How not to write about grade inflation, or education, for that matter

Why do so many writers about higher education generalize about the whole sector from the experience of a handful of campuses?

InflationOnce again the mainstream press emits an article which confuses academia’s 1% with the 99%.  This time the putative topic is grade inflation.  Quick summary: Mark Oppenheimer thinks grade inflation reveals that grades are lame, and we should move to more qualitative evaluations. Which is a) a decent idea, and b) not a new one.

But watch how Oppenheimer creates his evidence base.  Like William Deresiewicz or Julie Lythcott-Haims, for example, it’s mostly about the Ivies, starting with the column’s first few words:

The first grade I got as a clueless, sweater-vest-wearing Yale freshman in 1992 was a C-plus…

According to a 2012 study, the average college GPA, which in the 1930s was a C-plus, had risen to a B at public universities and a B-plus at private schools. At Duke, Pomona and Harvard, D’s and F’s combine for just 2 percent of all grades. A Yale report found that 62 percent of all Yale grades are A or A-minus. According to a 2013 article in the Harvard Crimson, the median grade at Harvard was an A-minus , while the most common grade was an A.

From the first sentence on, the article is largely about the elite, far out of proportion to their actual representation in American post-secondary education.  That brief mention of “public universities and… private schools”, a little gesture towards the 99% (sort of), disappears in the article’s next sentence: “The result is widespread panic about grade inflation at elite schools.”

To be charitable, let’s assume “widespread” refers only to the people directly connected with those “elite” campuses, rather than the nation as a whole.  Because watch the very next sentence:

(The phenomenon is not as prevalent at community colleges and less-selective universities.)

Note the parentheses.  It’s almost as if the majority of American higher education is either easily dismissed, or is simply too embarrassing to include in the real discussion.  Because that’s where the author heads next:

Yet whenever elite schools have tried to fight grade inflation, it’s been a mess. Princeton instituted strict caps… At Wellesley, grade-inflated humanities departments mandated … Yale and Harvard, while making noises about grade inflation, have never instituted tough rules to stem it.

It’s time to give up the fight against grade inflation. I have taught at Stanford, Wellesley, New York University, Boston College and Yale, and I used to be a grade-inflation warrior.

From here on out the article proceeds as if that handful of schools represents all of American higher education, having safely removed from consideration the rest of academia, where things aren’t so elite, and where reality might be different.


Watch how Oppenheimer goes on to generalize:

It’s easy to see why schools want to fight grade inflation. Grades should motivate certain students… But it’s not clear that grades work well as motivators…. Overall, graded students are less interested in the topic at hand…

Even where grades can be useful, as in describing what material a student has mastered, they are remarkably crude instruments. Yes, the student…

Meanwhile, I’ve taught humanities subjects for 15 years…

We need to move to a post-grading world.

Now it’s all “students”, “schools”, “grades” in a general, almost abstract way.  The 1% stand in for the 99%.  Having gapped out community colleges and less selective public institutions, those parentheses have done their job.

Onward the article goes, citing “four top schools”, Stanford, and “rarified, expensive places”.

But now, towards the end of the piece, it’s as if reality has suddenly returned, or at least a sense of gesturing towards the academic 99%.

There are a few other problems with the piece.  To begin with, note how it commits that classic humanist error of collapsing the entire curriculum into the humanities, or just dismissing the former to privilege the latter:

By the early ’90s, so long as one had the good sense to major in the humanities — all bets were off in the STEM fields — it was nearly impossible to get a final grade below a B-minus at an elite college.

“all bests were off” could have been “things were different in the sciences,” or a more detailed explanation of life on the other side of C.P. Snow’s barrier wall.  But instead the author can just hand wave away that huge chunk of academia.

I also enjoyed the stark utopianism of this passage towards the end, where the author makes a single nod in the direction of economics: “A change in grading would be even harder. It would mean hiring more teachers and paying them better (which schools should do anyway).”  Well, I did say “economics,” but not “reality.”  Erm, tell us how would we pay for that, please?  And I do mean “us”, beyond the – what did you call them – “rarified, expensive places”.

My main point, though, is to draw attention to this bad form of writing about American higher education.  I’ve blogged about it previously. As inequality among Americans increases, and gaps between campuses widen, it’s increasingly important to bear that reality in mind, not disappear it in parentheses.

(thanks to Jesse Stommel)for the link; inflation photos by Backdoor Survival and Forsaken Fotos)



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17 Responses to How not to write about grade inflation, or education, for that matter

  1. actualham says:

    I also think the drivers for grade inflation and the reasons students may be invested in grades are different depending on economic factors that surround students’ lives and their institutions. Relatedly, the reasons that current grading systems need to be rethought must be related to the ways that institutions interact with the economic landscape of higher education. In particular, I wonder how a commitment to public education and/or free college can be strengthened by a commitment to learner-centered assessments like portfolios, self-assessment, p2p feedback, or collaborative grading. Seems like there is more potential in rethinking grading than just getting rid of grades. Isn’t there also potential to lean more towards educational systems that serve learners rather than the status quo? And isn’t that not a conversation that circles around the “rarified, expensive places?”

    • Great thoughts, actualham.
      I think we can do well to combine a return to higher levels of public financing with deploying learner-centered technologies and practices.

      I’m not sure if this will occur in the public sector, given states’ resistance (which isn’t necessarily ideological or partisan).

      So I wonder if the elites will lead the way.

  2. An excellent reminder and an incitement to every writer and opinion-promulgator’s conscience.

    On the podcast I co-host ( my cohost and I avowedly talk about teaching and learning at Yale. Can we say enough times “this is about our local context”? No. Do we? I doubt we do. Is *some* of what we find about good teaching exportable? I believe so. How much and which bits? Ah, there’s the rub.

    Put differently: much practical reasoning is inductive and from example; or: from instance to type and back again. In professional education, it’s the case method. We find it in business, law, and medicine. (We *should* see it more when we teaching about learning, but that’s a pet peeve.)

    Then the challenge becomes: is this instance truly prototypical? And of what? How far can we extrapolate from this once case?

    Whether we are reasoning inductively from cases or not, we cannot be reminded enough to ask ourselves: “But how typical is that case?”

    So thanks for the above–and amen, so to say.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Edward, along with the pointer to your podcast.

      Case studies: it depends on which cases and whence they’re drawn. Oppenheimer, Deresiewicz, Lythcott-Haims draw from the institutional 1%. Which isn’t a problem per se; it’s just vanishingly unrepresentative of American higher ed.

  3. JeffroTull says:

    Dr. Alexander, pressures to inflate grades are spreading throughout primary and secondary education systems throughout America, and also in community colleges. What is my evidence? It’s anecdotal from 7 different locales across the entire country. With the new evaluation systems that have recently flooded all states based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Effective Teaching and new principal evaluation systems also dependent upon this in terms of outcomes, it is no surprise that gaming the numbers is happening rampantly. I wish I could find the Freakonomics episode that discussed this thoroughly, but the gist of it is that whenever an institution is pressured or incentivized to game its own metrics, it games its own metrics. They cited examples of hospitals keeping people longer than needed simply to make more profitable Medicare deadlines, hospitals in China implementing performance-based evaluation systems that led to the same numbers of bodies but miraculously better numbers, and evidence that this is happening in schools. Here’s an article on the Medicare thing:

    I’ve heard firsthand of a veteran teacher sitting in a junior-team meeting and pointing a principal and saying, “I know what the problem with this school is. We’re just passing these kids along. You’re passing them along, you’re passing them along, you’re passing them, you’re passing them, and you’re telling them to pass them.” That last finger was pointed at the principal. It is true. I was in a teacher preparation meeting with some state-level education bigwigs and many would-be teachers where one bigwig stated that ANONYMOUS University’s acceptance committee doesn’t even look at ANONYMOUS public school district’s G.P.A.s anymore because they’ve given too many acceptances to 4.0 students that ended up flunking out.

    This is a situation where you’re looking for data from the computers that say the ship is taking on water, and you’re not picking up the phone from the engineer who is trying to tell you that the bilge is full and the hull is taking on water dramatically.

    • A powerful observation, Jeffro, based on hard-won experience.
      Do you think the recent federal climb-down from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top will retard this K-12 inflation?

  4. If a teacher shows the students the target and how to hit it, and the teacher doesn’t move the target, more students get higher grades. The bell shaped curve is a relic of the bad ol “move the target” days. It isn’t necessarily “grade inflation” if more students do well; it can also reflect an effective teacher at work. But I’m only a veteran community college teacher–what can I possibly contribute to such an “elite” conversation? No doubt the nuances escape this country bumpkin down here in the trenches where the rubber hits the road.

    • Your experience, Sandy, is one reason those of us with taste value your contributions so highly.

    • DN says:

      No, it’s not a relic. You get a Gaussian when you have many uncorrelated factors at play – these include general intelligence, aptitude for the subject, time available to study, interest in the material, perseverance, etc…. voilà, Gaussian. A good teacher has a class that learns a lot more than a bad teacher, but there’s still going to be a distribution.

      And perhaps it’s just your choice of analogies I’m hung up on, but if you “shows the students the target and how to hit it, and [don’t] move the target”, you’re not a good teacher. In STEM, this would be “here’s an equation, here’s me using it to plug and chug, here are some numbers so you can plug and chug”. No real learning or understanding happened there. I’m not calling you a bad teacher – I don’t know you – but if you challenge students to deep understanding of complex topics, they will learn… but not all of them will learn well. And certainly not equally well.

      • You’re correct that this is a more nuanced topic than my wide swathes imply. “The bad old days of the bell shaped curve” I was remembering at that moment of writing was when our dean used to call us on the floor if we had too many high scores in the class; my job depended not on how well my students learned but on the graph numbers.

        But you are so mysteriously right about how that bell rings no matter how easy I make it to get an A; I’m teaching a creative writing class in poetry right now, and I see no reason in the world why if a student comes to class and posts to the class forum an A wouldn’t result. I refuse to grade poetry on “quality” so it’s a points game for them. This is not a STEM class; it’s soul enrichment, considered the equivalent of underwater basket weaving. I WANT to blanket the class with A’s for writing their hearts out!

        But for all those reasons you enumerate, when I bring up the grade list in a graph, there is that haunting shape. I also am teaching Technical Writing, in which I am an almost opposite kind of teacher–very specific, pushing for evidence, asking for revisions–but my grade graph looks about the same. Sigh. I want better for all of us.

        The difference in the 21st century is my job no longer hangs on that graph one way or another. I really do try to hold the target steady and not switch it up the way professors did to me in grad school as they systematically winnowed women out of the sciences (UWash class of 1972, alright?).

        The starry-eyed Utopian in me would like to see a system without grades; the realist in me very well sees that just won’t work to move the masses through the system. But that’s a different topic…

  5. I guess as a professor at a most-definitely-not-elite state university, I’m desensitized to the conflation of higher education as a whole and Ivy League institutions and their ways. I say this because I caught the generalizations in Oppenheimer’s article and it didn’t really bother me. Actually I appreciate his article because it raises the problem of grades into the public consciousness, and the more of this we can have in the mainstream media then the greater the opportunities for people like you, Bryan, to write good stuff about it.

    If anything, Oppenheimer buried the lede here by focusing hard on grade inflation while the real problem is grades, period, and the grip that traditional grading has not just in the Ivies but everywhere in higher ed and even in K-12 education. He suggested that grade inflation was causing grades to be meaningless but I tend to think it’s the other way around — the traditional system of grading we generally have in the US has led grades to mean less and less through the years, and the relative meaninglessness of traditionally assigned grades makes it permissible to inflate them. I tried to explore that idea in a blog post from this morning:

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  7. Yes, there are major problems with rampant grade inflation and inconsistent grading between professors and/or courses,at least at certain institutions, but here’s an approach I suggested several years ago about the problem of grade inflation in D.C. area law schools.

    Yes, grade inflation is rampant at D.C. area law schools. At my George Washington University Law School, where you reported that one student actually graduated with a “better-than-perfect” grade average, inflation is compelled by a mandatory grading curve imposed on the faculty. However, contrary to the impression created by your article, the grade inflation from the new curve was far from accidental or inadvertent. [Indeed, it resulted from faculty innumeracy.]

    To further boost our students’ chances of getting good jobs, perhaps we should next consider a standard where grades range from a high of A++++ to a low of A, with a mean of A++. This way every graduate would have at least an A average. Indeed, we should not rest until our grading standards guarantee every student a grade point average in the top 10% of the class!

    P.S.: All of this nonsense would end quickly if interviewers required law schools to state each student’s (very easily calculated) z-score for each substantive class. A ranking of 1.5 standard deviations above the mean is much better than a ranking of 0.7 standard deviations above the mean, regardless of what either is labeled under an ever-inflating letter or number grading

    Public Interest Law Professor John Banzhaf

  8. DN says:

    This is made all the worse by arbitrary grade cutoffs. Just had a student today inform me that she’d been accepted to a grad program, but will be dropped if she gets less than a 3.0 in my class (which is almost entirely unrelated to her field). And I’m in a STEM discipline, where it’s still normal for the median to be ~2.7 (B-). Her grad program (as with most in her discipline) just has this arbitrary cutoff without regard to course, instructor, or university.

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