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:
[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.]