I’ve been doing some looking around to find out what the evidence is on grade inflation, specifically in higher education in the US. I’m surprised by two things. First, that there doesn’t seem to be firm evidence of it. (It is interesting that Valen Johnson’s excellent book Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, for example, is not about grade inflation at all, but about grade variation and student evaluations of teaching). Second, that so many people think that there is firm evidence of it. Certainly, it appears that if you ask people—faculty and students—whether there is grade inflation, they believe there is. But that is poor evidence, because the students don’t know anything abut what happened in the past, and the faculty have faulty memories. When you look at grades, it certainly seems that mean grades have been increasing within institutions over the past 25-35 years. The most frequently referred to site is Stuart Rojstaczer’s gradeinflation.com, which surveys a small number of institutions and finds increases in the mean grade in all of them over both a ten year and a 30 year period (much bigger in the private than in the public institutions). This is what people take to be firm evidence of grade inflation. But it isn’t, and I’m surprised that anyone thinks it is. Here’s why; within the institutions surveyed the students might have been gaining in achievement. Grade inflation consists in higher grades being given for similar quality work, not just higher grades being given. And no-one seems to have any data on the quality of the work being produced now or in the past.
Am I saying that students might have gotten smarter over the period? Well, they might, but that’s not what I’m saying. They might be better prepared for college than before, or, rather, enough of them might be better prepared to outweigh the fact that some of them are less well prepared. My own institution has become distinctly more selective over the past 12 years, and the grades I give reflect that (I rarely, now, come across students who are basically illiterate, which used to happen in every class). Students might be working harder, or working smarter, because they care more about getting good grades believing (falsely, according to lots of commentators) that better grades yield higher incomes and better job prospects. Instructors might have improved: many of the institutions have seen a decline in the teaching load for instructors over that period, allowing instructors more time to devote to preparation etc. Instructors might be more talented: certainly, the early period of grade inflation coincides with increased use of competitive and open hiring practices, and with the increased admission of women into the faculty.
I’m not saying that any of these things has happened, and the assertion that grade inflation has occurred accords completely with my prejudices. But I am surprised how uncarefully people interpret increased grades as grade inflation, and looking at the studies and reports that I expected to confirm my prejudices has made me skeptical. Can anyone help me restore my grumpy equilibrium?