April 18, 2004
Is It Grade Inflation, or Are Students Just Smarter?
MILLION dollars isn't what it used to be, and neither is an A in college.
A's - including A-pluses and A-minuses - make up about half the grades at many elite schools, according to a recent survey by Princeton of the Ivy League and several other leading universities.
At Princeton, where A's accounted for 47 percent of grades last year, up from 31 percent in the 1970's, administrators and some faculty have proposed correcting for so-called grade inflation by limiting A's to 35 percent of course grades.
Not everyone is convinced there is a problem. A recent study by Clifford Adelman of the United States Department of Education concluded that there were only minor changes in grade distributions between the 1970's and the 1990's, even at highly selective institutions. (A bigger change, he said, was the rise in the number of students withdrawing from courses and repeating courses for higher grades.)
Alfie Kohn, author of the coming book "More Essays on Standards, Grading and Other Follies" (Beacon Press), says rising grades "don't in itself prove that grade inflation exists.''
"It's necessary to show - and, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been shown - that those higher grades are undeserved,'' he said.
Is it possible that the A students deserve their A's?
Getting into colleges like Princeton is far more difficult than it used to be. And increasing numbers of students are being bred like racehorses to breeze through standardized tests and to write essays combining Albert Einstein's brilliance with Mother Teresa's compassion.
Partly to impress admissions officers, students are loading up on Advanced Placement courses. The College Board said the number taking 10 or more such courses in high school is more than 10 times what it was a decade ago. And classes aimed at helping them do better on the SAT exams are booming.
"Back in 1977, when I graduated from high school, it had to be less than 25,000 students nationally who spent more than $100 on preparing for the SAT," said John Katzman, founder and chief executive of The Princeton Review, which tutors about 60,000 students a year for the SAT's. "It was the C students who prepped, not the A students," he added. "Now it's got to be circa 200,000 or 250,000 students who are going to spend more than $400 to prepare for the SAT."
But Wayne Camara, vice president of research at the College Board, said that while students are increasingly well prepared, "that in no way accounts for the shift in grades we are seeing.''
"Grades are not like temperatures or weights,'' he said. "What constitutes an A or a B has changed, both in high school and in college."
He said teachers are aware of how competitive the academic world has become and try to help students by giving better grades. "If you graduated from college in the 1950's and you wanted to go to law school or a graduate program, you could," Dr. Camara said. "Today it is very difficult. You are not going to be able to graduate from Harvard or Princeton with a 2.8 grade point average and get into Georgetown Law."
In addition, one recent Princeton graduate who works in investment banking and has participated in recruiting meetings cautioned in a letter to The Daily Princetonian that hiring practices can be superficial, and that grade-point averages are one of the first items scrutinized on a résumé.
Stuart Rojstaczer, a geology professor at Duke who runs the Web site www.Gradeinflation.com, says that higher grades are the result of a culture where the student-consumer is king. "We don't want to offend students or parents," he said. "They are customers and the customer is always right."
Valen E. Johnson, a biostatistics professor at the University of Michigan and author of "Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education" (Springer Verlag), said the use of student ratings to evaluate teachers also inflates grades: "As long as our evaluations depend on their opinion of us, their grades are going to be high."
Even if the Princeton plan is approved, Professor Johnson, who unsuccessfully tried to lower grades at Duke University a few years ago, cautioned that reform is difficult. "It is not in the interest of the majority to reform the system," he said. "Assigning grades, particularly low grades, is tough, and it requires more work, since low grades have to be backed up with evidence of poor performance."
But Princeton and others may take some comfort from Reed College, a selective liberal arts college in Oregon, where the average grade-point average has remained a sobering 2.9 (on a 4.0 scale) for 19 years.
The college says it ranks third among all colleges and universities in the proportion of students who go on for Ph.D.s, and has produced more than 50 Fulbright Scholars and 31 Rhodes scholars.
Still, Colin S. Diver, Reed's president, says graduate schools worried about their rankings are becoming less willing to take students with lower grades because they make the graduate schools appear less selective.
"If they admit someone with a 3.0 from Reed who is in the upper half of the class, that counts against them, even if it is a terrific student," Mr. Diver said. "I keep saying to my colleagues here that we can hold ourselves out of the market for only so long."