Grade Inflation: a Phenomenon that Distorts the Image of the Level of American's Education System

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Grade Inflation in Colleges

Many aspiring students might receive the speech from their grandparents entailing, “back when I was in school things were different, things were harder.” Well, in this case, that grandparent might just be correct. One aspect of schooling that has changed dramatically over time has been the number of A's that teachers and professors give to students. When a student receives a report of their grades with a 4.0 and nothing but A’s across the board, this could potentially give both the student and the student’s parents a false reading of where they rank compared to the rest of the United States. The parent then holds an extreme sense of pride that his or her son or daughter is the most intelligent scholar in the world. However, in reality, it’s likely that the student is achieving at a normal level, but their grade point average (GPA) has been inflated. The number of A’s given in today's educational system at the college level has increased over time where students aren’t necessarily deserving of such high marks. One could argue opposingly that professors are grading students well and in an unbiased manner. Some say that students are more focused on specific topics that interest them, resulting in a higher GPA, but there is extensive research conducted by scholars that refute this claim. There are many data researchers, statisticians and scholars that have been investigating this problem and their findings could offer ways to recognize when a university is inflating grades and how to end this problem.

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One researcher that has been exploring the grading conflict since his undergraduate career is Stuart Rojstaczer. He has created a website is composed of extensive research and evidence that grade inflation is alive and well in the United States. He has compiled data from large, prestigious universities, to smaller state schools across the United States. One problem that is seen while researching this situation is the rate in which grades have been increasing. Rojstaczer points out that, “... the pace was so slow that until the late 2000s it wasn’t entirely clear that it was a national phenomenon” (2). There hasn’t been a lot of investigation on this subject because of how slow the grades have been raising. However, there are many problems in the world that are disregarded, too, because the rates in which they are happening don’t seem important enough to devote effort and research into. If this problem isn’t treated, there will be a negative effect on educations nation-wide, much like the negative effects seen from global warming and extinction of animals across the world. Soon enough, there will be homogenous A’s, making it extremely difficult to determine the most qualified graduates from students who had an easier experience in college.

Rojstaczer also emphasizes in his findings that, “[the data shows] the full extent of both the Vietnam era rise and the consumer era rise up until 2012-15” (3). He explains that to “avoid being drafted in Vietnam due to flunking out [of school]”, professors would grade easier (2). Since the war ended, there has not been a need to boost grades. However, this idea has then been implemented since on a much smaller scale. It is important to acknowledge that numbers are slowly rising. Undergraduate students should be concerned by the constant increase of grades. Eventually, the students will be applying for jobs and a potential under-qualified applicant will have a 4.0 on their resume. This is a small aspect in the process of getting a job, but the (not as deserving) 4.0 could look more appealing when compared to a student who achieved and worked hard for, per say, a 3.1 at a more difficult, but accurate grading institution.

Another well-educated researcher who has a first-hand account of grade inflation in colleges is Vikram Mansharamani. He writes in How an Epidemic of Grade Inflation Made A’s Average about his experience at Yale, as an undergraduate student, compared to the institution from the perspective of a professor. Mansharamani includes a staggering statistic that, “62 percent of grades [at Yale] were in the A range in the spring of 2012. That figure was only 10 percent in 1963” also adding that his “alma mater is not unique” (2, 1). Yale, being a prestigious Ivy League, has a standard to uphold. They have an extremely small acceptance rate with competitive programs for the most intelligent students in the world. This statistic shows directly how grade inflation can affect an institution. If Yale is inflating grades, smaller, less distinguished colleges and universities will follow suit. Yale should be setting an example by having a smaller margin for the amount of A’s they award. Like mentioned previously, the A standard on Yale’s campus will make the ability to use “... grades less useful at distinguishing between excellent and average student performance” (Mansharamani 3). The professors at Yale should desire and expect the ‘best of the best’ to teach, but they continue to offer the world a list of vague graduates.

In addition to Mansharamani’s personal experience at Yale, he also voices how students have a large effect on how they are graded. Students stress the importance of A’s to professors because of how vital a letter grade can look on a transcript. Mansharamani adds that, “... [teachers] risk harming their students in the process” (2). This process, as mentioned, being applying to graduate schools. This concept is contradictory to the idea that employers disregard grades when hiring new employees. There is an obvious problem in the system: when a student doesn’t get into medical school because of receiving one or two ‘average’ grades, which is likely to happen during an undergraduate career, but then the average is not considered in the hiring process. It is as if the hard work completed by the student is disregarded solely because they obtain a degree. However, since there is pressure to receive high grades to get into these schools, the students will most likely continue to pressure professors to grade easier.

Another way to examine this problem in education is to ask students themselves to see if there is evidence of inflation in their professor's’ grading methods. Valen Johnson wrote Grade Inflation and he published the results of the DUET survey. This was a multiple-choice survey conducted at Duke University that gave students the opportunity to answer questions about the classes they were taking or the professors they had. Some questions were used for data while others were used to separate and distract students as a method to prevent bias; the results were astounding. One question that stands out is “What grade do you expect in this class”. The bar graph that shows the results vividly expresses how students, of all majors, expected to receive A’s (Johnson 28). The word “expect” stands out because there is such a high response where students expect the A. Another graph displays how more students than not express how the professors are “more leniently than average” when grading in classes (Johnson 29). One could make connections between these two questions and ask questions like, “Do students expect A’s because their professor, more often than not, is willing to be lenient when grading?” The results of this survey are likely similar across the nation because the notion of getting high grades in college is ‘expected’ weather students deserve the high marks or not.

Alfie Kohn engages in this conversation with a different approach. Kohn received his B.A. from Brown University and his M.A. from the University of Chicago. His field of work is examining where traditional education practices and where they could be improved. One critical statement he writes in The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation is, “... how many students have been trained to go to school to get A’s” (3). When students go through primary school and high school, there is a negative connotation connected to receiving a B or anything lower. The belief that anything lower than an A is shameful drives students to get A’s. Yes, A’s are important and great, but often times, there is a missing element that is not being taught in classes that offer A’s easily. One could ask who’s fault it is? It could be blamed on both the student and the professor. As mentioned previously, students can manipulate their schedules to get easy teachers or convince teachers to offer extra credit. However, teachers also give into this problem. Professors offer difficult courses that, for example, provide facts about history during the Cold War. However, students aren’t obtaining many necessary life skills outside of lectures. A student will do whatever necessary to get the A then forget most of the content taught in the course. With there being nothing but history facts taken from the course, it seems that the professor could be to blame for not expanding the minds of students to see that there are many issues outside of class.

Though Kohn is an educator that is finding ways to increase the quality of education in the United States, the majority of his work stresses how grade inflation is a ‘myth’ and that substantial proof of the issue in colleges ceases to exist. He lists off many reasons that can indicate why grades are rising. Kohn refutes some of the previous arguments by stating,

“Maybe students are turning in better assignments. Maybe instructors used to be too stingy with their marks and have become more reasonable. Maybe struggling students are now able to withdraw from a course before a grade appears on their transcript” (Kohn 2).

Kohn then expresses how “We simply do not have the data to support [that grade inflation exists]” (2). Kohn is wise for offering such ideas, but there is ample evidence to answer his concerns. Mansharamani expresses in his work that the intelligence of his class was comparable to the students that he teaches. It seems inaccurate to claim that an entire generation is ‘smarter’ than the previous generation or that professors nationwide are being less stingy while grading. Also, the act of withdrawing from a class is not foreign or new. This concept has much to do with the problems Mansharamani mentions when applying to graduate schools. A ‘W’ is not appealing in admissions offices but is overlooked and disregarded in the job application process. Kohn offers fresh and new ideas to this struggle, but neglecting to acknowledge it’s presence in the United States and calling it a ‘myth’ would conclude that the scholars’ research is pointless and unsuitable for drawing conclusions from.

Furthermore, when one is able to see the effects of grade inflation on a student’s ability to obtain a job, some wonder if issue will ever be resolved. Sita Slavov explores how to approach this problem and if there will ever be a reversed trend where grades are not considered to be inflating. Slavov has her PhD from Stanford and she currently teaches at George Mason University. She has an impressive resume and has conducted research in various fields including education, politics and economics. Slavov asserts that one solution to this problem would be for esteemed and influential colleges, such as Harvard, to exercise leadership by making a stance against grade inflation (3). Harvard, Yale, Cornell or any other prestigious college in the United States could reevaluate how students are graded so every average could represent how excellent or poorly a student achieved in college. Smaller institutions would most likely aspire to assess themselves to determine whether or not grades are inflated. If schools continue to grade with an inflated status, another solution could be to get rid of grades totally. Professors could exercise a pass/fail option because as it stands, students affected by inflation receive similar grades. This would relieve the stress of applying to graduate school. Qualified students could be considered and could explain their undergraduate experiences in an interview to determine their acceptance or rejection into a school, much like the experience of getting a job where grades are not overly noted.

Grade inflation is a problem that questions the usefulness of having grades to begin. If all students, both excelled and normal, receive the same grade, one will notice that it is extremely difficult to determine who has mastered a subject or who is a more qualified candidate for a job. Many undeserving students get A’s for what used to be B’s. This, over time, has proven the grading system in colleges across the United States to be ineffective. Due to the flawed system and small increase of grades over time, it has become normalized for students to expect A’s and for them to question their professors when they receive otherwise. A reevaluation of how grades are distributed in America is necessary if the quality of one’s grade ever wants to be taken seriously. 

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