|Grade inflation grips the nation
By Mathieu Vella
For the past year-and-a-half, grade inflation has been stirring controversy
on campuses across the country. The debate has now materialized at Oberlin.
While many professors deny that grade inflation exists, some, like economics professor Robert Piron,
say they are outraged by attempts to gloss over the issue.
My position is that our average grade is a sick joke that cannot be told any more if we are
serious in our quest to rise out of the muck of the second-raters, Piron said. When
I arrived for the 61-62 academic year, I came to a top-five school and have, since
the late 80s, witnessed it slowly sink to the bottom of the top 25.
History professor Steven Volk, who chairs the Colleges Committee on Teaching, disagrees.
When people speak of grade inflation, the underlying suggestion is that somehow students
are not just getting higher grades, which is a statistical reality at most selective schools, but
they are getting higher grades than they deserve, Volk said.
It is not hard to show that the former is true at Oberlin, Harvard, and other places,
he continued. What no one has shown is that the fact that grades are rising is due to inflation,
i.e. undeservedly high grades, or to the fact that selective institutions are increasingly getting
a better prepared group of students.
The issue of grade inflation began to receive national attention with concerns that too many Harvard
undergraduates were receiving As. Responding to these concerns, a faculty committee at Harvard
launched a campaign to restore the honor of the B-plus, ultimately resulting in a variety
of policy changes.
The higher education community remains divided on the issue and studies have proven inconclusive.
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education profiled 16.5 million undergraduates. They found
that more than a third of them received grades of a C or below; only 14.5 percent received As.
But the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued another report, describing grade inflation
as a major problem, especially at Ivy League and highly selective institutions.
Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey A. Witmer argues that Oberlins rising grades
can be attributed to its rising selectivity.
We keep track of grades awarded and how this changes over time, he said. Oberlin
has experienced some grade inflation over the past 15 years, but weve seen SAT scores and
other measures of incoming students rise at the same time, so it is hard to say whether grade inflation
at Oberlin is out of line with what one would expect.
Indeed, Oberlins Office of Institutional Research has released statistics, showing that increases
in the average grade between 1970 and 2001 have corresponded with increases in average SAT scores.
In the past decade, the average grade has risen from just above 3.20, a B, to the current 3.35,
a B-plus. During the same period, SAT scores have risen from around 1220 to 1270.
Last December, Oberlin faculty organized a forum entitled What DOES that B mean?
Thoughts on Grading, Learning and Communications.
Prior to the event, they circulated an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, tellingly
titled The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation. The report contrasted recent concerns
over grade inflation with nearly identical complaints from faculty employed by the institution
in the 1890s.
No one has ever demonstrated that students today get As for the same work that used
to receive Bs or Cs, the report read. We simply do not have the data to
support such a claim.
Rather than consider questions of grade inflation at Oberlin per se, the Committee on Teaching
has chosen to focus on the communicative aspect of grades.
How do students understand the grades we give? Volk said. What messages do we
send with grades? Are they the same ones that students receive? Are grades a good or poor way to
communicate with students?
Piron, however, remains jaded about the abilities of todays students.
The average academic quality of our students has fallen perceptibly, he said.