A Challenge to Stop Grade Inflation
Chapel Hill, NC (CollegeToCareers.com) – Prof. Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, is raising a legitimate question: how does one recognize academic excellence if all students are graded an A when they complete the coursework adequately? The issue is by far not new. The theory of probabilities says that a set of random variables should be clustered around a mean value following the model of a continuous probability distribution, a pattern more commonly known as the “bell”-shaped Gaussian distribution. Princeton, for instance, has been using the model for a couple of years already: back in 2004 they implemented a policy saying that no more than 35% of the final grades of undergraduates should be A’s.
Being “stingy” with A’s, however, can have detrimental consequences on the future careers and employment opportunities of students. There are many companies on today’s market who base their decision of employing a fresh graduate solely on their GPA. Since there is no unitary grading system across colleges in the United States, we can easily foresee a scenario where an engineering student in a community college gets straight A’s in Math simply because he can solve basic differential equations while an MIT graduate occasionally got a D+ when the rocket model he designed for the Applied Physics class didn’t take off.
Grade inflation is a cascaded process. When global median grades for a certain course are made public, students tend to enroll in those that offer the highest grades. Students are literally “shopping around for the easiest classes,” says Talia Bar, a co-author of a study published by Cornell. And the more students enroll in such courses, the higher the average GPA for the whole university. Other tutors are going to feel pressured to grade higher, since they see it as a common practice around their colleagues, so other classes will soon be regarded as “easy.” Inch by inch, the whole system is affected.
A common practice these days is that universities give a meaning to the grades in the graduates’ transcripts. A GPA of, let’s say, 3.6 is going to be accompanied by an explanatory note saying that only 3% of the students from the same class scored higher. Or a note attached will say that the median for the class was 3.2 and that student was the third in his class. Reed College, Dartmouth and Cornell are some of the top universities that use these notes to give an overall image of what the grades truly mean.