Grading and Grade Inflation

Facilitated by Kristin Wendland & Christine Ristaino

Summary by Flora B. Anthony

Michael Lubin, a professor at the School of Medicine, leaned forward in his chair and put a series of questions to a group of his Emory faculty colleagues: “Why do we care about whether there is or is not grade inflation? What is the usefulness of grades? What is our grading philosophy?” He was, of course, adding more queries to the larger question under discussion. What do we, as Emory Faculty do about grade inflation? Is it a problem on our campus, and if so- how can faculty members fix it? This is the topic of a meeting sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Education that took place on November 11, 2010.

Kristin Wendland, Senior Lecturer of Music Theory in the Department of Music, and Christine Ristaino, Lecturer in the department of French and Italian, facilitated a workshop to discuss the many aspects of this topic. First, the Director of Educational Research at Emory College, Melissa Bolyard, addressed the statistics. In her PowerPoint of what she jokingly calls “big scary panels of data,” she stated that even though a few nagging questions remain, “regardless of how you look at it, from 1999 to today, grades are increasing [at Emory].” As Bolyard summarized it, what is shown on the various graphs and tables in the PowerPoint showed “the average grade is now a B, not a C.” Workshop participants appeared convinced that there is grade inflation at Emory, but agreed there are also a number of variables that have to be analyzed in conjunction with this data. After making a graph of available information about Emory students and their grades, Bolyard concluded that we only have data for a very small time period and we still don’t really know about grade inflation at Emory across time. However, most felt that grades were definitely rising at a very fast pace amongst Emory University undergraduates.

Bolyard’s data reinforced the belief that already existed in the room. Personal experiences, now supported by data, demonstrated that workshop participants believe that grade inflation at Emory is a problem. They are not, however, necessarily sure of the reasons for it. Some suggested that perhaps students are now trained to make good grades or take tests successfully- but they wondered whether these students could think critically. Or, is grade inflation the result of student expectations? Lubin believed that at least part of the problem is related to the variability in professor’s personal grading philosophies. Whatever the cause, students expect to make an “A” and teachers seem to give these out more than they did in the past. Also, each year students come to Emory with higher grades and test scores than the year before. Are students really getting better each year or is there grade inflation in high schools already? One point of agreement among the participants was that they don’t see a correlation between the grades going up and the student’s level of academic aptitude.

Having looked at the quantitative data, Doug Mulford, a lecturer in the Chemistry Department, suggested that his fellow attendees look into personal experiences. “What is the scope of grade inflation within the university? Are we all adhering to similar rubrics?” He then added that Emory does not have internal standards that are consistent from department to department. Quantitative rubrics that are consistent between disciplines would be a sure way to keep student complaints to a minimum while deflating grades. The problem then is that essays in the humanities, for example, are much more subjective than multiple-choice questions in the sciences.

In order to facilitate the discussion, a handout was distributed to encourage the participants to think about the terms being used in the meeting. Scholars, academics, and journalists have different definitions of grade inflation. Leonard Carlson, Associate Professor of Economics, suggested that we use the term ‘grade compression’ as it is more accurate than ‘grade inflation.’ His opinion was based on the technical difference between the terms inflation and compression. In inflation the numbers are doubled, which is not the case with the grade scale that is used in academia.

At this point in the discussion, faculty members voiced their own case studies. Mulford said that he had noticed that grades are more important to some students than knowledge and that students will drop a class if they are not likely to get an “A.” Ruth Parker, a Professor in the School of Medicine, provided an example of student’s beliefs that they likely deserve an “A” in her class. She asks students every year to grade themselves, though she does not give them the grade that they think they deserve. Her conclusions are that achievement is not rising with performance, though students increasingly think that they deserve an “A.” Another issue she has observed through the years is the increased rate of cheating. Students can just text each other answers instead of looking on each other’s papers. Therefore technology, combined with a lax set of ethics, seem to be at the root of the problem.

Further addressing Michael Lubin’s question about the use of grades, Rachelle Spell, a Senior Lecturer in the Biology department, contributed to the discussion by adding that while students are placing an increasing importance on getting an “A” in each class, employers are sometimes disregarding grades entirely and have made up their own entrance exams. Perhaps employers have found that grades are not a good indicator of the academic aptitude of an individual.

Laurie Patton, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Religion and Director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, wanted to know what can be done about this issue. She states that tenured or full professors can take the risk to challenge grade inflation or compression, as they are not worried about the promotion process. In this way, she added, there will be leadership and we might see what can happen in our collective academic lives. However, institutions that take a strict grade inflation policy, like Princeton, have had less than positive reactions. After all, everyone wants to get an “A.”

The first step in a process to combat grade compression, according to Lubin, is to publish grade distributions and to get the numbers out in the open. This will draw attention to the issue and enlarge the discussion. He believed that at least part of the problem has to do with the fact that Emory does not have a stated policy. For instance, if the college decides that there will only be two to three “A’s” in a class, then student expectations won’t be so high and professors will not be pressured to inflate grades. Many suggested that Emory faculty need to align grading with student assessment, though the specifics of ‘student assessment’ is also an issue that needs to be addressed in a future meeting. Various faculty members in the group also agreed that grading rubrics would make this transition more successful as students should be able to see why they are receiving the grade that they get, and also how they could have done better.

When it comes to the early stages of this possible initiative, Spell suggested that they focus on the ideals of openness and transparency. Faculty members need to make information about grade compression accessible so that a larger group of Emory faculty can be engaged in this discussion. The CFDE hopes to spotlight this subject and hold further conversations about the problem of grade compression at Emory.