Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Grade stagflation

Since before Robert’s post on this topic, I’ve been pondering grades in general, prompted by this post by Will Baude relating his experience at Yale, where he hasn’t yet “taken any classes that attempt to draw actual distinctions among the students.” Indeed, the very purpose of grading (as opposed to marking, as my Canadian colleague refers to it) is to discriminate among students on the basis of their academic performance. Thus all of the participants in the debate are right in their own ways, but I think they (individually, at least) miss the big picture.

Leopold Stotch and Steven Taylor both bemoan the administrative meddling in grade assignment inherent in Princeton’s decision, a sentiment with which (as a fellow political science professor) I must concur, lest we become like those emasculated law profs who not only no longer control their grades but also lack control over their own exam conditions. On the other hand, Nathan Novak thinks it’s a non-issue, due to the widespread use of class rank to compare students from different institutions; Andrew Samwick makes a similar point, although he acknowledges that grade inflation does lead to compression of the grade range. At the extreme end of the scale, the Grouch thinks grades don’t matter at all; I wouldn’t go that far, due to reasons of path dependence, but I can see his point—few people today care what grades I got in high school or as an undergraduate, but I wouldn’t be a professor today if I hadn’t gotten mostly A’s and B’s.

I think what Princeton is trying to do (rightly or wrongly) is address the “compression” problem that Andrew talks about—if 50% of the class are getting A’s, ny meaningful discrimination among those students has been eliminated; in other words, there’s been a loss of information in the process. If the purpose of grading is simply to drop passing students in buckets based on their absolute performance, giving 50% of students A’s might be appropriate; on the other hand, if the purpose of grading is to determine the relative merit of students, putting 50% of them in a single category isn’t very helpful.

The trouble is, we expect grades to do both of these things. The Millsaps college catalog, for example, requires all political science majors and minors to earn C’s in all of their coursework for the major (which leads to its own sort of compression effect, since effectively the minimum passing grade is raised from a 60 to a 73), and students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to participate in various and sundry extracurricular activities—the C and 2.0 represent absolute standards. But we also use grades to evaluate relative achievement, for election to honorary societies such as Phi Beta Kappa and for awarding other honors.

I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to these problems, although perhaps including measures of central tendency and dispersion along with assigned grades (as is at least partially the case at Dartmouth, according to Andrew) might be a good start.


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.

I’m almost embarrassed to suggest that you might be overthinking this, given my tendancies… but I think you’re overthinking this. It seems to me that there are only two systems that make sense: pass/fail, and a graduated system for measuring the relative performance of students. If a university declared that it was going to move entirely to a pass/fail system, that might make some sense. To sort of retreat into a virtual pass/fail system that gives off the appearance of a graduated system because professors do not have the courage to assign genuinely differentiating grades seems ridiculous. Grade, or don’t grade, but if you are going to avoid the conflict that comes with cold, heartless, rigorous grading do not then pass your system off as graduated.

Says I, TigerHawk, Princeton ‘83.


I guess it depends on how you define “achievement” (always a sticky topic).

I got very good grades in school as an adult student because I was trying to make sure I kept my financial options open in case I got the chance to go to grad school. So I tracked my averages very carefully and rarely had below a 97 avg. in any class I took. Other people got A’s with barely a 90 or even below that, due to things the prof did to allow you to raise your grade that were non-academic in nature.

This was no skin off my nose in the large scheme of things, because it took nothing away from me, but if schools are worried about grade inflation (and they ought to be) it’s a factor.

I went to a private HS and we didn’t get A’s or B’s. We were graded thusly:

English: 99 (A)

Calculus 92 (A)

There’s quite a bit more information, if you ask me, in those two grades than in the standard system. Of course, it can still be gamed, but it does make doing so a bit tougher.

My son went to a Great Books college and they don’t even issue letter grades unless asked. Students get detailed written evals from each tutor at the EOS. A secret letter grade is also submitted, but no one ever sees it unless a formal request is made – it is only there in case the student wants to go to grad school that requires letter grades. There are problems with this system as well – my son got annoyed because he said he never got enough negative feedback (although he said other students did). He probably finished in the top 15% of his class, but it’s hard to tell in a non-competitive environment, and he was a nonconformist in a nonconformist environment, whatever that means (probably that he’s some sort of fascist…).


Interesting that Dartmouth is using some descriptive measures to give a little context to the letter grades – they were very worried about grade inflation 25 years ago when I was there. I’m glad to hear it.


Well, Jack, it does make sense to have a relative system… but given that (a) people who have met at least some minimum standard don’t deserve to fail and (b) there are absolute requirements for graduation, honors, and even continued enrollment, you can’t have a purely relative system of grading. I’m not going to flunk (or doom to probation or whatever…) some arbitrary number of kids just to maintain some sort of ill-conceived curve system; you should have to earn an F (just as you should have to earn any other grade), not just fail because you had the misfortune to end up in a class with better-than-average students.

I’ll stop before this becomes a rant about people trying to apply the law of large numbers to small sample sizes. ☺

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