News: CJ Exclusives

Prof Finds Grade Inflation at Duke, UNC

Various factors explain failure to enforce standards

DURHAM — A Duke University professor of environmental science has reinvigorated the national debate over grade inflation. Professor Stuart Rojstaczer announced a web site, GradeInflation.com, wherein he has compiled data on more than 50 colleges and universities nationwide showing how average grade-point-averages at them over time have risen. Rojstaczer also announced his findings in a Jan. 28 Washington Post column.

With some data going back to the 1960s, Rojstaczer found an average rise in GPAs to be about 0.15 per decade (on a 4.0 scale). Individual schools differ, of course, but at all the ones for which he has data, Rojstaczer found a GPA increase over time.

There were two North Carolina schools in Rojstaczer’s set, Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He found average GPAs increased by 0.54 (from 2.79 to 3.33) at Duke between 1969 and 1999. He found a similar increase at UNC-CH from 1967 to 1998 — 0.55 (from 2.39 to 2.94).

Admitting that “The last time I gave a C was more than two years ago,” Rojstaczer said he “came to realize that my grading had become anachronistic” because the C grade, which used to be respectable, “is now the equivalent of the mark of Cain on a college transcript.”

His data suggest he’s by far not the only one. As Rojstaczer explained, his data show that “A’s are common as dirt in universities nowadays.” He also suggested why that is the case: “it’s almost impossible for a professor to grade honestly.” Not only are “poor” grades seen as a sign of poor instruction, they also upsets parents and students, the “consumers of an educational product for which they pay dearly.” Thus professors are “expected to cater to their desires not just to be educated well but to receive a positive reward for their enrollment.”

Playing the game

Rojstaczer’s confessional approach is reminiscent of the 1996 book Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America (Open Court), written by a journalist who became a tenured professor, writing under the pseudonym “Peter Sacks.”

In the book Sacks exposed the lengths to which he stooped in order to obtain tenure. Having been warned by university administrators to boost his student evaluations (which were complaining he “expected far too much” and was a “tough grader”), Sacks was told by one fellow professor to “Play the game” and learned “the first unsavory truth of survival as a professor: Please the slackers.” His response was what he called his “Sandbox Experiment”: “I’ll call the class the Sandbox. And we’ll play all kinds of games and just have fun, and I’ll give all my students good grades, and everyone will be happy.”

Sacks did receive tenure, and in his book he admits he “might have been wrong to act in the way the system was compelling me to act.” Nevertheless, he wrote, “now, I am confessing, and hoping that the virtue of my act lies in exposing the corruption that has enveloped much of higher education.”

One of the more outspoken critics of grade inflation has been Harvard University professor of government Harvey C. Mansfield. In 2001 Mansfield publicly shamed Harvard by giving, as he announced in The Chronicle of Higher Education of April 6 of that year, two grades to each student, public grades that “conform with Harvard’s inflated distribution, in which one-fourth of all grades given to undergraduates are now A’s, and another fourth are A-’s,” and private grades that “give students a realistic, useful assessment of how well they did and where they stand in relation to others.”

Mansfield devised his system to “show my contempt for the present system, yet not punish students who take my course. My intent was to get attention and to provoke some new thinking.” An October 2001 Boston Globe report that found 91 percent of the Spring 2001 graduates from Harvard graduated with honors. By year’s end Harvard required faculty to justify their individual grading approaches.

Meanwhile, Temple University has been sued by a tenured professor who had been fired on the ground of incompetence who said he was dismissed because he refused to give in to Temple’s pressure on him to inflate grades and “dummy down” course work. Math Professor Martin Eisen, who had worked at Temple for 35 years, was put on paid leave in 1999 while the university investigated students’ complaints over his grading. Three faculty committees had examined the Eisen case, and the president of the Faculty Senate, economics Professor Michael Goetz, told the Associated Press that “great care” had been taken. Nevertheless, he admitted grade inflation existed at Temple — just no more than at “any other university in the United States.”

In recent years, the grading debate hit both UNC-CH and Duke. A report published Feb. 16, 1998, in The Daily Tar Heel (“A is for ‘average’,” by Mary Dalrymple), found that “three-quarters of all grades given in undergraduate classes are A’s or B’s… 38 percent of all grades given were A’s, 37 percent were B’s, and only 17 percent were C’s.” In 1981, however, “about 25 percent of grades in such classes were A’s and 27 percent were C’s.” Two years later, a UNC-CH faculty report found 77 percent of undergraduate grades were A’s and B’s.

In 1997 Duke nearly changed how it calculates GPAs after a study found the mean GPA there had risen from 2.7 in 1969 to 3.3 in 1996. Statistics Professor Valen Johnson devised an “achievement index” that would have used an algorithm to compute GPAs according to the difficulty level of their courses, crediting students for doing well in difficult classes and also for taking classes with other students who had performed well in difficult classes.

The proposal failed in the Arts and Sciences Council by a 19-14 vote. Johnson told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the vote had gone according to discipline, with most professors in the so-called hard sciences voting in favor, while most professors in the humanities and social sciences voting against it.
Now a professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Johnson is the author of the forthcoming book College Grading: A National Crisis in Undergraduate Education (Springer-Verlag).

Sanders is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.