Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Grade Inflation

Here’s an article by the courageous Stanley Kurtz on the causes and possible cures for grade inflation. In honor of Harvey C-minus Mansfield, we have to give his analysis some thought. But we also have to remember that Harvey ended up having to give both real grades and ironic grades. The ironic (or typically high Harvard) grade is the one actually recorded, the other is a more accurate evaluation of the student’s work. Harvey ddesn’t want students penalized for taking his class. And Kurtz reminds us that a B at Harvard is a genuinely subpar grade. An unironic Harvard C-minus is vritually inconceivable, although very old people tell me it once was what a B is now.

Harvard and the other elite schools put professors at more ordinary colleges in an awkward situation. Nobody is going to think a B at my college is anywhere near as good as a B at Harvard, but a B at Harvard is not so good. So wouldn’t my ironic position have to be to give someone who would have earned a B at Harvard an A? A fair number of my majors right now could, I think, scrape by with Bs at Harvard. Some could do better still, but I’m left with no grade for them.

Another pressure comes at colleges with schools of education, which often give lots and lots of As based on the principle of mastery grading. If you perform each of the sundry tasks of the course competently, you get an A. So A doesn’t mean excellent, but adequate across the board. Education schools, of course, are all about "the culture of assessment," but that really means detailed quantitative proof of adequate achievement of all the "learning outocomes."

The great injustice of grade inflation is to the admirable, overachieving student who can’t be properly rewarded for his or her outstanding work. The result is an overemphasis on standardized national tests, such as the GRE and LSAT, which should properly be viewed as supplementary, not primary, information concerning a student’s achievement and promise.

I don’t share Mr. Kurtz’s optimism that a war against grade inflation could be won, but I urge him to join us in the trenches any try.

Discussions - 32 Comments

So, Peter, at your school, when the time comes to grant someone tenure, how do you weigh teaching? I’ve heard that at small liberal arts colleges, the opinion of the students weighs heavily in the decision, and whoa unto the shepard who hath displeased his sheep. True, or not?

I actually meant to say "woe," but "whoa" lends a kind of double entendre to it. I love being subconsciously clever :)

dain, Teaching is weighted heavily, and there’s something to what you say. But it’s also true that comments like "this course is too hard" are viewed as praise.

I think it depends a lot on the process: who makes the final recommendation to the chief academic officer. Everyone (well, not literally) knows how to read student evaluations and at relatively small places, everyone knows whether and how to discount and/or interpret them. At small places, everyone also has his or her own sources of information.

I’m ultimately less worried about the tyranny of student evaluations than I am about the tyranny of the numbers crunchers, who ask questions like how many credit hours you’re generating. There the temptation to pander is harder to resist.

Mr. Lawler and Knippenberg, I am skeptical of your assertions that it’s "true that comments like "this course is too hard" are viewed as praise" and "Everyone (well, not literally) knows how to read student evaluations and at relatively small places, everyone knows whether and how to discount and/or interpret them. At small places, everyone also has his or her own sources of information." I have by way of conversations at my own institution learnt that there are some who even take seriously. I think Dain’s point carries more weight than you allow. I recently read Peter Sacks Generation X Goes to College and while his case may not be representative of all, I think the tyranny of student evaluations cannot be divorced from the tyranny of number crunchers.

I think the best way to deal with grade inflation is to create a mandatory curve, just like law schools do. This would require professors to rate student performance and would give employers, professional schools, etc. the ability to judge performance at a particular place, and in particular subjects. It is hard to compare these systems among schools (is an A at OSU Law equivalent to a C at Harvard Law?), but it also shows the effort the student puts into classes (work ethic) since everyone is competing for grades.

It might be worth looking at another institution that had a similar problem and perhaps found ways to combat it: the Army. In the early 1990s, as we reduced the number of troops, a lot of officers were being pushed out and it became clear to anyone that having anything but the highest marks on your evaluation reports meant death to your career. As a result, you had "evaluation inflation" and it became a game to see if you could figure out ways to distinguish among officers without killing careers. (So being called "one of the best three LT’s in the unit" was better than "a truly excellent officer" because the former meant you were the third-best LT in the unit while the latter meant you didn’t make the top-half, even if you were still a good LT. Getting a "will make a fine officer" meant you needed to put that resume together).

What the Army did was to essentially blow up the system, start again, and tell raters (Battalion and Brigade commanders, mostly) that they had to limit their top ratings - essentially, they had to grade on a curve. The Army could do it b/c it was a centralized organization; it’s much, much less clear that you could do it within a college, much less across colleges.

My school, which shall remain nameless, has been successful, though, simply on account of pressure from the Dean. Average grades went from something like a 3.4 a couple of years go to around a 3.1 now. It needs to go lower, but at least it’s progress.

I’m presently at a (fairly) highly ranked (top 15) law school and the recommended (tho’ not mandatory) curve is as follows:

10% A
15% A-
25% B+
25% B
20% B-
5% C+ or lower

So 95% of the class will have a B- or higher. I think it’s ridiculous.

That law school curve is more typical than you think. And credit hours generated is a big issue at small colleges. You can get bad evaluations, but students have to take your classes.


Your concern is pointless. You care more for form than substance. Employers will know your school’s curve and be able to translate the letter grade into meaningful data. When I applied to DoJ they presented me with a table of my law school’s grading system. If DoJ has it, other employers do too. Grades do not matter in law school, ranking does.

Thank you, pedantic Steve.

Interesting hidden danger of grade inflation - doesn’t it necessarily mask the decline of learning? Does it follow that if we have to keep adjusting the curve downward, that students are simply doing worse?

I am not being a smartass here. I’m genuinely curious.

Gentlemen, I am just entering the work force and am employed at a community college. I am agonizing over how to grade, knowing myself to be excessively sympathetic and sentimental toward my students. I am teaching Freshman Composition, and in my regular class have some students who could easily, one day, be at one of your colleges. I know because I started at Portland State in Oregon (little better in the day) and ended up at Columbia U. I see myself in a couple of these bright kids. (Honestly, the competition at C.U. was not as sharp as all that.) Ohio has a Post-Secondary Option system that allows high school students to enroll in my class, thus gaining high school and college credit at once. It is cost-effective for them to begin at my school.

However, my remedial class is full of students for whom writing a good paragraph is an intellectual stretch. These will be medical technicians, nurses, hospitality specialists and restaurant managers. I must teach them to write coherent essays, and I despair. How to grade them leaves me desperate. This kind of article, and Peter Lawler’s comment on it, makes me weep. Do I presume that a "B" in this class will be understood for what it is?

Just remember, Kate, you sometimes have to be cruel to be kind. Students can’t improve unless they know they are underperforming. Moreover, every time a soft-hearted teacher inflates grades, it makes it just that much more difficult for future teachers to correct these problems. It’s passing the buck, pure and simple.

dain, Exactly my dilemma, how to be rightly cruel. It is easier to be honest with the students in the "regular" class, who will go on, than with those in the remedial one. Those latter will have one more English class after mine, aiming at their two-year goal and then (Have you ever met an "Hospitality Specialist?) never consider the English language, again. Their first papers fairly bled with my red ink, and yet I gave no worse than C’s because they were average for that class, nearly all of whose papers were similarly incarnadine. Do I grade to the class/college standard or to an absolute one?

"Have you ever met an "Hospitality Specialist?"

Yes Kate, I believe have met AN hospitality specialist! Maybe you should sign up for an English course or two yourself so you can brush up on the basics before attempting to instruct others. You know, maybe a lesson in when to use an/a, or maybe a lesson on the usage of commas, so you can learn that they’re not something you just sprinkle into sentences every six words or so.

Sure Phil, and you never make any mistakes in your writing either. Oops, this sentence appears to be missing a word: "Yes Kate, I believe have met AN hospitality specialist!"

What a jerk you are.

When I recruited graduating college seniors for a finance company that I worked for, I and the others involved discounted Harvard’s grades so that a B was entirely unacceptable; by the same token, if a student had a strong B average from (say) Johns Hopkins (which, at least in those days, did not appear to practice grade inflation), we gave it a higher weight! Most sophisticated interviewers understand that certain institutions inflate grades, and will discount them accordingly.

I’m not teaching English at a college and crying about what to do with the dumb kids. And I’ll bet a grand Kate doesn’t really understand how to correctly use commas. Of course I realize that’s easy to say because I don’t have to back it up, but I’m telling you, look through her posts. She just drops ’em in there randomly.

BTW, Dominick, name-calling is hurtful!

So, if Harvard inflates grades, what does that say about all our political leaders (current and past) who went there?

We talked about this issue at lunch today in the faculty room (I teach high school). Couldn’t you also argue that colleges are accepting too many students...students who cannot succeed in college, but they admit them anyways for the $$$$. Then, when these students fail, they look bad, so instead of having them fail, they inflate the grades.

Not everyone is college material, and yet, society preaches that one has to go to college. Maybe if colleges only admitted those who could really meet the challenge, then they wouldn’t have to inflate the grades.

Phil, accept your criticism with grace. You’ll come off looking better. May I suggest the same for Dominick? Can’t we all just get along, people?

Daniel, if you think my feelings were seriously hurt by that Ayn Rand sycophant calling me a jerk, try again. I was kidding. And no, we cannot all get along. You should probably wake up to that fact, especially if you’re posting as a rather (albeit milquetoast) liberal guy on a right-wing site like this.

Milquetoast? Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Trolls are for ignoring.

Oh come on, could the comments on this post be trolling? I’m not even taking a political point of view! I’m not even disagreeing with anybody on this topic!

Okay, go ahead and ignore me now.

Not you, Daniel. Sincere best wishes w/ your blogging and your efforts to remain a civil Dem.

While in college, I was short-sighted enough to appreciate the curved-grading than inevitably lead to inflated grades.

The whole problem is that in certain topics especially in the humanities there is no such thing as an objective standard. The only solution to this is the one presented by Steve Sparks. But even Steve Sparks neglects to weight for ideological bias. In other words it is possible that the same work would score quite differently depending on the instructor. In any case I don’t think true students in the Humanities should worry about grades one way or another. If only I would have saved my numerous essays from Ashland... Among the most flavorful comments include some Vaughn...some Tiel...some Sikkenga...Some Moore...Some Thompson... In any case I recommend that college students try not to put together something for a grade... In this sense grade inflation is a boon... because it is recognized as a problem an outstanding LSAT or GRE can save you...All the better. I call on all college students in the humanities to liberate themselves from thinking centered on grades and attempt to intelligently aggrevate and shock professors out of their particular ontological structures. That is to say that the true problem isn’t grade inflation...but students becomming apes and parrots. Just as the problem in the army is the "dog and ponny show"...give me an LT whose primary focus is not on the thoughts of his grader...but perhaps(?) on the mission and his soilders.

I quote Mark Twain: "Don’t let school get in the way of your education." I urge everyone to halt the writting of real papers and begin writting ironic ones.

Let the Ontological games begin!

I leave town for a couple of days and looks what happened. Clearly I should have hired a thread monitor. NOBODY should think that they have to perfect internet or blog-based communication. The point is to get your ideas out there. The time to try to get things perfect is later, and believe me you wont succeed then eitherr. KATE’s posts have always been smart, charming, and based on deep personal reflection. She’s one of the highlights of this blog. The rest of you guys usually also add a lot. But let’s face it, you all need copy editors and peer review before really publishing any of this baloney. And me, too, obviously...

I’m all for students in the humanities not caring that much about grades. And my students at Berry usually pretty much have the right--prudent but not obsessive--attitude toward them. I don’t care that much about grades either.

Phil Thompson, You are quite right. I toss in commas whenever and wherever my voice would fall, to guide my reader, as taught too many years ago by an high school teacher who also instructed us to use "an" before ANY word beginning with the letter h. I am also guilty of not proof-reading every blog comment and have even complained about the lack of a post-"Add" edit function. Of course, they are blog comments and nearly as ephemeral as speech.

Thank you, kind defenders, but I ought to say that one reason I am enjoying teaching these classes is that I am learning that some of what I was taught about grammar is now considered incorrect. It is interesting to see how the Internet, word-processing, and the influence of journalism has changed the language since the day when I was required to write with any frequency. Teaching the language forces me to try (and I DO say try, because my mind is reluctant) to think about the language objectively rather than simply in the subjective terms of self-expression.

(If I lead this back INTO the point, is that an "ingression"?) Peter, some of my students care desperately about their grades. A good GPA is the means of escape from the local community college into a four-year college and a whole other world. Some of my students only need to pass and treat my class accordingly. It is easy to be tough with them, as it was with the couple of slackers I had when I taught high school. My heart goes out to those others who want to do well and can not. Yet, as Dain says above, to let them think that they are good writers when I am only appreciating their diligence, is to pass the buck.

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