(Author’s note: In response to my 10/29/19 Forbes piece, “Death to Merit: —College Admissions Process Descends Into the Abyss,” a number of readers asked me to expand on a subject I mentioned in the course of that piece—grade inflation. What follows distills my research over the years on this subject.)
Some 75% of all college grades earned today are either A’s or B’s. Grade inflation has ruined student transcripts as a meaningful indication of academic success.
Yet, as toxic as grade inflation is to the health of higher education, it has its defenders.
First, it is important to understand just where grade inflation is the worst. The short answer is “everywhere” but it’s especially bad in “flagship state schools in the South” according to Professor Stuart Rojstaczer.
Texas A&M Professor Valen E. Johnson, in his Grade Inflation: A Crisis in Higher Education, notes that defenders of grade inflation argue that grading itself “is a distorting, harsh, and punitive practice” with “low grades discourag(ing) students and inhibit(ing) their progress.” This then provides these teachers the justification to “give a student a higher grade than he or she deserves in order to motivate those who are anxious or poorly prepared by their earlier secondary school experiences.”
This is postmodernism at work and in practical application, where, as Professor Johnson observed, “science and the scientific method, observation of natural phenomena, and objective consideration of evidence are replaced by, or at least supplemented with, a critical assessment of the scientist and the inherent biases that accompany his membership in ‘dominant groups.’ An objective view of reality and search for truth is replaced by an emphasis on divergent [and equally valuable] representations of reality.”
Postmodernists are certain that the sole absolute or objective truth is that there is no absolute or objective truth. It isn’t surprising then, that postmodernist professors are “much less likely to assign poor grades.”
Professor Johnson cites Prof. Diana Bilimoria of Case Western Reserve University, whose defense of postmodern grading holds that teachers’ increasing awareness of “the biases inherent in modern science is likely to affect their evaluations of students’ acquisition of subject matter. . . . The global questioning of tenets once held to be singularly true allows a larger number of students to display with greater diversity a legitimate and appropriate grasp of a widened content.”
Johnson finds that Princeton University’s Bradford Wilson offers a good summation of this attitude, which is “the humanities have become hostile to hierarchy, and grading is inherently hierarchical.”
Johnson finds this postmodern reasoning on grading and teaching “bizarre.” He cautions that, “In practice, however, many professors are more comfortable with this perspective on grading—or less extreme versions of it—than they are with the traditional interpretation of grades.”
Further, critics of grade inflation are often met with this argument: The average entering SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores have risen over the past 50 years; thus, if student quality is higher, shouldn’t the grades be as well? Prof. Johnson cites Harvey Mansfield’s response to this: “if [some Harvard] students are in some measures better, the proper response is to raise our standards and demand more of our students,” adding, “Cars are better-made now than they used to be. So, when buying a car, would you be satisfied with one that was as good as they used to be?”
So, how does grade inflation affect students? The most obvious result, according to Johnson, is “the inequitable assessment of students,” which leads them to (1) “preferentially enroll in classes” with easier-grading professors, and (2) “provide more favorable course evaluations” to those who inflate grades. As a result, “stringent graders” find themselves with lower course enrollments and lower student evaluations, which impede their likelihood of receiving “tenure, salary increases, and promotions.”
Knowing this, professors follow the incentives provided them, and in turn inflate grades. “Finally,” and worst of all, Johnson explains, “with traditional incentives for students to achieve eliminated, academic standards fall.”
For Texas A&M’s Johnson, grade inflation persists because we have accepted five myths:
1. Student grades do not bias student evaluations of teaching;
2. Student evaluations of teaching provide reliable measures of instructional effectiveness;
3. High course grades imply high levels of student achievement;
4. Student course selection decisions are unaffected by expected grading practices; and,
5. Grades assigned in unregulated academic environments have a consistent and objective meaning across classes, departments, and institutions.
Johnson’s last myth is ironic in that this myth is “often advocated most fervently” by those “who, in most other aspects of their professional lives, reject the notion of objective, quantifiable, and hierarchical measures of quality.”
(This is the second of a four-part series on grade inflation and is based on a paper by the author available here.)