Thursday, May 13, 2010

Another Look at Grade Inflation

Pratt’s post on grade inflation meshes nicely with the study “Grading in American Colleges and Universities” by Stuart Rojstaczer & Christopher Healy — March 04, 2010. Their research shows that sometime in the 1950s to1960s, the major purpose of grading at colleges and universities changed from an internal measure and motivator of student performance to a measure principally used for external evaluation of graduates. In response, private schools – more so than public schools – raised their grades. In the words of one late faculty member from Dartmouth, “we began systematically to inflate grades, so that our graduates would have more A's to wave around”(Perrin, 1998). The GPA gap between the private and public schools widened through the 1970s, and has stabilized since the 1980s.Since the evidence indicates that private schools in general educate students no better than public schools (Perscarella and Ternzini, 1991), private schools are apparently conferring small but measurable advantages to their students by more generous grading. Private schools also have on average students from wealthier families, and the effect of our nation’s ad hoc grading policy is to confer unfair advantages to those with the most money. It is perhaps easy to see why graduates from certain private schools dominate placement in top medical schools.

Notice from the diagram how private school grade inflation has been much larger than public school grade inflation. Why would private schools inflate grades more than public schools? The answer lies in the institutional differences of tenure between private and public schools. Many private schools do not confer tenure or do so with constraints whereas public schools typically confer tenure following 7 years of performance. With more stable jobs, the public instructors need not “buy” better evaluations as much as the private instructors do. It would be interesting to compare tenured faculty grading versus untenured faculty.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of
research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Perrin, N. (1998). How students at Dartmouth came to deserve better grades. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 9,A68.

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