Common wisdom holds that there is always room for improvement.
But on the four-point grading scale, perfection is within reach and becoming ever more attainable.
Because grade inflation is constrained by an upper boundary of 4.0, the consequence is grade compression, in which the evaluation of performance becomes more difficult to make, said Steve Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. This makes it harder to differentiate students from one another based on their academic record, he said.
"If grades mean anything, then there should be differences that are resolvable," Nowicki added.
By compressing grades, grade inflation may have consequences for the ways in which employers and graduate and professional schools judge applicants.
Tod Laursen, chair of the mechanical engineering and materials science department and former senior associate dean of education for the Pratt School of Engineering, said he finds grade inflation problematic when he is evaluating graduate school applications. At an institution like Duke, where most students have relatively high grade point averages, it becomes harder to determine what students really know from their transcripts, he said.
Although William Hoye, associate dean for admissions and financial aid at the School of Law, said grade inflation does not complicate the evaluation process for law schools because they have data on how students perform in comparison to their classmates, he noted that high GPAs may be misleading to students.
Similarly, some students said grade inflation may give students an inaccurate portrayal of their academic standing.
"It looks great to see the chart and say, wow, Duke's GPA is pretty high," senior Eric Overton said. "But at the same time students might get a false sense of security or misrepresentation."
Rising grades may also cause academic institutions and job recruiters to place more of an emphasis on standardized test scores and informal evaluations than on GPA, according to a 2002 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Some said such a shift may not be negative. Without such a strong emphasis on GPA, admissions officials and employers can better evaluate the individual, said Dr. Nancy Major, associate professor of radiology and evolutionary anthropology, who sits on an admissions committee for the School of Medicine.
Regardless of the numerical GPA, administrators look at a student's overall academic record to make an assessment, said Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.
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"On average it all comes out," Baker said. "If anything, if you look at a transcript, you will see where real strengths are. If there's A's across the board, then that person is pretty strong."
Back in 2003, the administration conducted a study on grade inflation at Duke, but has not reexamined the data since then, Provost Peter Lange said. He added that he would want to assess the matter further before implementing a policy change.
"We have not looked at this matter in six years," Lange said. "Given the other things going on, we are not doing a major study of it."
One peer institution, however, has sought to reverse the grading trend. In 2004, Princeton University decided to limit the percentage of A's each department could allocate to 35 percent, without enforcing quotas for individual courses. Despite concerns about students' career paths, students' employment and graduate school placements had actually improved in the years after the proposal was implemented, according to a March 2007 USA Today article entitled "Princeton leads in Grade Deflation."
George McLendon, dean of Trinity College and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who previously taught at Princeton, said he thinks Princeton's "arbitrary" limit is problematic, especially in smaller classes where there can be significant fluctuations year by year.
"We do outline for faculty the value of an honest distribution that reflects the distribution of effort and talent in a course," McLendon wrote in an e-mail. "I am not a fan of micromanaging grading-grading can only be done well by the professor closest to the class members and their work."
Indeed, some faculty members said they did not see setting restrictions on grading to be a rational solution.
"By setting certain grades or grade distributions, you are starting at the end result," said Lori Leachman, professor of the practice of economics. "Faculty members will work backward from that and create syllabi that will achieve it. I think if we want to ensure intellectual integrity then we can do that by talking about course content and course assignments, not about final grades. Then we start with what really matters."
Aside from placing a cap on the number of A's that departments can distribute, several measures to reduce grade inflation overall as well as the interdepartmental disparities in grading have been devised, though they have not necessarily been successful.
In 1997, Valen Johnson-then a Duke professor of biostatistics-proposed that the University adopt a statistical adjustment scheme called the "achievement index," which corrects for differences in grading policies across departments. The AI recalculates students' GPAs by more heavily weighting "difficult" classes or by renormalizing grades so that they reflect how students perform in comparison to other students across disciplines, Johnson said. The Arts and Sciences Council rejected Johnson's proposal, with 14 of the 61 members voting for and 19 members voting against.
Even though the mean GPA would not have changed, Johnson said every faculty member from a department that graded more stringently voted in favor of the proposal, while every faculty member from a department that graded more leniently voted against it. The sole exception was the statistics department, which voted for the proposal despite having grades that were higher than average.
Instead of renorming grades on an A-F scale, Nowicki said the University could adopt a system that is similar to the British model, in which students can fail, pass, pass with honors or pass with high honors for all courses.
"If you get out of Cambridge [University] and you've passed, you've obviously done something right," he said.
Nowicki also suggested overhauling the grading system altogether, replacing grades with narratives about students' performances. He acknowledged, however, that such a method would not be feasible in the short-term.
Others have suggested placing additional information on students' transcripts, such as the size, median grade and percentage of grades at or above A- in each class, to help employers and graduate and professional schools better distinguish among applicants.
"It would be reasonable to report what percentage of grades are an A, B or C on a student's transcript," said Alvin Crumbliss, dean of the natural sciences and professor of chemistry. "That helps calibrate what the B means. If B means average or above average, then that would help attach significance to the letter grades. But this is Duke, right, and everybody is above average."
Worth the change?
Students and faculty alike said grade inflation is problematic because it causes students to become complacent in their courses. If mediocrity and excellence are rewarded equally, senior Candace Murphy said students will not be motivated to work to their fullest potential.
"I feel like students will perform to what is expected of them by their professors," Murphy said. "They will do what it takes to get an A. And if less is expected of them, they will do less."
Although many students and faculty said they see a need for change, they worry about the outcome if one were implemented. If Duke began a solitary effort to curb rising grades, Duke students would be at a disadvantage when competing for jobs and admission into graduate and professional schools when compared to students from other institutions.
Indeed, although sophomore Vivek Doshi believes grade inflation is something that should be amended, he said he does not see a viable solution for the problem unless grades lose all of their value or the entire education system is reformed from its roots.
Some administrators echoed this sentiment.
"To be candid, I think it's going to be a difficult thing to reverse," Laursen said. "It's failed a little bit too far to be able to do anything substantial about it."
Grade inflation may be a difficult issue to address, but not impossible to resolve, Johnson said. The solution would have to come from the University administration, he added.
"It's not really for the faculty to assign," Johnson said. "University administrators should try to implement some type of standard or grade. Of course most University administrators don't want to tackle this problem either, because then they are going to have angry students and faculty."
Still, some administrators said that though the consequences of severe grade inflation could threaten the integrity of higher education, Duke's grades have not risen to the point where it is necessary to change the system.
"The priority is that the grading process have rigor and fairness," Pratt Dean Tom Katsouleas said. "If numbers got too high, there would be no way to maintain fairness.... But I don't think we are at that stage."