Comments on grade inflation
To the Editors:
Grade inflation is no different from monetary inflation; if pressures
to increase the average grade for a given performance are not balanced
by equal pressures to lower it, the grade will go up. Therefore, in order
to understand the process, we have to look at both sides of the ledger.
What pressures are there to increase the grade for a given performance?
Students like to receive higher grades, because they feel better about
themselves and have improved chances for employment or graduate/professional
school acceptance. Faculty members also like to give higher grades; they
like to help their students, minimize student complaints, and maximize
positive student evaluations.
Departments, in their competition for students, don't want to be perceived
as too hard. Given a choice between lowering their course requirements
and inflating their grades, the choice is easy-grade inflation carries
no penalties. And administrators like to believe that they administer
a good institution and have recruited exceptionally strong students.
In short, all the incentives favor grade inflation. Call it the Lake
Wobegon effect, 'where all the children are above average.'
The balancing pressures must therefore come from the world outside the
institution: prospective employers and graduate or professional school
admission committees in particular, and society in general. Prospective
employers and admission committees' relative comparisons at a given time,
not between present and past applicants, are therefore no match for the
internal inflationary pressures.
Public opinion frowns on a lowering of standards, and such practices
tarnish the reputation of an institution that visibly does so. But that
does not prevent a slow, general slide of the standards that is only statistically
So what happens? As grades slowly inflate and become less useful in identifying
top applicants, prospective employers and admission committees start to
discount them, and look for other, supposedly more reliable criteria,
such as relative class rank and GRE scores. Inflation is incorporated
in the judgment; where a straight B record used to be fine, it is now
I have served on chemistry graduate admission committees, where one can
clearly see the traditions at different types of institutions. It was
obvious that grades from liberal arts colleges were roughly comparable
to grades from engineering colleges that were one full letter grade lower:
a C from an engineering school was an OK grade, comparable to a B from
a liberal arts college. Why? Because the engineering schools as a group
apparently have done a better job keeping grade inflation at bay.
It is not clear why, in liberal arts colleges, grade inflation has been
so much stronger in the humanities than in the physical sciences, but
that appears to be a rather general phenomenon. And part of the explanation
why grade inflation for, say, chemistry, has been higher in liberal arts
colleges than in engineering schools, may well lie in the absence of competition
from the humanities in engineering schools. Or, perhaps, deans of engineering
are more alert to statistical trends than their liberal arts colleagues.
Now the real question: does it matter? Most likely not, because as grades
become less meaningful, society will start using other measures to satisfy
its need to differentiate.
That need will remain; the tools to satisfy it can and do change. If everyone earns an A, it will mean that the candidate attended the course- no more, no less-and will be interpreted accordingly.
Bob de Levie
To the Editors:
I should like to respond to the editorial you published in last week's
Orient, entitled "Grades Do Not Indicate Ability." While I agree
with your assertion that good grades do not necessarily equal high ability,
there was one sentence you used towards the end of the editorial that
I took great issue with.
It reads, "Academics is only one of many, many things that we do
at this College, and to assume that all students, or at least the smart
ones, are completely focused on 'excelling' in academics is a serious
To say that academics is just one of the "many, many things"
we do at this college is literally true, I suppose, but the wording obscures
the simple fact that, as full-time students attending an extremely expensive
four year college, academics is our first commitment. It is, essentially,
our job to excel academically, or at least to do the best we can. Everything
else we do here, however passionate we may be about it and however important
it may be to us, is of secondary importance to our academic experience.
To use an example, if you asked a neurosurgeon what she did with her
time and she answered, "Well, I work at the hospital doing brain
surgery and whatnot, but what I spend most of my time doing is publishing
the hospital newsletter and coaching my daughter's softball team,"
I think you would be inclined to wonder what kind of neurosurgeon she
could be if she didn't spend most of her time working at it.
While I certainly believe that extracurricular activities are important to our lives here at the College, I don't think that we should let them interfere with what should be our principle activity here.
Marshall Escamilla '02