Saturday, 22 January 2005

Grade inflation

Leopold Stotch at OTB is indignant over Princeton’s new policy of capping the number of A’s at 35% of the class. I’m a little new to academia, but I’m not sure the policy is as objectionable as he seems to think.

Administrators are limited in their ability to judge the performance of professors. The problem—and the reason many administrators will default to grade distributions as a measure of grade inflation—is that educational outputs aren’t easily observable, whereas grades are easily observable. To make educational outputs observable, administrators have to overcome a great deal of uncertainty and cost. The attempts include taking student surveys—which, not surprisingly, are strongly correlated (positively) with grades—and observing professors in class. This last item is quite expensive and may just result in the professor being on his best behavior when the auditors are present.

One of the reasons that research universities use publication to make tenure decisions is that publication is easily observable, as is the quality of the publication (an ‘A’ journal, ‘B’ journal, and so forth). In any case, this is a topic that will be with us a while, if not forever.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

The problem (amongst many others) is that this has precious little to do with evaluating anybody. It is simply a bureaucratic intrusion into the classrooms by educrats who probably have never taught in response to a trendy problem.


It doesn’t make sense to me. Let’s say there are two students who take the same class during two different semesters and, for the sake of this example, perform equally well on the assignments and tests. The difference is that one of them is in a class were there are several highly motivated and competitve students and the other with students who are less so. By setting a limit of 35% in the class getting an A, the first student might end up with a B while the second student could get an A for the same level of work.

If the class involves more than listening to lectures – such as class discussions – I would imagine that the first student would end up getting more out of it even though he ended up with a lower grade. Grade inflation may be unfair but I don’t see this as an improvement.



I agree to a point, but it’s hard to advocate reform in public schools—using their same arguments—while denying its usefulness at the university level. The 35% limit may indeed be a bad idea, but we need some way to make grades meaningful.

For schools that aren’t selective, this idea could be turned on its head with an imposed failure rate for the first two years. The idea behind such a system—assuming there is a robust retake policy—is to transform the habits of the students and focus them on learning the material. A normal grading process could be used for upperclassmen.


Ideally, the letter grade would represent some independent judgment of the student’s mastery of the material. Grade inflation seems real enough to me and it seems that, at my school at least, there are a number of students that have no discipline whatsoever and expect to skate through classes with literally no effort. The results are not pretty.

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