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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Why I'm Skeptical of Claims about Grade Inflation

This started out as a comment on my previous post, but I reckon I might as well bump it up to the big show.

I'm generally skeptical about claims of grade inflation for two reasons: 1) lack of data, and 2) misty-eyed sentimentality about how much harder things were when Person X was in college (or grad school, or just started teaching, etc.)

The best analysis I've read on the empirical evidence for grade inflation is this article by Alfie Kohn. Kohn's take-away point: "No one has ever demonstrated that students today get A's for the same work that used to receive B's or C's. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim." And it's not that people haven't been looking: it's just not there. As Kohn notes, Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed "transcripts from more than 3,000 institutions." When he reported his results in 1995, he found that "Contrary to the widespread lamentations, grades actually declined slightly in the last two decades."

Kohn's website also includes this 2004 Addendum to his original article:
"A subsequent analysis by Adelman, which reviewed college transcripts from students who were graduated from high school in 1972, 1982, and 1992, confirmed that there was no significant or linear increase in average grades over that period. The average GPA for those three cohorts was 2.70, 2.66, and 2.74, respectively. The proportion of A's and B's received by students: 58.5 percent in the '70s, 58.9 percent in the '80s, and 58.0 percent in the '90s. Even when Adelman looked at "highly selective" institutions, he again found very little change in average GPA over the decades."
For the sake of contrast, here's how the argument stressing the existence of grade inflation is usually made, in this case by that bastion of enlightenment, Harvey Mansfield. Both Kohn's and Mansfield's articles were originally published in the Chronicle.

I take it that the word "facts" in the title of Mansfield's article is meant to be taken ironically, for most of his "facts" come in the form of statements like these:
  • "I have seen...";
  • "everyone knows that C is an average grade";
  • "exact figures on grades are difficult to come by";
  • "I said that when grade inflation got started, in the late 60's and early 70's, white professors, imbibing the spirit of affirmative action, stopped giving low or average grades to black students and, to justify or conceal it, stopped giving those grades to white students as well";
  • "Because I have no access to the figures, I have to rely on what I saw and heard at the time";
  • "Of course, it is better to have facts and figures when one speaks, but I am not going to be silenced by people who have them but refuse to make them available."
Gotta love that an article titled, "Grade Inflation: It's Time to Face the Facts," ends with an admission that, well, the author has no facts because they're being horded by the factinistas at Harvard University.

[As a side note, I'd recommend people always remember the distinction between Harvey C. Mansfield, Professor Government at Harvard University, and Edwin Mansfield, deceased Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Harvey recently wrote a book called Manliness; Edwin wrote a great series of economics textbooks (they've both written many other books, too). I recently confused them in a conversation with a colleague, which I realized only later; that person now clearly thinks I'm a raging conservative. I guess it's good to keep them guessing.]

  • At 3/14/2007 02:44:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Thanks for this, and for the links to Mansfield's and Kohn's articles.

    This jumped out at me from Mansfield's:

    Some say Harvard students are better these days and deserve higher grades. But if they are in some measures better, the proper response is to raise our standards and demand more of our students. Cars are better-made now than they used to be. So when buying a car, would you be satisfied with one that was as good as they used to be?

    That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If we believe that there is such a thing as an "A" paper and a "B" paper--whoever writes it at whatever school (and I do believe that there is, which is why I rarely have more than two A-minuses in a given batch of papers these days)--then it makes sense that there would be more As and Bs among Harvard students than among the students at West Podunk State, and ALSO that there would be more As and Bs at Harvard now than there were 30 or 40 years ago. It's called "meritocracy." And, not incidentally, "coeducation."

    Now, I do believe that grade inflation exists--that students (and I was certainly the beneficiary of this myself) get A-minuses for what is really B+ or B level work--but this is more about instructor laziness or instructor weariness (not wanting to have to do battle with every student who complains about a B or B-) than it is about a 1990s and new millenial culture of praising and petting our high-achieving students. I didn't need to pet my INRU students; their parents could do that plenty well without me.


  • At 3/14/2007 03:53:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    A few more points worth considering...

    As Flavia points out, "inflated" grades could be taken to mean essays (and course grades) that are higher than they deserve (according to whatever standard one is using). I think that this is certainly possible (almost anyone who has taught could offer personal examples of this happening), but Adelman's research would suggest that this has been fairly standard (and unchanged) since the early 1970s. Or, in other words, grade inflation has been around for several decades, and the inflation didn't get any worse from 1972 to 1992.

    But there's another issue worth considering. Manliness Mansfield argues that grade inflation began in the late 1960s when all those black students started attending Harvard(!). Adelman's research doesn't appear to extend back that far, so it can't quite counter Mansfield's historical narrative. I am highly skeptical of Mansfield's argument here--highly, highly skeptical--but it is possible that average grades rose between 1952 or 1962 and 1972.

    Or, at the other end of our temporal spectrum, Adelman looked at transcripts only through 1992. Perhaps average grades have gone up in the past fifteen years, in which case the twenty years of 1972 to 1992 would be considered the period of Great Grade Stability, one sandwiched between two periods of rising grades. I tend to doubt this is the case, but, as with all such things, I could be persuaded by some actual data (beyond mere windfucker bloviating).


  • At 3/14/2007 06:50:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    That's a good point. Like you, I'm disinclined to believe that grade inflation is systemic (although it seems reasonable to suppose that it might be more common in some departments or at some institutions).

    I guess what *I* mean by grade inflation is simply when an instructor gives a grade that he knows or suspects to be better than what the assignment deserved or the student earned, or when he doesn't care enough make an actual assessment of the work and just gives blanket A-minuses (say) to the students who participated in class and seemed diligent.

    Given that definition, it seems unlikely to me that this would change over time, or that there could be broader, nefarious forces at work on a national level--haven't there always been pushover profs, or lazy ones, or ones who give As to the girls who wear short skirts and sit in the front row?

    The other issue that seems relevant to this discussion is the vastly greater number of young people who attend college these days. Does the fact that the average GPA has remainded remarkably steady mean that systemic grade inflation doesn't exist--because professors have apparently continued to grade, on average, exactly the same way regardless of the size or backgrounds of their student populations? Or does it mean that systemic grade inflation might be disguised--because those averages include more minimally qualified students in real danger of flunking out (obscuring the possibility that the average and above-average students are getting grades higher than their 30-years-ago peers)?

    Dunno. In the absence of better data, seems to me that that information could be made to mean whatever one wants it to mean.


  • At 3/15/2007 04:26:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Flavia's last point, about changing demographics, is an important one.

    The key point in the post, I think, is that there is no evidence for grade inflation beyond the anecdotal, and that the evidence that has been gathered argues against it (in the aggregate).

    But the most important and enlightening thing here is the coinage of factinistas. That's fucking brilliant. Colbertian.


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