Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Grade inflation

There's an interesting piece in today's Duke Chronicle on the question of grade inflation, with the humanities the worst offenders:

Data Shows Rising Trend for Grades
Shuchi Parikh
When freshman Sharmistha Rudra chose her courses this semester, she aimed for balance.

To even out the heavy workload of her biochemistry and physics classes, she looked for a couple of "easy" humanities courses, deciding on a "Water and Conflict" seminar because it carried the lightest workload, according to

Rudra's instinct that the University's liberal arts classes give out higher grades was not unfounded, according to data from the Office of the University Registrar.

And some evidence indicates that there has been consistent grade inflation in recent years. Latin honors, awarded to the top 25 percent of each graduating class, have had steadily increasing GPA cutoffs since the Class of 2001, the last year data was publicly available.

Summa cum laude, honoring the top five percent of the class, had a GPA cutoff for Trinity College graduates of 3.868 for the Class of 2005, but rose to 3.894 for the Class of 2007. The summa cum laude GPA cutoff for Pratt School of Engineering graduates rose from 3.905 to 3.950 over the same time period . . .
I have only had three full semesters at Duke, so I can't judge how far I am contributing to this problem. What I would say is that the quality of the work that comes in for the courses I teach (Introduction New Testament; Historical Jesus; Life and Letters of Paul) is remarkably high. Duke students are very bright and highly motivated. In other words, it's a nice problem to have. One amusing, or perhaps disturbing feature in the article above is to see a student choosing courses on the basis of, and on the basis of the alleged easiness of the courses in question.

1 comment:

Patrick George McCullough said...

Thanks for sharing this story. This is an issue that bothers me a great deal and I don't see any easy answer. As a masters student who hopes to do doctoral work, I have to be concerned about my grades. As a person who desires to get the most out of my education, I don't want to be concerned about my grades.

If some professors choose to take on this problem on their own, what happens is they become known as notoriously difficult graders. The same effort that would get me an "A" with an "easier" grading professor might get me a "B+" in the difficult grader's class. I didn't necessarily learn more, or grow more as a scholar, in one class or the other. But how is a graduate school admissions department going to tell the difference?

Also, it's more than just the professor's decision. We are often at the mercy of TA's. I have had two separate professors with whom I've had two classes with two different TA's. Both of these professors had one easier grader and one harder grader.

For one, I think the whole grading system is nonsense. Grades mean nothing to me personally, but I know that they will matter for people who judge how I look on paper. It's a big mess and I don't think there is any way to fix it. The uber-competitive schools need a way to narrow down their selection process. No doubt they're getting smart people, but they're also probably getting a lot of people who are just playing the grading game.