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April 18, 2002

Grade INFLATION: AAAS study finds evidence of inflated grades nationwide

Are college students smarter than they used to be, or are A's and B's just easier to get these days?

It's the latter, according to national study.

A report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) offers clear evidence of grade inflation — defined as an upward shift in grade-point averages without a corresponding increase in student achievement — at U.S. universities.

The authors of "Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing?" are Henry Rosovsky, the former dean of Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Matthew Hartley, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

The study reviewed literature from several national surveys to draw some of its conclusions.

In one survey, covering the years 1960-1978, with the sample size of 180 colleges, the survey author concluded that grade inflation continued unabated between 1960 and 1977. From 1960-1974, the average GPA increased nearly half a letter grade, the survey found.

A second survey gathered data from 4,900 undergraduates in the years 1967, 1976 and 1993. Data indicated that the number of A's increased nearly four-fold (from 7 percent in 1969 to 26 percent in 1993) and the number of C's declined by 66 percent (from 25 percent in 1969 to 9 percent in 1993).

A more recent survey of 52,256 students comparing the periods 1984-1987 and 1995-1997 showed that college GPAs increased on the average from 3.07 in the mid-'80s to 3.343 in the mid-'90s.

"When considered alongside indexes of student achievement," the report stated, "these increases in grades do not appear to be warranted. During the time period in which grades increased dramatically, the average score on the … SAT actually declined 5 percent (1969-1993)."

The AAAS study cites a variety of possible causes for grade inflation, including:

* Higher education's response to the Vietnam War and the turmoil of the 1960s;

* Changes in curricular and grading policies;

* The advent of student evaluations of professors;

* The rise, in the 1980s, of consumerism — universities operating like businesses with students as the customers;

* The watering down of course content, and

* The increasing use of adjunct faculty members.

The study does not support one reason commonly suggested for grade inflation — the increasing number of students from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

The current trend of grade inflation began in the mid-1960s, the study asserts, when minority and lower income students made up a small fraction of students in higher education. That fact, coupled with evidence that minority students did less well than their white counterparts with the same SAT scores, "does not support the idea of faculty favoritism toward minorities," the report said.

In advocating the importance of meaningful grades, the report stated, "[Grades] inform students about how well or how poorly they understand the content of their courses. They inform students of their strengths, weaknesses and areas of talent…. They also provide information to external audiences: for example, to colleagues not only in one's institution but to those in other institutions, to graduate schools and to employers."

The AAAS study also explores the potential consequences of devaluation of grades, from an increasing reliance on standardized test scores to more dependence on personal and professional connections over merit in employment and graduate school opportunities.

The AAAS report offers some recommendations for institutions of higher learning:

* Faculty members ought to know how their grading standards compare to those of their colleagues in their department and at peer institutions.

* "The academic profession is the only one that provides virtually no formal training or guidance to new entrants concerning one of their primary responsibilities: teaching and evaluation." Expectations, responsibilities and standards ought to be discussed at the faculty committee or departmental level.

* Expand student transcripts to include more information on the meaning of a particular grade, such as the number of students in the class, and the average grade given.

* Establish standard grade distribution (curve) in large classes.

The AAAS report also contains a warning: "It is most important to stress that, once started, grade inflation has a self-sustaining character: it becomes systemic, and it is difficult for faculty to opt out of the system. When significant numbers of professors adjust their grades upwards … others are forced to follow suit. Otherwise, some students will be disadvantaged, and pressures from students, colleagues and administrators will soon create conformity to emerging norms."

The full report can be accessed on-line at the AAAS web site: –Peter Hart

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