anything," said Richard Kuhns, a member of the law school's faculty. "The solution should not be to just jump on the bandwagon."

But the bandwagon has considerable momentum. Grade inflation in the US has been documented by researchers - and disputed by university administrators - since the 1960s.

Even after embarrassing revelations, including a report that showed the proportion of top grades has quadrupled in the past three decades, little has been done.

"It's hard to unilaterally disarm," said Valen Johnson, author of College Grading: A National Crisis in Undergraduate Education , and professor of statistics at Duke University, where he led an unsuccessful campaign to adjust grades by accounting for variations in grading policies between professors and departments.

But grade inflation cannot go on indefinitely. "The upper boundary of grade inflation is constrained by not being able to rise above an A or a 100," says the report on the problem, which was commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

That is what happened at Harvard. In 1950, just over 15 per cent of students got a B-plus or higher on a grading scale from A to F, with A being the highest. That has increased to nearly 70 per cent. And since Harvard's system guaranteed honours to any student who received at least a B average, a record 91 per cent of seniors last year graduated with honours.

Under the glare of publicity, the Harvard faculty agreed in May to award more Bs to students and to raise the academic requirements for honours. These changes represent an admission that grade inflation has run rampant.

Grade inflation "appears to have been especially noticeable" in Ivy League universities, the AAAS report says. Fifty-one per cent of students at Yale are awarded honours, 44 per cent at Princeton, 40 per cent at Dartmouth, and 42 per cent at Brown.

Yale says it has no grade inflation, but has imposed a 30 per cent cap on the number of graduating seniors who can receive honours.

"I don't think anything will happen until a bunch of universities get together and decide a C is not a disreputable grade," said Robert McClory, a professor at Northwestern University, where half of all grades are now As, up from 35 per cent ten years ago.

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