Grading on a curve

As price increases, the value of the dollar decreases. And as grades rise, an A becomes closer to average.

Grades are a type of currency, and like every other currency, they undergo inflation, said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former associate professor of hydrology who has been analyzing grading trends across American universities. But grades are rising at a rate that is far outpacing their natural tendency to do so, he added.

Grade inflation began in the 1960s, and no single explanation accounts for why it started then or why it continues now.

Faculty members at Duke may feel pressured by students who come in with high expectations for their grade point averages, Provost Peter Lange explained.

"There is a strong demand from students who have excellent records in the past to get excellent records at Duke, even though they are competing in a different pool of students than they were in high school," he said. "They do a lot of pressuring to assure that their grades are as high as possible.... That doesn't mean we should accede to that pressure, but it creates an environment."

In a 2002 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled "Evaluation and the Academy: Are we Doing the Right Thing?" the authors suggested that one reason grades began to rise during the 1960s was that professors began grading male students more leniently so that they would not receive poor marks and be forced to serve in the Vietnam War.

Rojstaczer also suggested that in the 1960s, graduate and professional schools began looking more closely at quantitative measures of student achievement and placing a greater emphasis on GPA. This shifted the purpose of grades from serving as an internal method of assessment to an external one, and encouraged professors to elevate grades to give advantages to their students.

"I think that students and their parents equate high marks with financial security and future security," said Mary Boatwright, professor of classical studies and co-chair of the Quality Enhancement Plan committee, which is overseeing the University's reaccreditation process. "If they get all A's they will definitely get a job doing what they want to do, so it's a comfort."

During the 1980s, another phenomenon that is associated with grade inflation emerged: consumerism.

Acting like businesses, universities began addressing the interests of student clients, according to the 2002 American Academy of Arts and Sciences report. With tuition dramatically increasing and universities emphasizing choice in curricula, students-and their parents-began expecting and demanding higher grades, according to a Feb. 18 report released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled "Measuring Up: The Problem of Grade Inflation and What Trustees Can Do."

Some students said they do select certain courses based on their perceived "easiness." For instance, junior Pat Amatyakul said that when choosing elective courses, he will often enroll in the easiest class that interests him.

"Normally I have classes in mind first, and then I check to see which are easier and harder," he said. "Sometimes to fulfill a requirement of [Arts, Literature and Performance] or [Civilizations], I'll just pick the easiest one out of those."

Because some students are deterred from taking hard classes, Boatwright said she was somewhat hesitant to share the mean grade in her class, which is a B-plus.

"When I'm saying that, I'm cringing," she said. "Duke students don't want to get below an A."

A win-win situation

A factor related to the consumerism phenomenon has also contributed to grade inflation-student evaluations.

These evaluations have helped determine promotions, merit-pay increases and tenure decisions for faculty, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni report.

At Duke, student evaluations are taken seriously as one measure of performance, George McLendon, dean of Trinity College and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an e-mail. But he said he does not believe students value grades above genuine learning.

"While there are some correlations between grades and 'student satisfaction,' my experience of Duke students is that you respect learning above grade outcome. I have many students who are quite proud (with good reason) of a B earned in one of my classes," McLendon said.

In 1998 through 1999, Valen Johnson, former Duke professor of biostatistics, conducted a study at the University in which he found a strong correlation between high grades and favorable course evaluations. In addition, he found that when students expected to get higher grades in a class than they actually earned, they rated their professors less favorably than they had prior to receiving their final grades.

Similarly, if students received higher grades than they had expected, their evaluations after they had received their final grades were typically more favorable than their previous evaluations.

"It seems not to be in anyone's best interest to receive bad grades," Johnson said. "It's not in the students' best interest to take courses that grade stringently, and it's not in the instructors' best interests to instruct stringently."

Rojstaczer said that when he was a professor at Duke, he would initially average a 4.0 out of five on student evaluations. Once he started grading easier, however, he began averaging a 4.5.

If by grading easier, professors believe they will obtain higher evaluations and in turn higher enrollments-as well as satisfy top academic officials-then they would grade more leniently than they ever had before, Rojstaczer said.

In addition, when professors grade more leniently, they avoid extra paperwork that sometimes accompanies assigning low grades as well as calls from upset parents, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni report stated. Instead of dealing with such concerns, professors could be spending more time on research or other scholarly ambitions, the report suggested.

But some faculty members suggested other reasons as to why they allocate higher grades. In the social sciences, if a substantial portion of students receive a low grade on an assignment, it is a reflection of the teacher, rather than of the student, said Jerry Hough, James B. Duke professor of political science.

"An [essay exam in my class] in a sense tests two people. It tests a student and a teacher," he said. "If 80 percent [of the students] are missing a major point, then that shows either the question is bad or the professor has not clarified something that should be done."

Not an even playing field

Some departments appear to grade more leniently than others, based on a disparity in GPA averages.

In the 1998-1999 academic year, the mean GPAs for the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences were 3.50, 3.34 and 3.10, respectively, according to a column Rojstaczer wrote in The Chronicle in February 2003. In the Pratt School of Engineering, the average GPA is currently around 3.4, Pratt Dean Tom Katsouleas said.

Although Lange did not publicly release data on interdivisional differences in GPA for the past 40 years, he noted that the disparities are greater now than they were 30 years ago.

Generally, students seem to be aware of these differences. Junior Amanda Cummings, for example, said her definition of a good grade varies across departments, based on the difficulty of the subject material and the leniency in teachers' grading.

"I'm a [chemistry] major, so anywhere from a B-plus to an A I'm happy with," she said. "If I'm taking a [sociology] class, I expect to have a better grade than in a [chemistry] class."

In addition to the inherent difficulty of some natural sciences subjects, many students take challenging introductory courses in these subjects early in their college careers before they have fully adjusted, which could account for lower grades in these disciplines, said Tod Laursen, chair of the mechanical engineering and materials science department and former senior associate dean of education for Pratt.

Some said the nature of the coursework in the humanities lends itself to more subjective grading. In her Roman history class, for instance, Boatwright said grades can be difficult to assign, because in a history course students can make solid arguments even if she does not agree with their points.

"I can't say to a student: your understanding of this point is wrong," she said, about grading in humanities courses. "I don't think there are absolutes as there are in the natural sciences."

This objectivity present in the natural sciences may explain why grades in this division have not risen to the extent that they have in either the humanities or social sciences. Professor of Chemistry Stephen Baldwin also noted that the chemistry department has been able to resist mounting student pressure better than others, making it less susceptible to grade inflation.

Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, suggested another reason for the interdivisional GPA differences: Students taking humanities courses may be more interested in their classes than are their counterparts in natural science courses. Premedical students, for example, have a series of course requirements they have to fulfill, all of which they may not necessarily desire to take. On the other hand, students pursuing humanities have greater flexibility in selecting their classes, allowing them to take classes that cater to their interests and play to their strengths.

"Some of the people who gravitate towards the humanities really want to be there, whereas in the other ones they think they are there to get someplace else," Baker said. "So you can imagine [organic chemistry]-people have to take that to get to medical school-and Spanish literature. The students that are self-selecting for Spanish literature really want to be there."


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