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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Inflation Put the Hindenberg in the Air

Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy tracked grades at numerous colleges from 1903 to 2006.The plot is here:

Each gray dot is the average grade awarded at one university for one year. (The number of universities included in the analysis has also been increasing.) By 1970 or so, as TOF reads the chart, the lowest university average was higher than the highest such average in the 1950s. This at a time when admissions were increasing for all classes of the population.  One possibility is that college students in the mid-late 1960s got suddenly smarter than their older brothers and sisters. As a college students from the mid-late 1960s, TOF finds this an attractive possibility; but it fails to account for the steady state 1975-85 and the second, slower rise beginning after 1985.

The study authors have this to say:
The rise in grades in the 1960s correlates with the social upheavals of the Vietnam War. It was followed by a decade period of static to falling grades. The cause of the renewal of grade inflation, which began in the 1980s and has yet to end, is subject to debate, but it is difficult to ascribe this rise in grades to increases in student achievement. Students’ entrance test scores have not increased (College Board, 2007), students are increasingly disengaged from their studies (Saenz et al., 2007), and the literacy of graduates has declined (Kutner et al., 2006). A likely influence is the emergence of the now common practice of requiring student-based evaluations of college teachers. Whatever the cause, colleges and universities are on average grading easier than ever before


  1. rhetor with a boomstickDecember 29, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    Student-based evaluations of teaching are a double whammy, because of the sharp rise in most colleges' use of adjunct faculty. A *majority* of undergrad classes in the U.S. are now taught by non-tenured faculty, mostly adjuncts. Adjunct faculty are often put in intro. or required classes (which used to be 'flunk-out classes') & are the most vulnerable to bad student evaluations--and often the students know that if a teacher doesn't have her own office, complaining to the dean goes a long way.

    Another factor is that many less-than-selective colleges no longer allow their faculty to fail a student for plagiarism, which was normal even 20 yrs. ago. Upper level students included!

    And there's the lawsuits...some of those "helicopter parents" you hear about are quite willing to threaten a teacher, and a school, with a lawsuit over a grade & again, a less-than-selective school's administration sometimes finds it's much easier to intimidate an adjunct or someone not yet tenured than locate the pile of crap formerly known as their integrity. Tenured folks can also be bullied in various ways, such as being forced to take remedial "professional development" from a specialist in educational theory, usually less educated and less experienced than the prof.

    And yes, I've seen all these scenarios in real time.

    Plagiarism is a real problem, not only because of the Internet's resources, but its culture--many kids who've grown up with mash-ups and other highly derivative entertainments don't understand the ethical demand to attribute others' work.

  2. It's as if the colleges don't really care if the students learn anything. Next thing you know, they'll be dumbing down or dropping courses like History or Philosophy or Logic or replacing them with, who knows, studies of some sort, I suppose. We'll have to keep our eyes out to see if it comes to pass that college graduates can't reason, have accepted convenient caricatures of history, and fall for all the usual logical errors.

    If that were to happen, we'd be in serious trouble.

  3. Any idea why grade inflation seems so much higher at private schools than public schools?

    1. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to spend $10,000 - er, I mean, $25,000 ... um, sorry, I mean $50,000 - every year for my beautiful brilliant child to be given B's! I paid for a 3.989 GPA!

    2. The pattern-slope is the same for all. The private universities, like Harvard or Yale may actually be cherry-picking the better students, whereas Slippery Rock State University (nee State Teachers College) may not harvest the cream of the crop.

      Then, too, money can buy a degree even if it can't buy an education.

  4. Private schools tend to have looser grade policies, in my experience, and since grading is rarely a part of the job that teachers like, it's not unsurprising that they take the opportunity to make it easier for themselves. And, as Robert notes, there's always a cut-off point, different for each school, where, if you give a student below a certain grade you are very likely to have to deal with a phone call from a parent, and at some private schools this will be remarkably high. (But that is always connected with TOF's suggestion that these are not uncommonly students who have always made higher grades, for whatever reason.)This is usually less of a problem with public schools, but even there it does reach a point at which you are exhausted from having to explain to distraught students that 'I feel like I worked very hard' is not a reason for giving them an A or even a B.

    My own pet theory about the shift is that what has primarily happened is that we're discovering that there was never any common grading philosophy anyway -- there never really was a way to calibrate the scales rigorously, and never any consensus about how to interpret them -- which was not a problem originally, because you could sort of 'eyeball' it to make sure they looked fair, or at least not wildly off. However, as there were more and more students, and more and more professors, and more and more divergence among administrations, this simply ceased to be a possibility.

  5. There may be grade inflation but in science we and technology we have seen major progress, robots labs on Mars, landing on Titan, magic smartphones, genetics, metamaterials, etc.
    Maybe the inflation only applies in certain subjects but I won't say which I think.

    1. Oh, boy. That's a whole other can of worms.

    2. Well, at the very least, areas of study tend to fall into two general groups: those that rely to some extent on conformity to the external world, such as chemistry and engineering and even business, and those that don't, such as soft 'sciences', fill-in-the-blank studies, and humanities as currently taught. If the question 'is it true?' doesn't make the prof either laugh or have an apoplectic episode, it's at least possible the grading is subject to some constraints.

      People who invent and sell things answer to a higher standard than mere grading. Do you hire the programmer who got good grades, or who writes good code?