NY Times on Grade Inflation, at UNC and Beyond

We dutifully filled out our teaching evaluations on time, and now we pay the price: a Christmas week spent endlessly refreshing our Academic History page [no, frosh—your report cards won’t be mailed home this year], frustratingly waiting for that one last professor to post our grades. It’s an end-of-semesterly tradition. This year, as you hit refresh on the ePortfolio, it might be worthwhile to consider the implications of that A—how rampant grade inflation factors into Wesleyan, into graduate school admissions, and into academia at large.

In 2004 Michael Bérubé, professor of literature at Penn State, famously memorably suggested one solution to grade inflation: colleges merely devise a system, complex but effective, by which “to account for each course’s degree of difficulty.” Here’s how:

Every professor, and every department, produces an average grade — an average for the professor over her career and an average for the discipline over the decades. And if colleges really wanted to clamp down on grade inflation, they could whisk it away statistically, simply by factoring those averages into each student’s G.P.A. Imagine that G.P.A.’s were calculated on a scale of 10 with the average grade, be it a B-minus or an A-minus, counted as a 5. The B-plus in chemical engineering, where the average grade is, say, C-plus, would be rewarded accordingly and assigned a value of 8; the B-plus in psychology, where the average grade might be just over B-plus, would be graded like an easy dive, adequately executed, and given a 4.7.

But this, Bérubé concedes, would be “confusing as hell.” And that same year, Princeton adopted a simpler but perhaps more controversial policy reducing A’s to no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades. But elsewhere, at countless other top colleges—and yes, Wesleyan—inflation remained a problem.

Earlier this week, the New York Times examined recent efforts by prominent universities to combat grade inflation, focusing particularly on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where:

Mr. Perrin now leads a committee that is working with the registrar on plans to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.

Though somewhat controversial, the tactic—and the guiding notion behind it, that further statistics on transcripts are necessary to supplement and contextualize the raw letter grades—is not new. And yes, Portland’s Reed “holy shit” College remains well ahead of the curve on this, too:

Dartmouth transcripts include median grades, along with the number of courses in which the student exceeded, equaled or came in lower than those medians. Columbia transcripts show the percentage of students in the course who earned an A.

At Reed College, transcripts are accompanied by an explanatory card. Last year’s graduating class had an average G.P.A. of 3.20, it says, and only 10 percent of the class graduated with a G.P.A. of 3.67 or higher.

“We also tell them that in 26 years, only 10 students have graduated with a perfect 4.0 average — and three of them were transfers who didn’t get all those grades at Reed,” said Nora McLaughlin, the registrar at Reed. “We wanted to put the grades at Reed in context to be sure that graduate schools, particularly professional schools where G.P.A. is very much an important factor, understand how capable our students are.”

It’s a compelling and pertinent article, and I’m especially curious for comments on this—whether or not inflation goes equally unchecked at Wes, whether we should adopt a similar policy of providing further statistics on transcripts, or even a solution more radical altogether. Spill.

[New York Times]

21 thoughts on “NY Times on Grade Inflation, at UNC and Beyond

  1. Noa

    Sure, yeah, fix whatever’s broke. Cheers for the most of us who came to Wesleyan mainly to learn. Did anyone else NOT bother to check their grades asap?

  2. anon

    At Wesleyan, the departments with the toughest graders (eg. Chemistry, Molecular Bio, COL, CSS, and Film Studies) are also the departments that are the most competitive, and assign disproportionately more work with a higher standard of performance. Even with a less-than-stellar GPA, anyone who majors in those will produce outstanding work that will look great on any grad school application. The more difficult your department is, the more difficult it will be to get an A. But your level of preparation will be higher for grad school-level work. And their demonstrated writing/research skills will blow grad school admissions staff away.
    Also, even if an inflated transcript helps an undeserving student get into a good grad school, their lack of preparation will bite hir in the ass. Ze will have a hard time keeping up with the unfamiliar pressure and expectations. I’m personally somewhat nervous being someone who isn’t in a “difficult” or “competitive” department. I feel that some of my peers work harder for their A’s than i do sometimes…

  3. anon

    Grade inflation sucks, and undermines the entire point of grading. Anything to the contrary is woefully sh0rt-term thinking. Grad schools honestly need this information to make good decisions, and they are fully aware of which schools are taking a whack at it and which aren’t. At a certain point the schools that DO combat this trend become more credible, and their students (even with lower averages) are preferred to places like Wes where it’s all meaningless bullshit.

  4. Hh

    brah, if i wanted shit like that, then i would have fucking went to swarthmore/reed/etc.

    get your mind right
    get your mind right
    get your mind right
    get your mind right
    get your mind right

    i don’t like the direction wes is going in. i’m glad i’m here at what is only the beginning of THE END.

  5. Card

    pussy shit, zach. why are you feeding into grade-grubbing freshman’s insecurities? let them grow. LET THE CHILDREN GROW.

  6. anon

    Why all this interest in combating grade inflation? You think you work harder than other students and want your GPA to show it? You want somebody to get a lower grade in a course because ze wasn’t dedicated enough to the work? You want your A to really *mean* something? What’s with the valorization of work…and the sado-masochism? Let people play and have fun and make their A’s too. There are more interesting things to do in life than complain about how your PSYCH major friend seems to have it a whole lot easier than you. And if you’re looking for an SBS credit, you-who-seems-so-interested-in-normalization, might I suggest a SOC class over ECON?

    1. Roonil Wazlib

      “You want your A to really *mean* something?”
      Yep.

      “Let people play and have fun and make their A’s too.”
      You’re implying that people won’t be able to actually earn As without grade inflation, or that their social lives would be ruined in the process. You really think that?

  7. anon

    The university, as far as I could tell from the website, is effectively closed unti January 3rd or 4th. I’m pretty sure that means stalking the eportfolios for grades is useless until then (and they aren’t due until the 3rd, even though many profs get them in early). I don’t have any posted yet, and I’ve resigned myself to waiting until next week. Sorry guys.

  8. anon

    I know from a good source that the university determined the average GPA in both SBS and HA is 3.7 and the GPA in NSM is 3.2.

      1. socmajor

        I absolutely believe that. A lot of SBS professors throw around A pluses like they don’t mean anything

    1. Roonil Wazlib

      Extrapolate, though. The more grades get inflated, the less your boosted GPA matters. Then it’s much more of a crapshoot.

      The article gives examples of institutions that not only fight grade inflation but have explanatory measures for whoever needs a transcript. Wesleyan sends incredible proportions of its graduates to grad school; if anyone should be able to stop inflating grades and be trusted to explain the cause, it’s us.

      To the anon who mentioned the average GPAs: is this for current students, or graduates? If it’s the latter, what class year?

      1. anon

        The average GPA was of current students with declared majors, and it was last year so I’m not sure as to if it was behind a semester or not. The university did research in regards to this when they were considering significantly cutting the budget of the graduate program (also known as no longer accepting students).

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