Tuesday, July 26, 2005

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Is grade inflation real or imagined?

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse asks whether grades are improving because of inflation -- or because of other reasons:

The most frequently referred to site is Stuart Rojstaczerís gradeinflation.com, which surveys a small number of institutions and finds increases in the mean grade in all of them over both a ten year and a 30 year period (much bigger in the private than in the public institutions). This is what people take to be firm evidence of grade inflation. But it isnít, and Iím surprised that anyone thinks it is. Hereís why; within the institutions surveyed the students might have been gaining in achievement. Grade inflation consists in higher grades being given for similar quality work, not just higher grades being given. And no-one seems to have any data on the quality of the work being produced now or in the past.

Am I saying that students might have gotten smarter over the period? Well, they might, but thatís not what Iím saying. They might be better prepared for college than before, or, rather, enough of them might be better prepared to outweigh the fact that some of them are less well prepared.... Students might be working harder, or working smarter, because they care more about getting good grades believing (falsely, according to lots of commentators) that better grades yield higher incomes and better job prospects. Instructors might have improved: many of the institutions have seen a decline in the teaching load for instructors over that period, allowing instructors more time to devote to preparation etc. Instructors might be more talented: certainly, the early period of grade inflation coincides with increased use of competitive and open hiring practices, and with the increased admission of women into the faculty.

A lot of Harry's alternative explanatuons would suggest -- perish the thought -- there have been productivity gains in education.

Much as I'd like this to be true, I'm probably more skeptical than Brighouse of this possibility -- click here for one reason why the distribution of grades suggests other factors at work besides improving student and instructor quality.

posted by Dan on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM


Grade inflation as a a consequence of the Flynn effect?

posted by: Jody on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

Productivity gains may be only half of the story, Herr Doktor Drezner--it could also be a result of a massive increase in inputs caused by the shift to a more meritocratic, tournament-model education system.

posted by: Paul on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

Trying to calibrate grades across generations is as fruitless as comparing Shoeless Joe Jackson to Reggie Jackson.

The main problem with grade inflation, as information theorists will tell you, is that they now don't serve to differentiate between peers since everyone is getting an A or A-. If everyone graduates summa cum laude, doesn't the award become pretty meaningless?

- Mike

posted by: Michael Weiksner on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

The previous commentor, Weiksner, is a tool. He points to a study he didn't even read. A quote from the study's author: "This study is evidence against the claim that grade inflation has made a huge difference in the grading system," Felten said. "There has been a decrease in the content of grades, but not as much as one would think. These numbers argue against making changes to the grading system."

PS. Felten is not an "information theorist". He does computer security.

posted by: dude on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

Could some of the rise in grades be attributed to the expansion of course offerings? Avoiding disciplines that are not favorites could easily raise the GPA...

posted by: knutes101 on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

I'll take issue with the idea that it's fruitless to compare Shoeless Joe Jackson to Reggie Jackson. With adjustments to normalize for era and home ballpark, one can readily compare players of different generations.

posted by: Jeremy B. on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

I have an interesting perspective on this. I attended the U of Chicago in the late 70's but never finished my BA. Now, having sold the business to my partners, I decided to finish my degree.

Though many things have changed, I am not averaging higher grades than I received originally. And this includes retaking two core courses to finish "Incompletes" from '76. So far I've taken 10 courses over the past year and my grade average is about the same as it was in '78.

And after 25 years, I'll graduate the end of Summer Quarter. yee-haa!

posted by: mCrane on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

Our Political Science Department collects grade distributions from all instructors to police against grade inflaction. We are the department in our college that has a reputation as holding the line against grade inflation. When the college averages are released, we have lower average GPAs than all other departments, especially the departments with reputations as "easy." This trend has not varied over the 6 years I have been reading these reports. Likewise, anecdotally, the grad students in our department tend to report higher average grades than anyone else. The other results are hard to generalize across rank, and seem to correlate more with personality (hard ass vs. cupcake) type than anything else.

posted by: binky on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

Another generational effect is the greater number of students going on to grad school. Today a college degree has much the same importance that a high school diploma had 40 years ago. Higher demand for grad school leads to higher undergrad grades, because acceptance into grad school is highly dependent on undergrad gpa.

posted by: Ryan Early on 07.26.05 at 11:38 PM [permalink]

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