Grade Inflation
Are all students above average? To judge by grades given at
many higher education institutions, the answer would seem to
be "yes." Consider the numerical grade point average
for letter grades given in a semester. On a fourpoint scale,
if one excludes all other grades than those from A to F, one
can derive the mean net grade. As the data below suggest, where
the mean grade in many institutions used to be 2.00, corresponding
to a "C", we now have an overall mean grade of just
under "B", corresponding to a 2.98 mean gpa. This represents
an inflation rate of 49 percent, which means that a "C"
grade is now worth about half of what it used to be.
What are the consequences of such grade inflation? First,
employers will tend to discount grades as an indicator of academic
achievement. Second, while higher grades are one benchmark to
entrance into graduate education, as long as individual grades
correlate poorly with standardized examination test scores, admissions
offices will tend to discount grades as an indicator of future
performance. All of this applies, of course, without taking into
consideration differences among individual institutions. For
example, if a school achieves a solid academic reputation, it
does so ultimately by the success of its graduates. To the extent
that grades represent a discounted value of that education, over
the long run, an institution will suffer the consequences in
terms of lost applications by academically stronger students,
and by a reduced ability to attract the necessary qualified faculty
and resources to sustain a competitive academic program.
Why does grade inflation exist? The simple answer is that
academic institutions have shifted emphasis away from outcomes
measures to process and affective standards. Affective standards
are important to successful careers, but it they are not supported
by solid academic achievement, then ultimately it is the student
who suffers from the delusion that inflated grades truly measure
one's skills, knowledge and aptitudes. Ultimately, academic institutions
owe it to their students to apply competitive grading standards
in ways that can ensure future success of their graduates. To
this explanation, it also should be added that programs may apply
differential grading standards to sustain a target level of enrollments.
While this may be laudable, given overall objectives of an academic
institution, to the extent that programs compete not only inter
institutionally but intrainstitutionally, then ultimately, it
is the students and graduates who suffer the illusion that competitive
academic standards have been applied. In fact, just the opposite
is true.
Let us view this question in terms of a reversion to a 2.0,
or "C" standard. At first blush, this might seem to
indicate that students are of lesser quality since they would
seem to be performing at a lower level than in the past. Yet
such a transition masks the fact that the career marketplace
may be shortchanging students because they perceive that with
so many students "above average", grades just do no
mean as much as they once did. Thus, instead of looking at a
"C" standard as a reversion to some lower level of
quality, the appropriate lens through which it should be viewed
is that a 2.0 means that a student has covered the objectives
of a course at a satisfactory level. It also means that for the
smaller proportion of students would would receive above average
grades, it would reflect genuine outstanding achievement rather
than a simple recognition of some affective standard. Ultimately,
students understand these issues, which is why we owe it to them
to uphold an academic standard of which both students and faculty
can be justifiably proud.
