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Grades edge up, fuel old debate

Students have shifted how they approach grades, but rising GPAs may not present a problem.

In her 20 years teaching at the University of Minnesota, Denise Guerin has seen C’s become failing grades in her students’ eyes.

“When a student earns a C from me or worse, I know I have to have all my ducks in a row to explain to them why they earned a C,” the interior design professor said.

Debates over grade inflation — awarding higher marks than the work would have received in the past — have smoldered at the University for years.

In the past decade, however, average GPAs at the University have risen only slightly. Some administrators say the University’s increasingly rigorous acceptance standards have caused that shift.

But over that same time frame, many professors say they’ve noticed students focusing more on grades and less on mastering course content and critical thinking skills.

Across the University, the average cumulative GPA has risen from 3.038 in fall 2001 to 3.163 in fall 2012.

“I don’t really think that’s such a big deal,” said Valen Johnson, a statistics professor at Texas A&M University and an expert on grade inflation.

He said the University of Minnesota’s average GPA still allows professors to assign grades that illustrate what a student has accomplished.

Johnson said he’d be more worried if the average GPA at the University was closer to a perfect 4.0.

“If everybody’s getting an A or an A-minus,” he said, “there’s just really no grade to give to students who excel.”

Debating the cause

Across the country, the average GPA at public colleges and universities jumped by about 0.4 during the 1960s and 1970s, then stayed relatively constant for the next decade, according to a 2010 article in the journal Teachers College Record.

The University largely mirrored that trend, according to a 1999 report to the University Senate.

After that spike, GPAs nationwide rose slowly. At the University, they increased in some colleges but not others, the report said.

There’s no single explanation for the rise over time.

University chemistry professor Chris Cramer, who has been involved in the debate at the University, attributed the jump in the 1960s and 1970s to the Vietnam War because only the highest-achieving students went to college at that time.

“If you got a GPA below B, your draft board sent you to perhaps be killed,” he said.

As for the recent upward trend, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Bob McMaster pointed to the rising standardized test scores and high school class ranks of admitted students, and he said it’s only natural for them to earn better marks.

But Cramer said he thinks the school’s standards should rise to match a more academically prepared student body.

“The idea that we would have kept the same standards over the last 40 years is a little silly,” he said.

Johnson and others said the possibility of negative student evaluations gives professors incentive to assign higher grades.

Professors and teaching assistants in programs with GPA requirements may also feel pressure to give high grades to keep students above the threshold, said Guerin, who works on a task force of professors devising strategies to combat grade inflation.

Most of the task force’s recommendations center around restricting the points students can earn for work not directly based on course content, like extra credit or attendance.

“Really, at this level?” Guerin said. “We have adults here, [and] you’re going to get a better grade because you got out of bed and came to class that day?”

Rewarding students for participation may not always work either, Guerin said, because the concept is hard to measure.

Family social science assistant professor Tai Mendenhall said he’s seen students argue for a better grade based on participation because they’ve asked questions in class.

“You should be doing that anyway,” he said. “Why in the world would I give you extra points for being a learner?” 

Shifting attitudes

Agricultural education assistant professor Marianne Lorensen said she thinks students are increasingly treating grades as compensation for the work they’ve done rather than an evaluation of how much they’ve learned.

Though she’s still in her first semester at the University, Lorensen has taught at several other schools, including the University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois.

She said students often view school as a full-time job and grades can be seen as performance reviews.

But just like in the professional world, it can be hard for students to see there’s nothing wrong with an average grade, she said. It means they’ve met expectations.

“I don’t look at a C as a bad thing, but [for] many students, it might as well be an F,” Lorensen said.

Mendenhall said he thinks No Child Left Behind, a federal law that ties K-12 teacher evaluations to their students’ standardized test scores, has partly caused students to focus more on grades and less on critical thinking.

“There’s this obsession about having the best GPA possible,” he said.

Across the country, average high school GPAs increased from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.0 in 2009, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the Republican leader in the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, said testing has a place in all levels of education.

But he said No Child Left Behind’s focus on testing may have unintentionally caused an overemphasis on grades rather than on knowledge.

Translating grades

Some experts say grade inflation isn’t a problem.

Eve Pattison, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, coauthored an article saying the larger meaning of specific grades hasn’t changed over time.

“It really doesn’t matter what the mean grades are doing if they still serve the same purpose,” she said.

Others point out that grades aren’t the most important tool for finding a job.

Paul Timmins, director of career services for the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, said grades aren’t very important to the employers he works with.

“If they’re using grades at all, it’s as some sort of basic screening tool,” he said.

Employers are more likely to judge a job applicant based on how they fit in with company culture, Timmins said.

High grades can mean a good work ethic, and students with competitive GPAs should still highlight them, he said. But a candidate’s worth ultimately depends on whether they can do the job they apply for.

Jill Holomek Bothwell, director of recruitment for Fairview Health Services, said her company doesn’t ask applicants about their GPAs.

“It’s certainly not on any standard set of questions,” she said.

Bothwell said critical thinking and problem-solving skills are more important for an applicant.

Combating the trend

Whether grade inflation presents a problem or not, one way to illuminate the issue could simply be to make grade information more accessible.

At the University, those efforts in recent years have resulted in the publication of the Grade Distribution Report. It lists the number of students who received each grade at every level of a department in which more than 10 students received a grade.

McMaster said the report serves two purposes.

Students can use the report to know what kind of grade to expect before taking a class, he said. Faculty can use it to make sure their standards aren’t out of sync with their colleagues’ standards.

“It could initiate a very interesting conversation where faculty could better try to harmonize their grades across a department,” McMaster said.

The report mirrors a recommendation from the 2010 Teachers College Record article. It suggests making grade information readily available so anyone comparing students could put their GPAs in context.

Cramer said the report is a step in the right direction.

“Once upon a time, we posted all our grades outside our doors,” he said. “Nowadays, unless you know a lot of other people in the class, maybe you don’t know. … So now you’ve got the context.”

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