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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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]phx.com.