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April 18, 2002

Grade INFLATION: Does Pitt have the problem other schools do?

"There has been a steady increase in high grades (A's and B's) over the past eight years at the University of Pittsburgh and at most universities in the United States….High grades should be used only to symbolize outstanding academic achievement and not to reward students for satisfactory work or to compensate for a variety of non-academic factors….This phenomenon of rising grades has been widely recognized and reported in many media including the daily press. It has been variously identified as 'grade inflation' and 'grade erosion.'"

–from the Feb. 2, 1976, report by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences committee on grading.

"Grade inflation is back in the news," noted an opinion piece in the April 12 Chronicle of Higher Education. Some say the controversial issue never went away, following an initial wave of reports such as the one by FAS's committee on grading, showing a pattern of inflated grading since the mid-1960s.

Last week's Chronicle was referring to two recent reports: a well-publicized Harvard University study showing that, in 2001, half of its undergraduate grades were A or A-minus, and a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that presents statistical evidence of grade inflation at U.S. colleges and universities nationwide.

Pitt has not looked broadly at undergraduate grade patterns here since the 1976 arts and sciences study. (Among the Pittsburgh campus's 15,367 full- and part-time undergrads last fall, 9,583 were enrolled in the arts and sciences.) Provost James Maher called grade inflation "an important issue" but not an urgent concern here.

Toni Carbo, outgoing dean of the School of Information Sciences, said: "It's troubling to me that we're not looking at all of the factors that may go into what is called grade inflation. To simply pull out grades and say, 'We're awarding more A's, so there must be grade inflation' is both simplistic and inaccurate. Especially as we recruit more Honors College-eligible students, wouldn't one expect to see more A's?"

Arts and sciences Dean N. John Cooper said: "Grade inflation is one of those areas where there tends to be a lot of anecdotal concern, but we have not instituted any systematic study of it during my time at Pitt." Cooper joined the Department of Chemistry faculty in 1986, and chaired the department for five years before becoming dean in 1998.

"It may be something that we should look at," Cooper said, "but we have been rather wrapped up with the College of Arts and Sciences [CAS] curriculum review during the last few years, and we haven't prioritized [an examination of grading patterns] at this point.

"Within my personal experience, I haven't seen much problem with grade inflation," Cooper added. "As chair of the chemistry department, I was occasionally concerned about equity in grading because sometimes you can have a faculty member, especially a new faculty member, who miscalibrates by grading a little too easy or too hard. I have at least as often been concerned about people grading harshly as grading leniently."

At a full faculty meeting in 1976, FAS approved a series of resolutions aimed at reversing grade inflation.

"An immediate goal is to reduce the number of A and B grades in undergraduate courses to no more than 50 percent of the total on average," one resolution read. A's and B's had comprised 52.1 percent of all CAS grades during 1968-69, 61.5 percent in 1973-74, and 58.2 percent in 1974-75.

Faculty also called on the dean's office to publish, in the FAS Gazette, undergraduate grade distribution numbers for each term — a practice that ended after spring 1998; current dean's office personnel say they don't know why.

"I don't remember any decision not to do it," Dean Cooper said. Patricia Beeson, associate dean for Undergraduate Studies in the arts and sciences, said she would discuss with CAS Council next fall the resumption of publishing grade distributions in the FAS Gazette. The council also will explore doing a CAS-wide study of grade inflation, she said.

The term for which grade distributions were last published in the FAS Gazette was fall 1997. During that term, 53.6 percent of all grades in College of Arts and Sciences courses were B's or better — up from 49.1 percent in spring term (then called winter term) 1990.

Those percentages don't include B-minuses, which represented 7.5 percent of all CAS grades during fall 1997, and 8.5 percent during spring 1990.

Awarding of A-pluses, A's and A-minuses also increased — from 22.9 percent of all CAS grades in spring 1990, to 28 percent in fall 1997.

Among CAS's three divisions, A's were most common in the humanities, where more than one-third of all grades were A-minuses or better during fall 1997. That imbalance prompted David Brumble, who was then CAS associate dean for Undergraduate Studies, to write to several of the college's most A-happy units, urging them to consider whether their grading was too generous. The Pitt News obtained a copy of one of Brumble's letters, addressed to Brumble's own department (English) and focusing on the department's writing program. At the time, well over half of the grades awarded by the program were A's.

A minor scandal erupted when The Pitt News quoted the writing program's then-director as saying, essentially: Awarding lots of A's and B's encourages students and creates a positive classroom environment.

"Those statements were the vestige of a feeling among some progressive teachers that grading gets in the way of teaching," said the English department's current chairperson, David Bartholomae. "I don't think that attitude is around anymore."

Bartholomae said the department reviews its grading policies annually, and awards fewer A's than it did a decade ago. "At the same time," he added, "it is the case that in small-enrollment writing courses where students do a lot of revising of their work, the opportunity for students to do A-level and B-level work increases."

Alexander Orbach, professor and former chairperson of religious studies, sees a difference between grading lower- and upper-level courses. "I think professors tend to be more generous with freshmen, but in 1000-level courses they want their students to really work for a good grade," Orbach said.

Pitt has no official grading policy, not even a percentage-based grading scale (93-100 percent equals an A, 85-92 percent equals a B, and so forth). But C's appear to be more common in science courses than in the humanities.

"At least in my department, I have not seen grade inflation during the eight years that I have been teaching here," said Chandralekha Singh, of physics and astronomy. "For large, introductory courses, our department has a rule that, at most, 40-50 percent of grades may be A's and B's, and the rest must be C's and below. There's some flexibility, but not much. For example, if we have a really strong group of students, we may award more A's than B's among that top 40-50 percent."

By enforcing such guidelines department-wide, physics discourages students from shopping around for reputed "easy graders" among faculty, said Singh.

Biological sciences professor Iain Campbell said: "In the sciences, we stick very tightly to that scale where a C is the mean grade in the course. I've been working with that scale since I came to Pitt 37 years ago."

In contrast to humanities courses in which students may raise their grades by revising their work, science courses require students to progressively master, and be tested upon, one level of knowledge before moving on to the next level, Campbell pointed out. "That's why it's vital that our students not fall behind in a course. Otherwise, they may not be able to catch up," he said.

While volunteering as a biology tutor at the faculty help desk in the Cathedral of Learning's Commons Room, Campbell overheard conversations among non-science majors indicating that "all they really needed to do was go to every scheduled class, and they would get a passing grade without needing to do a lot of work," he said.

But it wasn't until last fall, when Campbell sailed as academic dean on Semester at Sea, that he encountered a similar attitude among non-science faculty from schools around the United States.

"There was a general feeling among the humanities faculty that the only grades [faculty should give] were A's and B's," Campbell recalled. When Campbell declared that a C should be the mean grade in a class, "some of them were shocked," he said. "There was a fair bit of flack aboard the ship over that."

Chemistry professor David Pratt said he and his colleagues frequently discuss grading issues. One of the emotionally tougher situations faculty face, he said, is when a student pleads for a higher grade in order to qualify for graduate school.

(English professor Richard Tobias recalled: "During the Vietnam War, it was: 'If you give me a C, my draft board will send me to Vietnam and I'll be killed, and it will be your fault!' At least faculty don't have to deal with that kind of pressure anymore.") "QPAs really matter in this world," Pratt said, "especially today when the focus is on quantitative measurements. I have good students who want to go to medical school who aren't going to make it because their QPAs aren't high enough."

Rather than cave in to students' sometimes-tearful pleas, Pratt and his teaching assistants compile positive information about his students — awards, volunteer activities, academic accomplishments apart from grades — for use in writing letters of recommendation to graduate schools and potential employers.

"I try to bring these other factors in, so that the grade is not so dominant," Pratt said.

"Professors do face a dilemma," said Michael Kolar of mechanical engineering. "We have companies that come to our school to recruit for jobs and they'll say: 'We don't want to see anybody with under a 3.0 or 3.2 average'….So, there is temptation there, knowing that a grade has a real-world implication."

Barbara J. Juliussen, associate director of Placement and Career Services at Pitt, said: "With the exception of the big five accounting firms and some other top employers, the rest say they're not all that concerned with grade averages. As long as a graduating student has a QPA over 3.0 from a good university and can articulate what his or her skills and interests are, they're well-positioned for interviews with most employers.

"On the other hand, having a 3.9 QPA may earn you an interview, but it doesn't guarantee your getting hired."

A recruiter from one local corporation even specified that he wanted to interview graduates with QPAs between 2.8 and 3.5. According to Juliussen, the recruiter told Pitt: "Anybody with a QPA above 3.5 is probably out of my price range."

— Bruce Steele and Peter Hart

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