What is Causing Grade Inflation?

Posted on July 23, 2014


When I posted this wonderful graph about grade inflation (see below) Tracy came back with this thoughtful question:

Copyright 2002, Stuart Rojstaczer, http://www.stuartr.com, no fee for not-for-profit use

 “Wow Doug!!! Those statistics are amazing. It kind of makes me wonder what goes on in college classrooms today—and why? Is it generational?

Would any American or UK professor like to come here and address this issue at Doug’s blog. I would really like to read some varying perspectives on this issue from—not the horse’s mouth—but the professors’ mouths. Is everyone getting a Gold Star just for showing up, or does every college student have a 185 IQ and the moxie to go with it nowadays? The Bell curve guy would say that is impossible. Thoughts?”

It’s Complicated, It’s Always Complicated

I can answer that question, sort of, but if anyone wants to add their own personal feelings please leave a comment. There are lots of different factors that go into grade inflation, some are specific to certain time periods.

Let’s take a look at it from several different perspectives, first, the student side.

Gun to the Head

If you look at the graph above you will see a spike in the late 1960s and early 1970s before a fall and then continual increase. This spike has been attributed to draft dodging the Vietnam War. You could avoid being drafted if you were at University, a significant incentive to increase your grades so you did not fail out of University and end up fighting in the Vietnam War.

Our Nam- graduate school

There is no longer the threat of dying but there is the problem of graduate school. 47% of archaeologists in the UK have a Masters or PhD.  More people are going to graduate school and you need good grades to do that. A few generations ago all you needed was a BA so what did it matter if your final GPA was a 2.5 or 3.5? From the student’s side there are some very strong incentives for students to improve their grades.

Let’s look at this from the Universities Perspective:

Grades Can’t Have a Normal Distribution

Look at that graph about grades given. Even in 1940 it was not a normal distribution. I always hated the rare teachers who graded to a curve, except of course when it raised my grades/marks. Grades can’t be a normal distribution for Universities to work. Imagine you had a normal distribution in a class with a mean grade of 75, a ‘C’ (American grading) and 100 students in it. Assuming 100 is the perfect score and only one student ever got that, that would make a standard deviation of about 9 points. Well that means that roughly 30 people would get below a 70 and 5 would get below a 60. At my undergrad a ‘D’, 69 or below, did not count towards any graduation credits. That meant 25 students would have to take the class again, basically failing, and 5 would have failed outright, 59 or below. Now imagine that happens in every class. How many classes would you retake before you gave up? At my undergrad you had to pass 128 credits and a typical class was three credits for roughly 43 classes. If those 5 ‘Fs’ (59 and below) dropped out every-time a starting cohort of 100 students would have been reduced to under 10 students by graduation. Not financially viable for a University. You need students to pass so they can pay next year’s tuition.If you think such a system would trim the fat and leave the muscle, you would be wrong. Lots of really smart people would fail. It is a horrible idea in school and in business, just look at Microsoft and their use of the curve.

Rankings, everyone loves a good ranking

The world is ranking crazy and they encourage grade inflation. Rankings are partially determined by student satisfaction with their instructors, see Guardians ranking for Archaeology as an example. There has been a ridiculous amount research showing the results of student evaluations are tied to the grades they receive. The higher the grades the happier the students are and the higher the rankings are. A strong intensive to not take a stance against grade inflation.

Let’s Take A Look at this from the Perspective of Teachers:

So You Want to Feed Your Kids

In the US, tenure is usually split along the lines of 40% (research) – 40% (teaching) – 20% (service). Teaching is almost always, with a few exceptions, judged by student evaluations. 70% of instructors at US Universities are adjuncts, hired for teaching-only on temporary contacts. Non-tenure instructors depend on teaching evaluations to be hired back each semester or get tenure. Except for a few professors who have tenure, the majority of staff are dependent on good student evaluations for their employment. There is a very strong correlation between good grades and good student evaluations, you do the math.

60 Hours a Week, Publish 10 Papers, Oh and grade 500 papers

Most teachers are just so overwhelmed that they don’t want to deal with hours of angry students.

“There are many categories of grade-grubber, and none of them are worth dealing with, so I’ve largely just acceded prematurely to their demands”

If everyone wants it?

Students want higher grades, Universities want higher grades, and faculty want to give higher grades so I am kind of surprised everyone does not already have A++++++, 127 grades, or 1st++++ marks.


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