Skip to comments.The Grade Distortion Epidemic
Posted on 03/07/2003 12:32:57 PM PST by bourbon
THE GRADE DISTORTION EPIDEMIC 03-05-03
By Charles W. Nuckolls, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama and David T. Beito, Associate Professor, Department of History. Both are members of the Alabama Scholars Association .
Throughout the last year, the issue of grade inflation has often been in the national media spotlight. Shocking revelations about the skyrocketing rise in the percentage of A's and the promiscuous granting of Honors awards at Harvard University especially have fueled debate. Despite this, some teachers and parents choose to console themselves with the theory that grade inflation is limited to the Ivy League or other elite private colleges. They would be wrong to do so.
According to the recent study, Grade Inflation at American Colleges and Universities, the grade inflation epidemic has infected many state-funded institutions which do not cater to an academic elite. A survey which we conducted for the Alabama Scholars Association reveals that it has taken hold in our own institution, the University of Alabama.
In our view, grade inflation must be examined as one component in a larger phenomenon: grade distortion.
We define grade inflation as the increasing percentage of high letter grades awarded to students over a defined period, unrelated either to improvements in student abilities or changes in instructional quality. A second subset of grade distortion is grade disparity. In some ways, it poses a far more serious threat to educational quality and basic fairness in grading. The level of grade distortion can be measured by calculating the differences between units internal to the university (colleges or departments) in the percentage of higher letter grades awarded to students in a defined period.
First, let us consider the best known component of grade distortion: grade inflation. The earliest available statistics for the University of Alabama from the early 1970s reveal that grade inflation was already well underway. An average taken of all four full semesters between the fall of 1972 and the spring of 1974 show that A's represented 22.6 percent of grades in all undergraduate courses. This was considered so high that the Office of Institutional Research at the University of Alabama warned at the time that "the percentage of A's and I's awarded has been steadily increasing" especially among undergraduates.
These warnings fell on deaf ears and grade inflation accelerated to new highs during the next three decades. Today, it has reached crisis proportions. In the last full semesters (fall 2000 to spring 2002), the percentage of A's in all undergraduate courses has risen to 31.1 percent, a startling 37.6 percent increase since 1974. One of the worst offenders is the College of Education where A's now constitute 55 percent of all undergraduate grades.
What has caused grade inflation at the University of Alabama? In 1996, the Office of Institutional Research attributed it to the "admission of better prepared high school graduates." There is little evidence for this claim. In the last 30 years, the average ACT scores for entering freshmen have increased by relatively little (from 22.9 to 24.5). According to Bob Ziomek, director of ACT program evaluation, this small rise "doesn't explain the whopping increase in A's being awarded."
Now, let us turn to the more serious component of the problem. We call it grade disparity. To view the issue in isolation, we have focused on the percentage of A's in the departments of the College of Arts of Sciences. In addition, we have limited our analysis to 100 and 200 level courses, the so-called gateway courses for freshmen and sophomores.
Because such courses are of an introductory nature, a traditional goal is to winnow out students before they can advance to more advanced courses. Thus, the percentage of A's in gateway courses is generally, or should be generally, lower than in 300 to 500 level courses. If the percentage of A's consistently exceeds 20 percent at this level, we believe that a serious grade inflation problem exists.
The disparities between departments in 100 to 200 level gateway courses are striking. The most inflationary department in the College of Arts and Sciences is Women's Studies. In the last two years, the average percentage of A's in that department averaged an almost unbelievable 78.1 percent. Other inflationary departments are Theater/Dance (51.4), Religious Studies (48.5) and Music (48.1). The five least inflationary departments are Biological Sciences (11.1), Geography (13), Geological Sciences (14.2), Math (14.6), and Anthropology (14.8).
Extreme grade disparity of this magnitude serves to undermine educational quality and standards. It also shortchanges the best and hardest working students. When grade disparity is rife, the overall Grade Point Average can no longer be said to adequately reflect comparative abilities. The grade of the A student in the course which demands little effort is placed on an equal plane with the student who has to struggle to earn the same grade in a more difficult course. The system creates perverse incentives for students to "shop around" for professors who have reputations for giving "easy A's" and thus degrades the efforts of those students who might otherwise take "harder" courses. The end result is that the student transcript loses its value a source of information for potential employers who need to judge the comparative qualifications of graduates.
What can be done to reduce grade distortion? Members of the Alabama Scholars Association supported a proposal that all student transcripts not only include the grade for the class, but also the average grade for all students enrolled in the class. Prospective employers could then get a better idea of whether that A- is to be admired or ignored, and the students would be less prone to shop for easy grades.
Unfortunately, the Faculty Senate of the University of Alabama rejected even this modest proposal. Indeed, it failed (and continues to fail) to take action of any kind. The University administration had proved equally unwilling to act. For this reason, we believe that the Alabama State Department of Education needs to publish an annual grade audit. Such an audit will serve to publicize grade distortion by showing the comparative levels of grade inflation and grade disparity in Alabama's high schools and colleges.
Mr. Beito is associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He is the author of Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) and From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). He is now writing a biography (to be co-authored by Linda Royster Beito) of Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a black civil rights leader, fraternal society official, and entrepreneur.
This blog segment is co-authored with Charles W. Nuckolls.
Posted by David T. Beito at 5:05. EST
LOL. Truly laughible. Shows how good that department is.
Actually, I don't think that's all that bad. In fact, it's more in line with what the author proposes, since it doesn't let kids get away with an 'A' in an easy course being equal to an 'A' in the hardest courses.
I think it's pretty obvious when you look at a transcript that an A in Calculus is different from an A in Music Appreciation.
I am a fan of the SAT's for that reason ..it seperates the wheat from the chaff .
I'd like to think I haven't jumped on the grade inflation bandwagon as much as most of my colleagues. Out of a class of 40 students, I only gave out one A and three A-'s. And more often than not, there's usually one or two flunkees. That's not because I curve it to be that way. My grading procedures are very clearly laid out during the first week of the semester, and they just happen to be tough. I think if you're a teacher and want to eliminate grade padding, just do it. Be the "mean teacher" for a while. All my classes still fill up, and none of my students has ever taken me to the administration over a grade dispute. They can't - my standards are there in black and white, so there's nothing to dispute.
By the way - the 40-person class I was referring to with almost no A's was music appreciation. :)