Term Paper: Grade Inflation

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Grade Inflation: An Elusive Phenomenon to Measure

Turn on the news today, and you'll here a great deal of talk about price inflation, whether at the pump, or as exhibited on the shelves the grocery store. What can be so bad, you might ask, about a few extra cents here and there, when you fill up your tank with a gas, or when you buy a loaf of bread at the local bodega? The problem is that as prices go up, salaries tend to remain the same. This means that what you have earned with your blood, sweat, toil, and tears at your job buys less, whenever you make a purchase, even though you are working just as hard. But unfortunately, while grade inflation as a concept may be equally destructive to the quality of life and education at American instructions of learning, it is difficult to statistically quantify that the inflation of the grade 'earnings' of students at high schools and institutions of higher learning across America are going up as stratospherically as the price of eggs and butter.

While everyone from economists to a part-time teenage worker at McDonald's agrees that price inflation is bad, many academics contend that grade inflation is just as insidious in its own way. Theoretically, they state that standards for classes should be absolute, unlike, for example, the price of a gallon of milk, which must take into consideration various external factors like the cost of labor, transportation, and competition from other substitute goods. Surely, the standards of institutions and teachers can and should not vary too much from year to year. A straight 'A' student of 50 years ago should not have an education that is worth less than a straight 'A' student of today. According to some analysts, over the past 35 years: "GPAs have increased by roughly 0.15 per decade... Significant grade inflation is present virtually everywhere and its rate of change in terms of GPA shift is about the same everywhere. What is true about less selective colleges and universities is that while their grade inflation isn't suppressed, their starting GPAs at the initiation of grade inflation were relatively low (Rojstacze 2002).

Common wisdom suggests grade inflation first increased during the 1960s, largely because of shifts in educational philosophy to a more student-friendly ethos and also because of the desire of many professors to keep students in school to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War. Even Stuart Rojstacze, a crusader against grade inflation, notes that grade inflation abated after the Vietnam War's end in the 1970s and grades only began to increase, according to his measurement, in the early 1980s. This runs counter to the thesis that the affirmative action explains grade inflation. The sharpest rise in minority enrollments occurred during the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, when grade inflation was actually at its lowest. "Some administrators and professors have tried to ascribe much of the increase in GPA since the mid-1980s to improvements in student quality" but a less charitable thesis is "that the resurgence of grade inflation in the 1980s principally was caused by the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education. Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase. In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content" (Rojstacze 2002).

However, grade inflation is difficult to quantify, given that so many variables are involved. Is student quality improving, and are students meeting faculty standards in a more 'perfect' fashion? Are courses getting easier, or are faculty standards getting more lenient? Are course requirements remaining equally rigorous and are students in the more competitive market of college acceptances more competitive and better-prepared than their parents? Some allege, like Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education that the allegations about grade inflation are overblown. He noted in 1995 that grades had actually declined slightly in the last two decades and "33.5% of American undergraduates had a grade-point average of C. Or below in 1999-2000" (Kohn 2002). In 2004 Adelman reviewed college transcripts from students who had graduated from high school in 1972, 1982, and 1992 and confirmed that there was no significant increase in GPA, the three averages for those years were 2.70, 2.66, and 2.74, respectively. The proportion of as and Bs received by students in the Adelman study was 58.5% in 1972, 58.9% in 1982, and 58% in 1992 (Kohn 2002). Although SAT scores may be going down, because the SAT has changed so much over the years, and varies even from session to session in its difficulty, it is impossible to use the SAT as a perfect measurement of student quality, even accepting the basic validity of the test, which many educators do not.

Another difficulty with quantifying grade inflation is that different institutions seem to use it with more apparent regularity than others. Thus is the supposed grade inflation at Harvard due to easier professors, or to the highly selective student body? Also, some majors at some schools are much harder than others majors. Some classes taught by certain professors may be more difficult than those taught by other professors, even if they have the classes have the same title or similar course descriptions.

On a purely personal, anecdotal level, of course, grade inflation is an annoyance, even a source of heartache for students. A student in a difficult science major such as physics may find his or her GPA substantially lower than a student in a humanities major with easier professors and more subjective, and often more lax grading standards. Even an engineering student who unfortunately has to take a class with a professor who liberally dispenses Cs and takes pride in never having given an a except to a student who was able to produce publishable undergraduate paper back in 1964 will feel as if an injustice has been done to his or her academic efforts, when comparing his or her grade to a student in the same class in a different section with a much easier professor who grades on a curve to boost student confidence. Grade inflation on an anecdotal level reveals the subjective and arbitrary nature of the grading process in general, even if the fact that grades are getting higher is a point of contentious debate.

The debate over whether grade inflation is occurring at Ivy League institutions may be, to some extent beside the point -- given that admission to Harvard and Columbia is more difficult than ever before, it may indeed be justifiable that in 1950 about 15% of Harvard students got a B+ or better (when Harvard had more prep school and legacy students) in contrast to 2006 when 70% and 50% of Harvard students got as or a-, up from 22% in 1966 (Merrow 2007). 91% of Harvard seniors graduated with honors and at Columbia 50% of Columbia students are on the Dean's List. But as a point of comparison, 80% of the grades at the large state University of Illinois are as and Bs (Merrow 2007).

A better way of measuring student engagement in the classroom may be to examine how hard students are working outside of the lecture halls while they are reading assignments and studying for tests and the rigor of their course loads. "Students everywhere report that they average only 10-15 hours of academic work outside of class per week and are able to attain B. Or better grade-point averages... A mathematics professor at St. Olaf College, 80% of all student work in college math is remedial"(Merrow 2007).

It is getting harder and harder to compare the quality of education across institutions in general. More students are going to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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