The Boston Phoenix
April 23 - 30, 1998

[Grade Inflation]

The great grade-inflation lie

Critics say that cushy grading is producing ignorant college students and a bankrupt education system. Apparently they skipped logic class.

by Tom Scocca

When Frederica Clementi came to the US two years ago to be a graduate student and teaching assistant at a Boston-area university, she had already studied in Italy, England, Poland, and Russia. But she hadn't seen anything, she says, to prepare her for the American college students she teaches now. "They know nothing, they read nothing," she says. "They don't know how to understand things." Their performance on exams, she says, has been staggeringly bad. "People wrote that Luther was king of England," she recalls. "Somebody wrote on an exam that Damascus was a person."

And when it came time to grade them, she says, she found a whole new problem. As a TA, her job is to suggest grades; the actual marks are then determined by the professor. "Somebody I would give a merciful B -- the professor is going to give him an A," Clementi says. At first she asked around to find out why that was. "I was told that all the professors do that," she says.

What she concluded, she explains, is that the faculty is unwilling to point out ignorance or incompetence, out of a misguided sense of kindness. "It causes confusion," she says. "Students don't know how bad they are."

Clementi's complaint reflects a common concern. As stories of "political correctness" get shopworn, grade inflation is emerging as the new leading scandal of higher education. When Princeton University prepared an internal report this February saying the school's grades were on the rise, the New York Times picked up on it with a long page-one story, describing a campus where "students who put in a so-so effort increasingly get good grades." Moreover, the Times reported, they are self-righteous about it: the theatrical high point of the article was a tale of a student flinging a B-minus paper down on her professor's desk and announcing, "This is not the Princeton way."

Lest anyone have missed the point, the Times, after getting a flurry of letters on the subject, was quick to amplify it. "Grade inflation is in full gallop at every level, from struggling community institutions to the elites of the Ivy League," Brent Staples wrote in the paper's "Editorial Observer" column shortly after the Princeton story. Parents and students, he explained, are "addicted to counterfeit excellence."

Yet the alarm doesn't quite fit the facts. For starters, the set of schools making headlines with their grading policies is a small and particular one: besides Princeton, schools grappling publicly with high grades in recent years have included Stanford, Duke, and Dartmouth. Such upper-tier schools may mean a lot to the Times' editorial board, but they're hardly a representative cross section of American higher education.

That grades have risen at elite, selective institutions is almost (almost) inarguable. Deans, professors, and grad-student instructors alike will generally admit that undergraduate marks are higher now than they were decades ago. To conclude from this that academic excellence is on the skids, however, is a flying leap. It assumes that intellectual standards at top schools are in decline. It reduces major historical changes to a matter of numbers. And it conceals a deeper ideological struggle over the nature and purpose of higher education.

All this for something that's logically sketchy to begin with. In spite of all the talk about decline, after all, grades are going up.

That is, supposedly they are. According to the Department of Education, grade inflation as a nationwide phenomenon probably doesn't exist.

The department's specialist on grading and other topics of contention is senior research analyst Clifford Adelman, a cultural historian and former college instructor and administrator who grew up in Brookline. The facts surrounding the grade-inflation question are so thin, he says, that critics of grading are essentially "reading tarot cards."

The closest thing to a complete record of grading over time, Adelman says, comes from two national samples of transcripts gathered by the education department as part of larger, long-term studies of the high-school classes of 1972 and 1982. The first set of grades was recorded between 1972 and 1984, the second from 1982 to 1993. With two graduate assistants, Adelman examined grades from 3000 institutions. "What turns up in the transcripts is what I have to believe," he says.

And what turned up was not what grade-inflation foes were looking for. "No question," he says. "Grades went down." They went down, he says, because more people were going to college overall. Thirty-five percent more students entered the higher-education system in the second period measured, which means the proportion of marginal students increased and average grades declined. (A similar thing happened, he says, with the Boston Marathon: after the race started admitting thousands of non-elite runners, the average time got worse.)

If grades have gone up anywhere, Adelman says, it has been only at elite institutions (and "nobody has proven that"). "They don't have articles about GPAs at Long Island University or Montclair State."

He is also careful to point out that even if an increase exists, you can't just call it inflation. Inflation, Adelman explains, means that the price of something has increased relative to its underlying quality -- either because the quality has declined, or because the price has risen faster than quality has. If an orange cost 50 cents last year and now costs $1, that's inflation.

It's easy to judge with oranges, says Adelman: whatever the price may be, it's "the same damn piece of fruit." With something as abstract as academic performance, though, inflation is almost impossible to prove. Grade inflation -- real inflation -- means that the same work that got a C in the past is getting, say, a B today. And establishing that would require monumentally complicated evidence: the same type of students doing the same assignments over a long period of time, with all the work judged by fixed criteria. "No such information exists anywhere inside the United States," Adelman says. "Nor is anyone going to get it."

Still, people at top schools say that grades are higher than they used to be. At Harvard, for instance, over the past few decades the average grade has migrated from around a C-plus up to a B-plus, according to William Mills Todd III, Harvard's dean of undergraduate education.

But not everyone diagnoses the change as a problem. Todd, for one, points out that Harvard has "a more uniformly serious student body" than it did in the past. Stanford's president emeritus, Donald Kennedy, who returned to the classroom as a professor of environmental science after leaving the presidency, argues that student performance has dramatically improved over the course of his career. "Are the students smarter and working harder?" he asks. "I think they are." Compared to his days teaching undergraduates in the '70s, Kennedy says, "we're asking more, and they're better prepared, and they're doing more."

And in the '70s, improvement was already well under way, part of a transformation in higher education dating back to the end of World War II. With the GI Bill, the proportion of Americans going to college began to increase dramatically. That trend -- which continues today -- may have ended up diluting the quality of college students in general (hence Frederica Clementi's dismay), but it made the competition to get into the best schools more intense. At the same time, admissions policies were changing: the end of Jewish quotas in the '60s, followed by the rise of coeducation and racial-integration policies in the '70s, produced a whole new crop of gifted students (a crop further enriched by the decline of Asian quotas in the early '90s).

Even some opponents of higher grading agree that the student body has improved. "We take fewer children of rich people," concedes Harvard government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, a leading critic, "[and] more smart children."

Still, Mansfield -- known to undergraduates as Harvey "C-minus" Mansfield -- is one of a faction of scholars who believe that grades need to be moved back to where they used to be: a well-spread distribution with the average grade at C. But many instructors at top schools say they don't think that a C represents the midpoint of their pupils' achievements. One MIT teaching assistant, who says he gave his most recent set of physics students mostly A's and B's, declares that "the average MIT physics undergrad was not a C, not at all."

The view that average students deserve better than C's gained the upper hand, most observers agree, during the Vietnam War, when academic principles ran up against the brutal reality that flunking out of school could get a student shipped off to combat. Instructors, facing life-and-death decisions, dramatically cut back on the D's and F's; undergraduates pressed for still higher grades so they could get into graduate school and prolong their student deferments. The mean grade shot up from a nice round C to a point somewhere in the B's.

Even after the threat of death had passed, the academy continued to reevaluate its approach toward teaching. Many colleges now feel it's their responsibility not just to present material to students, but to help them succeed -- a change in outlook that's part philosophical and part economic. "As tuitions went up and up, I think students and their parents expected something less perfunctory from instructors," says Harvard's Todd.

Whatever the reason, the mechanisms of grading have changed. The current emphasis in exams and assignments, according to Todd, is less on catching out students in ignorance and error, and more on getting them to demonstrate their skills. Papers and take-home exams have for the most part taken the place of high-stakes sit-down tests. "The instruments by which we measure students give them a better chance to do well," Todd says.

And colleges and universities now offer writing-instruction centers and other such forms of academic support. Word processing, Todd points out, has dramatically improved students' ability to revise papers in progress. Many teachers will look at preliminary drafts of work and give advice. Students unhappy with a mark can often appeal to get their work regraded. One local writing instructor says that she lets students rewrite deficient papers as a matter of policy.

Should all the user-friendliness still not help, instructors notify the administration if a student is failure-bound -- in some cases, D- or even C-bound. Remedial tutoring and counseling come into play to keep students from slipping into the lower grade range. Even though some manage to end up there anyway, those students are no longer seen as evidence that the university is fulfilling its educational mission. They are, if anything, something of an embarrassment.

With so many reasons for grades to be higher, and with so many gaps in the evidence, why do critics of the academy keep flogging the issue of inflation? At heart, the controversy is about principles, not data. The grading policies at Princeton and Harvard don't reflect what's going on throughout the educational system, but the schools themselves represent an ideal.

And the ideals of higher education are in flux. As college-level instruction has become more available to more Americans, the character of the academy has changed. Higher education has become less authoritarian and adversarial, more democratic and solicitous. "Student complaints are taken seriously," Mansfield says. "The food in the dining halls is much better than it used to be." There is talk about how students should grow, rather than about how they should be trained. For all the whining about the stifling effect of political correctness, selective colleges and universities are among the most diverse and tolerant places around, where people are able to express thoughts and sentiments that would get them beaten bloody at, say, the L Street Tavern.

Yet the gains are not all unambiguous. The scholarly authority and expertise gained under the old, more hostile system was hard-earned; today's professors are rightly proud of reputations and accomplishments gained despite adversity and indifference. They do not wish to be diminished unduly.

For people who believe in the old system, talk about grade inflation is a way of expressing the tension between the old and the new. It fits in with the popular belief that the world and the academy are going to hell together. One of the signal texts of the grade-inflation controversy has been a widely quoted 1993 jeremiad titled "By Rewarding Mediocrity We Discourage Excellence," written by William Cole, a newly minted Harvard PhD in romance language and literature, for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Cole offered the proposition that the "gentleman's C" of bygone days had been replaced by a "gentleperson's B."

His word choice was telling: not only had the grades changed, but so had the people being graded. Colleges, once genteelly homogeneous, now admit more women, ethnic minorities, and first-generation college students. The new students, some conservative critics argue, were greeted with new policies. In 1993, Mansfield put things baldly, telling Harvard Magazine that grade inflation had arrived with black students in the '60s: "Many white professors were unwilling to give C's to black students, so they also wouldn't give C's to white students."

At the same time the new students were coming in, new theories and disciplines were developing, and the curriculum itself was becoming more open and wide-ranging -- or, to traditionalists, more squishy. "Many academics now seem to believe that all cultures, books, and fields of study are, in some vague sense, equally valid," Cole wrote. "Having embraced this relativism, some faculty members may feel that it is incompatible with making absolute judgments of our students. . . . C's, D's, and F's have become casualties of the rebellion against the old order."

Nostalgia for the F seems perhaps a bit masochistic, like being wistful for hookworm after moving off the farm. But belief in the value of bad grades has become an ideological shibboleth, a marker that defines the rift between past and present values. "The essence of postmodernism is inclusiveness," Mansfield says. "The essence of grading is exclusiveness."

So amid all the change, the scholarly standards of the past represent stability. "Without romanticizing or being nostalgic," Boston University sociology professor Alan Wolfe says, "I think academic performance was better in the past. Students read more, they worked harder."

"It's a scandal, I think," Mansfield says of the current system. Graders today, he says, have an "unwillingness to tell students the truth about themselves. . . . It's always harmful to be flattered."

Schemes to spare students such flattery are legion. In 1997, Duke held a referendum on replacing grade-point averages with a rejiggered, tougher figure called the Achievement Index. GPA prevailed in a landslide, but Duke statistics professor Valen Johnson, who invented the new index, says other schools have nonetheless contacted him about the possibility of using it themselves. Dartmouth has added the overall average grade from each course to student transcripts, to smoke out the padded GPAs. John Ruscio, a psychology instructor at Brandeis who studies testing and evaluation, says he recommends detailed and challenging multiple-choice exams -- standardized to a mean of C -- to sort students more accurately.

Cole, in his essay, proposed transforming letter grades into something "with less baggage": a C would become "good" and a D a "pass," so that students could receive them without undue shame.

Cole's suggestion, unlike most of the other proposed solutions, stumbles toward an essential fact: even assuming that grades have climbed too far, the reformers are misguided. For most of the critics, grading "reform" seems to mean going back to the past -- and the grading system of the good old days was by many accounts at least as much of a mess as the current one. Charles Baker, a professor of French at Holy Cross and the president of the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors, recalls his own senior year of college in the '50s, when "professorial authority was absolute." A professor nicknamed "No Charity" gave him only an 84 at the halfway point of a year-long course; dispirited, he quit trying in the second semester, and was rewarded with a 96. "It was no more indicative of what I'd done than the 84 the first semester had been," Baker says, clearly annoyed, 40 years later.

The past commitment to academic excellence wasn't quite how people remember it, either. If college today has, as some critics see it, the unserious overtones of high school, it formerly had the even less serious tones of finishing school. At one point just after the turn of the century, says University of Kentucky professor and academic historian John Thelin, successive graduating classes at Yale were competing with each other to see which could have the lowest GPA. Long before any modern proliferation of gut courses, C-hunting gentlemen were connoisseurs of the "necktie course," so named because the minimum requirements consisted of showing up smartly dressed and wearing one's club tie.

The question now is whether it makes sense to grade today's students by the principles of the past -- in the most extreme case, by fitting them into a bell-shaped curve and, as Ruscio hopes, giving out as many D's as B's, and as many F's as A's. Mansfield, though he eschews that sort of strict balance, thinks if kids are smarter, they should be graded more severely, too. "Why wouldn't you adjust by raising the standard," he asks, "and keeping the relative grades where they were?"

His question points to an underlying tension in academia. If the goal of education is to get everyone to master the course material, then successful teaching should raise everyone's performance as high as possible, so that, ideally, the grades all move up from D's, C's, and B's to A's. The point of old-fashioned grading, by contrast, is to ferret out the differences among students -- that is, to make sure that not everyone does well.

MIT, for one, has explicitly rejected the traditional logic. According to Tom Greytak, a physics professor and the chair of MIT's first-year program committee, the school changed its grading policy in the '70s to discourage the practice of grading students on a curve, relative to one another. Instead, the new guidelines defined the grades in terms of how well a student had handled the course work. "What we wanted to do was to emphasize to the faculty [that] if all your students mastered the material, they all should get an A," Greytak says. The change, he says, frees students to cooperate with each other, instead of competing for a handful of top grades.

While MIT is taking an institutional approach to handling the contradiction between teaching and grading, Harvard biology professor Richard Lewontin is fighting it by himself. "Judging people is not the same as educating them," he says. He has some personal experience in the matter -- before he became one of the world's most eminent population geneticists, he was a sophomore at Harvard, flunking organic chemistry and getting D's in a slate of other classes.

Despite the obvious moral there, Lewontin says his opposition to grading stems more from his observations in 50 years of teaching. There's no reason to believe, he says, that a student's one-day performance on an exam has anything to do with how well he or she will retain the material from the course. "Why do we want to know what they know," he asks, "rather than what they will know?"

In Lewontin's own biological-statistics course, every student who does the work gets a B-plus, and those who don't are flunked. Such unilateral reform doesn't necessarily win people over: he once got a student course evaluation, he says, that complained he had "destroyed all motivation" with the blanket B-plus policy. "If I destroyed all motivation, then the whole thing stinks," he says. The reason to do the work, he adds, should be the desire to learn the material. "I teach the course as if everybody is going to use statistics," he says. "That's how I get through the day."

The difficulty with that strain of idealism is that the students are not, in fact, all there to master the nuts and bolts of biostatistics. American higher education is expected to provide people not just with instruction, but with general-purpose credentials. For every biology major who sends a transcript to a biology PhD program, there are scores of others sending their grades to medical schools. Still others are sending them to biotech firms or medical-product marketers. The same biology grades may be sent out to law schools, or business schools, even consulting firms and investment-banking houses. Government agencies may consider the grades in setting a candidate's pay classification.

Proponents of tougher standards say that Wall Street and Yale Law School don't like being presented each June with an undifferentiated mass of A-minuses. To grade gently is to neglect one's duty to the greater commonweal, to the meritocratic nation, to the job market: "There's always going to be some method of sorting people out in society," Wolfe says. "I think [strict grading] is the fairest system we have."

Lewontin is outright defiant toward this idea. If medical schools want to know which of his students are the best prospects, he says, "then let the medical school give an examination. I don't know why I have to do their work for them."

As his irate student noted, however, Lewontin is still expected to do just that. Notwithstanding their talk about the high ideals of the grading process, even the conservative graders are in thrall to greater forces. And ironically, the emphasis on high standards and the sanctity of the winnowing process may be the very thing that makes the grades inflate. You can't have grade inflation, in the end, unless grades are being used as a form of currency, with lasting real-world value. And the students and their future employers, not the professors, are the ones trading in it.

The students, naturally, are going to want the highest marks they can get. It's the Arthur Andersens, Morgan Stanleys, and Whartons, looking for the universities to help screen job candidates, that want to see the grades spread out more.

But the problems facing law-school admission committees and corporate personnel offices should not be confused with the problems of higher education. The current grading system, reviled though it is, is actually doing its job rather well. The Princeton students who told the Times that they deserve their high grades may have come off as arrogant, but they weren't deluded.

By now, the grades themselves have adapted to the changing times. Harvard's "Information for Instructors" manual explains that B grades are for work which "does not merit special recognition." MIT defines a C performance not as average, but as merely "adequate . . . [demonstrating] an ability to handle relatively simple problems."

The underlying academic standards still hold reasonably firm -- as firm, most likely, as they ever have. Today's graduate, Todd points out, "isn't competing with someone who graduated from college 30 years ago." A student who gets a B-minus knows it's a below-average performance; whatever may have become of the A-minus, the unadorned A is still an achievement. If the middle is fuzzy, well, the middle is fuzzy. How does a dull but meticulous paper stack up against a brilliant but slapdash one? How does one express that difference through a letter grade?

Regardless of the shouting, the current state of affairs seems to be well under control ("I mean, how much more can you gallop," Todd asks, "once the average reaches B-plus?"). Institutions have quietly redefined their Latin honors, to keep the exclusive top exclusive. Deans send out detailed grade reports to show professors -- noncoercively, of course -- whether or not their marks fit the prevailing norms.

Even if students are working less hard than they did in the past, that's "not necessarily a bad thing," says Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson. "They go out of here and they do pretty well. The society and economy can hardly complain that it's being ill-served by the students we're producing."

At the ground level, in fact, the question of grade inflation seems to be beside the point. One head teaching fellow, from a large humanities class, says he was satisfied to see his 600-plus students end up with their grades centered between B and B-plus. "Within the constraints of the system," he says, "I thought they were what they deserved."

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca[a]

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