Explaining grade creep
Elsewhere in this week's Orient, Professors DeCoster
and Hornsten discuss negative consequences of grade inflation: Diminished
ability of employers to differentiate between more and less promising
candidates; increased reliance on non-academic measures of success; and
reduced incentives for top students to excel. While acknowledging David
Vail's findings (also in this issue) that different faculty members have
different conceptions of the meaning and purpose of grades, it is nonetheless
important to understand why a widespread increase in grades, or "grade
creep," has occurred over the past years.
As an analogy, consider a crowded football stadium in which
an eager fan in the front row stands up to see slightly better. Those
seated behind this fan, their view obstructed, also stand. This process
propagates to the back of the stadium. The end result: Everyone can see
exactly as well as they could before the standing process began, but now
everyone is standing and, presumably, less comfortable. While a given
person sees a benefit in standing up-regardless of whether others are
standing or not-that individual does not face the cost (an obstructed
view) imposed on others. It is this "externality," or ignored
cost, that leads to the socially undesirable outcome where all are standing.
Similarly, grade inflation tends to arise from individual
incentives. While individual faculty are the ultimate arbiters of grades
in the short run, they are guided by the grading conventions of their
respective departments. Each of these groups benefits from increasing
grades slightly, irrespective of others' grading policies, but does not
personally face the full social costs of grade inflation. Grade inflation
has a tendency to occur because there are numerous incentives in favor
of, and very few against, the progressive inflation of grades at these
Some students put subtle or overt pressure on faculty to
increase their grades in order to increase their success in the job market
or graduate school admissions, or to assure their parents of their achievement.
Students also "vote with their registration cards" to some extent:
all else equal, they are attracted to classes that give the highest grades
for the least amount of effort. Assuming equal quality of instruction
by two different professors or departments, and equal interest in the
subject matter, prospective students are attracted to the course or major
where good grades are easier to come by. They can thus allocate more of
their time to the myriad extracurricular obligations- social, athletic,
or other?our students undertake.
Individual faculty members have a strong incentive to inflate
grades. It is easier for a professor to acquiesce in any given case than
to deal with an anxious, even angry student. David Vail's survey of the
faculty suggests that teaching evaluations are seen (by at least some
faculty) as positively affected by relaxed grading standards and that
the classroom environment is more congenial when stress about grades is
reduced. In addition, students appear to be achieving at a high level
as grades increase nominally, which reflects positively upon the professor.
At a departmental level, course enrollments and the number
of majors are often used as the basis for addition or retention of faculty
positions, as well as for allocation of other resources. Competition for
students causes departments to relax grading standards; the grading reputation
of departments and individual faculty likely spreads quickly and is incorporated
into students' selection of courses and majors. Students receiving high
grades in a department's introductory classes are also more likely to
feel they are competent to pursue a major in that subject.
While both professors and departments see benefits from
inflating grades slightly, neither of them directly feel the negative
impacts of grade creep. Despite the knowledge that grade inflation erodes
the value of the grading signal in general, and may have negative social
consequences in the future, there is no direct feedback mechanism that
causes an individual professor or department to incorporate these ill
effects into their grading policies. In economic terms, though the social
costs of grade inflation may outweigh any benefit received by grade-givers,
the private costs are small and do not eclipse the private benefits.
The outcome of these incentives is a grading détente,
as described by Professors DeCoster and Hornsten, with grades increasingly
compressed at the top end of the grading scale and decreasingly useful
as a means of distinguishing between students.
Assuming grade creep is worth stopping, how can it be stopped? It is not necessary to impose a particular interpretation of grades on faculty members, provided their interpretation remains consistent. Rather, an effective policy would reduce the incentives individuals and departments have to increase grades, or?to use David Vail's term?deflate their grading standards over time.
One possible step is to follow Professors DeCoster and Hornsten's
suggestion that grades be reported in a relative context. With this additional
information, Cs would lose their "punitive connotation." Individual
faculty members would realize that by inflating one student's grade they
are disadvantaging the others and possibly, in the long run, themselves.
Modifying grading policy is complex and likely contentious. In the stadium, a simple shout of "Down in front!" might suffice.