Fighting grade inflation: a cause without a rebel


“The fraction of the As is getting pretty high — too high for comfort,” said President Christina Paxson, adding, “It’s clear that there has been grade inflation” at Brown and its peer institutions.

Across the Ivy League, university administrators are grappling with skyrocketing grades.

Harvard faculty members expressed concern when they were informed at a December meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that the median grade in undergraduate courses was an A- and the most frequently awarded grade an A, the Harvard Crimson reported at the time. Yale, too, has confronted grade inflation in recent months, and an ad hoc committee on grading began hosting forums to solicit student opinion last month, the Yale Daily News reported.

Yet as Brown’s peers take a closer look at grade inflation, Paxson said she does not have any immediate plans to examine the University’s own grading policies. Though grade inflation is problematic, any efforts to temper it will go through existing structures, like individual departments, Paxson said.

But she said she would consider tackling grade inflation at a University-wide level if the trend does not slow over the next few years.

“If we can’t break this trend through mechanisms that are already available to us, then we would have to think about something else,” Paxson said.


Explaining inflation

Data provided by the Office of Institutional Research show that 53.4 percent of grades given at the University during the 2012-2013 academic year were As, a 36 percent increase from the 1992-1993 school year, in which As composed 39.1 percent of all grades.

This percentage would be even higher if the data did not include courses taken on a Satisfactory/No Credit scale.

The proportions of Bs and Cs have decreased over the last 20 years, falling from 29.1 percent to 21.6 percent and from 7.5 percent to 4.0 percent, respectively. Grades of no credit dropped from 3.8 percent of total grades to 2.7 percent over the same time period.

Life sciences have seen the steepest climb in top marks, as As have proliferated from 33.4 to 58.2 percent of grades in the past 20 years. In the social and physical sciences, As rose by 10 percentage points over the last two decades. The humanities have seen the most gradual rise in As, which made up 42 percent of grades in the field 21 years ago and accounted for 51.5 percent last year.

Grade inflation is a “part of a change in culture on the high end of the academy that goes along with students being more and more credentialed,” said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15, adding that students have come to see any grade below an A as unacceptable.

Students have developed a “sense of entitlement,” said Karen Newman, professor of comparative literature and chair of the department. “They all expect that they will continue to achieve at the high level at which they were achieving in secondary school.”

But Schlissel said an increasingly talented and prepared student body does not necessarily justify a commensurate rise in As.

Several faculty members suggested establishing higher expectations for students.

“Everyone’s coming in within six inches of the ceiling instead of four feet under. Well, let’s raise the ceiling,” said Stephen Nelson, higher education expert and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown.

Though Brown students may be more talented than the average student, “it is still possible to distinguish between performance levels at Brown, and that is what we should be doing to give accurate feedback,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education.

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 said student course evaluations, which play a large role in evaluating faculty members’ teaching, exacerbate the frequency with which As are handed out.

“If you’re a junior faculty member or looking for a promotion, you don’t want to have your course evaluations look bad,” Nelson said.

Several faculty members, as well as Schlissel, cited students’ permission to drop courses until the final exam period as a factor that drives up the percentage of As.

Another explanation for the lack of Cs and comparatively high number of As is the erasure of failures from a student’s transcript, said David Lindstrom, professor of sociology and chair of the department, calling this policy “almost academic fraud.”

Lindstrom said students have asked him to fail them rather than give them Cs.

Pluses and minuses

Some say the lack of pluses and minuses in the University’s grading system augments the number of As students receive.

Nelson described his frustration in assigning final grades to students who would fall in the B+ range at most institutions.

“When you have a student who is a really strong B+ and a student who’s a really weak B- it’s much easier to give that B+ student an A than it is to leave that student with the student who got the B-,” Newman said.

Spoehr echoed Nelson’s sentiment, saying he finds it “laughable — insulting — to be told I am (capable) of making only three distinctions about student performances.”

Schlissel said Nelson’s assumption that As at Brown are often in the B+ range is “very reasonable” but difficult to verify.

He added that he thinks instating pluses and minuses would better “assess nuances in students’ ability.”

“I always taught where pluses and minuses were available, and I like that,” Paxson said, but she added that “this is a decision for the Brown faculty and the Brown community at large.”

Yet even among those who support pluses and minuses, some question whether the move would curb grade inflation — including Paxson, who cited grade inflation at institutions with a traditional grading scheme.

The lack of pluses and minuses also cannot explain the increase in top marks at the University over time, since grading policy has remained constant.

The University has seen this argument hashed out in the past. In the spring of 2006, the College Curriculum Council rejected a proposal to add pluses and minuses by a vote of seven to six. All four students on the council voted against the proposal, which, if passed, would have gone before the faculty for a vote.

A 2003 poll conducted by the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning found that 82 percent of faculty members supported the addition of pluses and minuses, The Herald previously reported. Conversely, only 24.6 percent of students supported the proposal in a 2006 Herald poll.

Emeritus Professor of Biology Jonathan Waage wrote in an email to The Herald that the better question is whether grades are a good measure of students’ abilities at all and if the University should emphasize them.

“If our current system forces the outside world to look for other things than grades and GPAs to evaluate our students, that is a good thing,” he wrote.

Spoehr said some opponents of the policy change have argued pluses and minuses violate the spirit of the open curriculum. But “any student that thinks grades with letters and pluses and minuses are contrary to the open curriculum is still free to take every course S/NC,” he said.


Inflation’s impact

“Not being more rigorous in grading doesn’t allow room for the truly and unusually gifted student(s) to distinguish themselves,” Schlissel said.

Grades have “lost meaning, and that’s a detriment to our students,” he added, noting that “it’s an illusion that grades help you when everybody gets high grades.”

Grade inflation underprepares students for the harsher evaluation they will encounter in the world beyond Brown, Schlissel said.

High grades may mislead students into pursuing fields for which they are not well-suited, Nelson added.

Several people also expressed worry that grade inflation reduces student work ethic.

“The reward of a high grade” should motivate students to work hard, stimulating learning, “which in the end is what really matters,” wrote Roberto Serrano, professor of economics and chair of the department, in an email to The Herald. “We should all be worried about (grade inflation) and ready to fight against it.”

Last year, the Department of Economics recommended that As be awarded to no more than 30 percent of students in ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” in an effort to curb grade inflation, The Herald previously reported. Many professors in the department elected to follow a similar distribution in other economics classes, though there was no official departmental recommendation for other courses.

The University should also consider the reputational threat grade inflation poses, Nelson said, adding that a fear of declining prestige has driven other universities to address the issue.

As a member of an admission committee for graduate programs at the University of California at Berkeley, Schlissel said, he and his colleagues knew which universities gave out As liberally and ignored those students’ grades.

“The value of a Brown degree might be worth more” if people beyond College Hill thought the University was more rigorous, Lindstrom said.

Surveys of incoming students indicate that they perceive Brown as an easy Ivy League school, Schlissel said, which he called “unfair.”

But both Paxson and Schlissel attributed this perception more to Brown’s lack of core requirements than to grade inflation.

“I would like to dispel the notion that Brown doesn’t have grades and Brown has no requirements at all,” Paxson said, noting that the quality of Brown courses is as high as at peer institutions.


The road ahead

Paxson, Schlissel and McLaughlin all said they would not directly tackle grade inflation in the near future.

For the administration to lead the charge against grade inflation would be too “contentious” a strategy, Schlissel said.

A few faculty members would have to raise the issue for it to gain traction on an interdepartmental level, McLaughlin said, but if “Paxson thinks it’s important, it will stay on the agenda.”

Paxson said she has no plans to act on the issue soon, but noted that the next dean of the College would “be a natural leader for facilitating this kind of discussion.”

McLaughlin said he “could not imagine” the search committee for the dean of the College is not asking candidates about grading policy.

But Todd Harris ’14.5, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, wrote in an email to The Herald that any alteration to grading should be driven by students, not administrators or the faculty.

While some hope official measures — like the addition of pluses and minuses or grade deflation — will be considered to stem the tide, others tout the efficacy of communication and vigilant departmental leadership.

“My hope is we can break this trend without having to move to the formal grading policy that Princeton had, which, though effective, did some damage,” Paxson said.

Paxson said she has “mixed feelings” about Princeton’s grade deflation policy implemented nearly a decade ago. Though it succeeded in reducing the number of As at the university, it also increased competitiveness and grade awareness among current and prospective students.

“Students were less likely to take a course where they thought the grading policy might be more strictly enforced,” she said. “This is not the kind of atmosphere I want to cultivate at Brown.”

Several faculty members and administrators interviewed suggested that spreading awareness about the standards expected of faculty members would reel in those giving out too many As.

As dean of biological sciences at Berkeley, Schlissel made all the faculty members for whom he was responsible aware of the percentage of As given out by their colleagues, which made some outliers take a tougher approach, he said.

Some department chairs at Brown are already making use of a similar tactic.

Lindstrom said he “looks for outliers,” particularly faculty members who give out high numbers of As in lecture courses in which grades should vary more evenly.

“We get printouts of what the grades are in all of our faculty’s classes, and we can therefore compare and see what the percentages are,” Newman said, adding that she speaks to colleagues who are “way out of line with what our norm is.”

  • By Joseph Zappa
  • Posted in Interactive Graphic, science, University News
  • Tagged College Curriculum Council, David Lindstrom, Ivy League, President Christina Paxson
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