Grade inflation trend gets high and low marks from officials

Sarah Hallonquist

As far as grades go, a B just isn’t what it used to be — and at the University, that’s raising a few eyebrows.
An analysis of the University’s grades shows a steady climb in high marks over the last 10 years. During the next few months, a committee will look into rising grade point averages, an issue which plagues colleges and universities across the nation.
At Princeton, a report released this month documents a definite grade inflation trend. The average gpa rose to 3.42 in 1997 from 3.08 in 1973.
Similarly, the mean gpa at the University of Washington reached 3.12 in 1996, up from 2.31 in 1964. And at Stanford University, As and Bs make up 80 percent of the grades earned.
Compared to the higher grades at these schools, the University might be only at the doorstep of the grade inflation problem. Reasons for the increases are difficult to pin down, and school officials are reluctant to offer concrete answers.
Possibilities include better academically prepared students, increasing instruction and grading by non-tenured professors, and changing philosophies about what grades measure.
A definite trend’
A subcommittee of the University Senate’s Committee on Educational Policy is examining whether grade inflation is a problem at the University.
“There have been concerns raised around the University for decades about the unreliability of the current grading structure,” said Judith Martin, the subcommittee’s chair.
By studying data from the registrar’s office spanning several decades, members will attempt to find a concrete picture of the University’s grade situation. They could have a report ready by the end of spring quarter.
Since 1989, the average fall quarter grade point average for University undergraduates has risen to 2.96 from 2.83.
“This isn’t any monumental increase,” said John Kellogg, a senior analyst in the Office of Planning and Analysis. But he added, “It’s a definite trend.”
And with that trend comes an increase in the percentages of As and Bs earned in several of the University’s undergraduate colleges.
The Carlson School of Management tops the list with the largest change. This fall, 49 percent of the school’s grades were As, compared to 30 percent in 1987.
Jerry Rinehart, director of undergraduate programs for the Carlson school, said the increase can be attributed partly to higher-achieving incoming students.
“Students are doing better before they come to us, and they continue to do better,” he said. “We have students who are used to doing well in the classroom.”
Rinehart’s view is not far from those of other faculty members and administrators. Many say the University is admitting students who are better prepared for college study, leading them to perform at higher levels.
“If the University is getting better students, it wouldn’t be surprising that those students are getting better grades,” said Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education.
In the last nine years, the number of undergraduates on the Twin Cities campus decreased about 12 percent. The decline was partly caused by a decrease in state high school graduates, but also was the result of benchmarks set by former University Presidents Kenneth Keller and Nils Hasselmo.
With the aim of increasing the proportion of undergraduate to graduate students and improving the overall quality of student life, the University admitted fewer undergraduates and reduced class sizes.
In addition, stricter high school preparation requirements were added in 1992. Those requirements include:
ù four years of English;
ù three years of mathematics;
ù three years of science;
ù two years of foreign language;
ù two years of social studies.
This fall, the University admitted its largest and smartest freshman class. Eighty-seven percent of entering students met preparation requirements compared with 74 percent in 1992. About 17 percent would have met current requirements in 1985.
“Definitely over time it’s a strong class academically,” said admissions director Wayne Sigler.
But smarter students aren’t the only plausible interpretation for the school’s higher grades.
Escape from the curve
Concerns over grade inflation arose during the Vietnam War, when students and professors who opposed the war clung to draft deferment loopholes. High-achieving college students weren’t drafted, so some professors intentionally inflated grades for the sake of keeping students off the battlefield.
“My suspicion is that people just got used to giving higher grades at that point and never got out of it,” Martin said.
Since the Vietnam period, grade inflation has been a topic of discussion and interest, said Marvin Marshak, a physics professor and former top aide to Hasselmo.
Having taught at the University for 23 years, however, Marshak said he believes the quality of students has improved, but also that strategies have changed in undergraduate education in the last few decades.
In the past, professors often tried “quota killing” — flunking a specific percentage of students to foster competition — to demonstrate the appearance of being a tough grader. In Marshak’s view, those days are gone.
“I think there’s more interest in seeing the students succeed than there used to be,” he said. “And when you do that, I think you’ll get better performance.”
Marshak also said he thinks the University’s grading policies are tougher than at most comparable universities.
While letter grades are still the modern standard of evaluation, Marshak and other faculty members recognize grades don’t encompass everything a student might learn in a course.
“I think students get grades for the work and performance,” Swan said.
However, he said, grades are not always a perfect measure of what they have learned. How students perform on tests varies, and how courses are taught change over time.
Recent efforts at identifying learning environments and teaching styles could lead to closer matches between professors and students choosing classes.
Protecting image?
The University Senate on Thursday approved a new set of questions for student evaluations of instructors. With the new questions comes an option of publishing the responses to aid students in course selection, but the choice would be left in the hands of professors.
Marketing professor Allan Shocker said he fears grade inflation might occur if student evaluations of professors are made public.
In the Carlson School of Management, which has been focusing on improving teaching quality in the last few years, student evaluation results are available for public browsing. In addition, they are used in consideration for tenure and promotion.
Shocker said the practice is ultimately hurting the school by causing professors to “dumb-down” courses and give out higher grades. Positive evaluations can lead to faculty awards, raises and promotions in the school
“The official image of the school is that we’re a highly competitive place,” Shocker said of the University. “And to attract good students you’ve got to create the image, at least, that the standards are quite high.”
Jessie Roos, a College of Liberal Arts junior, is academic affairs chairwoman for the Minnesota Student Association and a member of the University Senate. She is part of a team of students and faculty who worked to add the new set of questions and publishing option of evaluations.
In Roos’s view, professors would not be motivated to inflate their grades for the sake of better evaluations because limited access would prevent the information from becoming too widespread.
“And for that reason, I don’t think grades will be inflated at all,” she said, adding that the questions are not designed for changing teaching styles or for grading instructors.
Faculty would have the choice of releasing the data, and a username and password would be required if the results were published online.
Other developments, such as the new uniform grading policy implemented this fall, might have an effect on grades.
Laura Koch, chairwoman of the Senate’s Educational Policy Committee, led the effort to adopt the plus-minus system across University departments and three campuses. While the new policy’s intent was uniformity, pluses and minuses give professors more options in assigning grades. But it’s too early to tell if the system will affect overall grade statistics, she said.
“We don’t expect the gpa’s to change because of the grading policy,” said Koch, who added that grade inflation is very hard to qualify across the board.

— Staff Librarian Chris Trejbal contributed research for this report.