Sunday, October 16, 2005

On Grade Inflation

Two unrelated events have called my attention to grade inflation recently. One was a post on Grinnell Plans from a current student who had seen a chart demonstrating the upward drift of Grinnell's grades over the last decade. Essentially, the overall mean GPA has risen from roughly a B grade to roughly a B+ grade--a large change for such a short time, and as I understand it, a fairly typical change over the same stretch in many colleges and universities. The second was a detailed post by Steven Willett on NASSR-L, an email list populated by a couple of thousand people interested in Romanticism, mostly graduate students and professors in the field. Willett is a contrarian and a traditionalist who frequently attacks the state of his profession on the list; in this post, he resisted arguments minimizing the existence and consequences of grade inflation by citing a range of studies on the issue. One of those studies caught my attention because it resisted the moralizing I find tiresome on both sides of inflation debates and offered some insight into the mechanisms of grade inflation. This is Willett's quotation of the summary of that study, by Donald G. Freeman, published in 1999 in the Journal of Economic Education:

"My hypothesis is that, given equal money prices per credit hour
across disciplines, departments manage their enrollments by 'pricing'
their courses with grading standards commensurate with the market
benefits of their courses, as measured by expected incomes.

"I analyzed grade divergence using a cross-section of 59 fields of
study from a recently published survey of college graduates by the
National Center for Education Statistics, A Descriptive Summary of
1992–93 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients: 1 year later (NCES 1996). The
survey tracks 1992–93 college graduates to determine outcomes from
postsecondary education, including returns to investment in
education. Using this sample, I found evidence consistent with the
economic explanation of grade divergence: Graduates from high-grading
fields of study have lower earnings than graduates from low-grading
fields of study. This is true even when controlling for factors such
as student ability and experience" (344-45).

Fascinating! Other bits from Willett's post (drawing on other sources) flesh out some of the details underlying this hypothesis: music and education departments tend to give particularly high grades, for instance, and the latest wave of grade inflation has affected the humanities more than the hard sciences, but English and biology in particular more than mathematics. It seems to me that the place of education among particularly high-grading disciplines deserves a good deal of consideration--and has perhaps received such consideration that I simply haven't read. I'll extend that disclaimer to what follows; my speculations may be supported or contradicted by research I don't know. This isn't one of the books I'm writing.

So here's a starting point. Grade inflation is real, across the board in higher education. Giving higher grades produces higher evaluations for teachers, when other factors are controlled (other studies show). Grade inflation varies by discipline. Grade inflation comes in spurts, one of which occurred roughly around 1970 and one in the last ten years.

I find Freeman's hypothesis--that departments whose majors generally earn little money compensate by awarding high grades--fascinating and largely supported by my intuitions. However, I am prompted to look for further explanations for three reasons. First, a bad reason: Freeman's hypothesis does not match how I've seen professors talk about their grading. I call this a bad reason because of the obvious potential for self-deception or deceptive self-marketing here. The second is that there are some exceptions to the rule that I know off the top of my head: when I was at Penn, the ultra-prestigious Wharton School (business) had a reputation for giving high undergraduate grades, and indeed, a web search confirms that its introductory course has a mandated median grade of B+ in each section, which is especially high for an introductory course, where grades are generally lower than in advanced courses. Similar cases abound in related areas, such as the most prestigious law schools, where students with the highes expected earnings get very high grades. The third reason is that the logic of expected earnings does not apply to institutions; the most prestitgious colleges and universities, whose graduates have the highest expected salaries, have experienced grade inflation along with everyone else. For all these reasons, I suspect Freeman is largely correct but that other factors are also in play.

(Side note: I feel no professional self-interest in this issue. My grades are a little lower than average for Grinnell, as I suspect my department's are, and student comments about my grading reflect that. I am neither an apologist for today's grading levels nor an indulger of nostalgia for yesterday's lower ones. I do want to understand how and why my profession employs grades.)

I offer three hypotheses about those other factors:

1. The growing emphasis on revision allows students in some courses to receive higher grades given the same talent, application, and academic standards. I claim no original insight here, but I mention this factor because so many discussions of grade inflation assume that higher grades must imply better student work or lower academic standards. Allowing students to earn higher grades through revision, however, allows teachers to award higher grades while still feeling that students have received honest feedback on their work. Since many pedagogical studies support the learning outcomes of revision-based writing, this can produce a kind of guiltless grade inflation. I'll come back to this point.

2. Elite colleges and universities can use grade inflation to shift employers and graduate schools from statistical evaluations of transcripts to a self-serving prestige market. If every college and university enforced a strict 2.0 median grade, evaluators would compare transcripts by using implicit prestige adjustments--perhaps a 2.5 GPA from a highly selective institution would be roughly equivalent to a 3.1 at a less selective institution. I've seen the application of this kind of unofficial adjustment many times. If practically everyone graduates from Harvard with honors, however (as is the case), then Harvard has created a situation where most of its students cannot be outperformed in transcript reviews. Shifting all grades close to 4.0 forces evaluators to discount grades themselves, thus increasing the importance of the instutional reputation. Harvard has a great deal to gain from grade inflation, and less selective institutions can only play along--if UMass intentionally lowers grades as Harvard inflates them, UMass only hurts its graduates even more relative to Harvard's. Colleges and universities that have the highest stake in maintaining the importance of institutional prestige also have a strong incentive to keep overall grades high. And the least selective institutions are facing pressure to keep marginal students enrolled (to maintain government support based on enrollment levels).

3. The recent inflation of grades coincides with a significant weakening of tenure. Most college courses are now taught by people who are not tenured or tenure-track. Teachers who are untenured but on the tenure track (including me, for whatever that's worth) may feel some pressure to use high grades to raise the level of student evaluations, but that pressure is limited by the relatively large sample of evaluations and many other factors that go into tenure reviews. I would find a reputation for low standards much more dangerous to my tenure prospects than slightly lower average teaching evaluations. I know circumstances vary, but I think the key here is graduate and adjunct teachers whose piecework employment depends heavily on the student evaluations of any given semester. Such teachers often see their professional lives in the hands of administrators unconstrained by full review processes, administrators who need to care a great deal about student and parent satisfaction and not as much about teachers' other contributions to their institutions and professions. If grade levels are a small but significant factor in student evaluations of teaching, piecework teachers are extremely vulnerable to giving higher grades out or real or perceived self-preservation.

Taking all these factors into consideration, I offer my own hypothesis about the grade inflation of the last decade. We are seeing the confluence of multiple, independent incentives that all point in the direction of higher grades: a dramatic increase in reliance on teachers with tenuous employment, defensible mechanisms of raising grades without changing underlying standards, and institutional incentives for every kind of institution to keep overall grades high.

4 comments:

Gregory Schneider said...

Erik,
I find your discussion about grade inflation both stimulating and somewhat distressing at the same time. As an Education major (by god, it is) I feel compelled to bring up a few points, at the very least, from theory. First is that I see a couple assumptions underlying the arguments you outline in your post. First, that grades should fall on something similar to a bell curve with only the most outstanding receiving A's, the majority receiving C-B and only a few receiving F's. The second is that while this grade is a pretense for student performance, to the institution it actually demonstrates how well the teacher has deposited their knowledge/ability into the students in their classroom.

These two assumptions strike me as completely contradictory: grades ought to fall on a bell curve, but those same grades somehow reflect the performance of the teacher. I find the underlying pedagogy here somewhat apalling: the teacher deposits knowledge/ability and the assumption on everyone's part is that there will be varying success in this process depending on the relationship between the student and the teacher. Why is there an assumption that some students must do worse/better than others? Now, I am not saying that everyone has the same ability, but rather if the teacher walks into the classroom expecting to locate the "A" students and the "F" students, what will that do to student performance? Many studies have shown that what a teacher expects from a student is about how well that student will perform in their classroom. If grades in general reflect the expectations realized, why do we chastise teachers/institutions for the phenomenon of "grade inflation" which could in fact be a reflection of equal expectation expansion?

It also strikes me as contradictory that there can be an argument for institutions themselves artificially raising the grades of students when at the same time those institutions are employing more and more adjunct faculty who may have little or no loyalty to the mission of the school. Does the institution conduct meetings urging its faculty to grade down or up (honestly, I don't know)? But at the same time, if most professors now are not tenure-track, what real motivation would they have to follow the school's suggestion? Tenured professors can do what they want for the most part and I have trouble finding motivation to follow grading policy in those working one to two year stints. As far as I can tell, only tenure-track employees would have anything at stake to follow such a suggestion. If anything, this suggestion strikes me as something like a conspiracy theory, which I find rather hard to believe.

As you have pointed out, grade inflation comes in bursts. I would like to see the study that shows the data over a 100 year period for institutions in America; I find the 10 year trend unconvincing of a long-term problem at best. I would also like to see a study that shows the relationship between average time of the professors at an institution and the grades students receive. I would hope that professors would become better at their jobs over time and thus move towards making their expectations more equal, which would then improve grades. Or perhaps it is the opposite: the more permanent the faculty, the more irritated they are with ignorant incoming students, and thus lower grades. Either way, I would like to see the statistical relationship.

Aside from all this, I would like to analyze why many people find it troubling that the average student grades are rising.

Jackie Brown said...

Gregory,

In your comment, you say there is the following second assumption (which contradicts the first):

The second is that while this grade is a pretense for student performance, to the institution it actually demonstrates how well the teacher has deposited their knowledge/ability into the students in their classroom. Why is there an assumption that some students must do worse/better than others? Now, I am not saying that everyone has the same ability, but rather if the teacher walks into the classroom expecting to locate the "A" students and the "F" students, what will that do to student performance? Many studies have shown that what a teacher expects from a student is about how well that student will perform in their classroom.

I don't understand where you see that second assumption in Erik's argument, but your use of the word "pretense" leads to your challenge of assumption of variation in performance.

First, the assumption of variation in performance (however that is defined) is a much simpler assumption than a bell-curve distribution of variation, and does not require relative grading standards (or a "curve"). Second, good teachers don't walk into the classroom with the intent of locating the A and F students -- this does not mean that they haven't noticed that their students vary in performance outcomes; that notice is the first step in an individual approach to teaching. Third, if grades are meant to represent overall performance in a class (which seems reasonable, if you are going to have grades at all), the data suggest that variation exists.

Finally, I would like to see the studies that prove "what a teacher expects from a student is about how well that student will perform in their classroom." This raises a number of questions in my mind: 1. What are the measures of performance? 2. What does "about how well" mean? In the context of your argument about grade inflation, your statement as written suggests that the studies prove that variation in individual student performance is primarily CAUSED by variation in a teacher's expectation among those students. Thus, if a teacher just expects the same of each student, there will be no variation in student performance. Your argument appears to shift ALL the power in individual student performance from student to the teacher.

My experience suggests that high expectations (+ support) do influence performance, but they do not equalize it against an absolute standard, which is the basis of my grading. The fact that I intentially don't use a curve means that I consciously work to quash any variation in my a priori expectations of individual students. But it doesn't mean that I don't notice that performance varies; the reasons for that variation are complex. This is the gist, I think, of Erik's argument about the responsible uses of statistics. My job as a teacher is to figure out which of the many causal factors I can influence; I should NOT assume that the causal factors for any individual are out of my influence, thus making that student's performance predictable a priori.

a grinnell college student said...

It's interesting that grade inflation occurs when the number of college students increases. The 1970s was when the Baby Boomers started entering college en masse. The 1990s was when the children of the Baby Boomers started entering college en masse. I think grade inflation can be best explained by the increasing average intelligence of the college student.

Tim Fox said...

It's interesting that grade inflation occurs when the number of college students increases. The 1970s was when the Baby Boomers started entering college en masse. The 1990s was when the children of the Baby Boomers started entering college en masse. I think grade inflation can be best explained by the increasing average intelligence of the college student.

Isn't it pretty to think so? And yet all statistical theory cries out against your thesis. As college becomes more affordable, accessible, and culturally mandatory, grades should at best regress to the mean, not rise. More people going to college means grade standards as an objective measure of performance will increasingly reflect the average capabilities of the American populace. While some studies say average IQ is rising, I am dubious.

No offense to Erik and his colleagues, but I attribute grade inflation to the well-intentioned desire of many instructors to have a positive (read: inspirational) impact on their students, in addition to their natural desire to be liked. No one went into teaching in order to tell 10% of every class they've failed. I would not want a person who relished that idea to become a teacher. On the other hand, I don't want a person who could not possibly do such a thing to become a teacher either.

If your prof is an unapologetic asshole, check your student ID: you probably wandered into med school or law school, where the instructors long ago dreamed of practicing a profession and instead wound up on its periphery, obsessed with its theory, and isolated from their former colleagues, and scornful of their students. See also: engineering profs.