A realist's perspective on grade inflation

Grade inflation exists at Duke, and the stats support it. 

Per the spring 2023 Dean's List, for first-year students in Trinity, the top 15% GPA cutoff was a 4.0; the top 25% cut off a 3.962.

But what about Pratt? Everyone knows Pratt is much harder. Well, for Pratt, the top 15% cutoff was 3.962, and the top 25% was 3.924.

But students’ grades must decline throughout college, right? Well, for Seniors in Trinity, the top 15% cutoff was 3.950, and the top 25% was 3.916. Similarly, for Seniors in Pratt, the top 15% cutoff was 3.930 and the top 25% was 3.899. 

Now, two options may explain this phenomenon: (1) Duke students are smarter and more hardworking than they’ve ever been, or (2) Duke has gone soft. Now, while the former may be true, there is no clear explanation to support this. There is, however, a basis to the claim that Duke has gotten easier — numerous tactics have been implemented to alleviate the stress of test taking. 

During the height of the pandemic, universities introduced major changes to the way students learned and were tested. The most popular reform was a move to asynchronous learning — i.e. recorded lectures and take-home exams. This was particularly convenient, given that many students either were not able to or chose to not attend in-person classes. In fact, universities generally moved away from testing altogether, recognizing the additional stresses students faced outside the classroom. When there were tests, students would be provided “cheat sheets” — an 8 x 11 study guide — only, you were allowed to use it during the test. Of note, “cheat sheets” had been introduced prior to 2020, but their presence was augmented during the pandemic. In addition, it became notably easier to take a course on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) basis, allowing students to maintain their high GPAs by bypassing the existence of a “C,” “B” or maybe even an “A-” on their transcript.

When COVID-19 became largely under control, Duke professors had a question to address: Do we revert back to the style of pre-pandemic learning or incorporate aspects of pandemic learning into the present curriculum?

The latter was selected, and who can blame them? Long has been the discussion of how we can reduce stress among students while maintaining the level of learning, and it appeared a solution had been found. Therefore, S/U grading policy, recorded lectures and take-home exams were all here to stay. When the introductory public policy course was switched to the mandatory Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory system this year, Professor of Political Science Nicolas Carnes argued that, “This is the rare time where you can make a policy change and have only upsides,” because it reduces “student stress without reducing student learning.” In addition, this switch to S/U-only grading also encourages students to be unafraid to explore their academic interests without fear of hurting their GPA. Such was the logic when Econ 101, formerly a weed-out course, switched to S/U-only grading system in 2019. Today, in Econ 101 (having taken the course this past semester), hardly anyone even takes the final exam. 

So, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that the current strategy does reduce student learning and this innovative curriculum change — as it was put forth —  is not at all innovative. It’s just plain easier. Trust me, as a beneficiary of grade inflation, I recognize that my argument is inherently self-sabotaging, but there are two major issues that arise when it becomes significantly easier to do well in school —  the first being that students never learn the value of failing. 

I have a friend who took 300-level Spanish this past semester, which is intended for highly advanced speakers. The only issue is that my friend's Spanish ability is limited to “¡Hola!”, “¿Cómo estás?” and “Adiós.” Nevertheless, with minimal effort I may note, he maintained an “A” average for most of the semester and finished with a “A-.” When he learned of the horrifying news of his “A-," he highly contemplated using one of his four S/U credits. In the end, he chose to stick it out with the “A-," and for that I am proud of him. I mean, isn’t he just the bravest man in the world?

On many occasions, peers of mine have similarly expressed their fear of receiving an “A-.” An “A-!!!” God forbid a student receive an “A-” at a top-10 university in the United States, and yet this is the reality for many at Duke.

As we know, there are no “A's” or “A-’s” in the workplace. You either perform or you don’t, and knowing how to overcome adversity is essential. Thus, while becoming accustomed to failure is not what we should seek, becoming comfortable responding to failure is. In the current atmosphere at Duke, not only does hyper grade inflation diminish the value of true achievement, it also shields us from a reality that does not deliberately accommodate our success. 

The second issue with the state of the curriculum is that students are less likely to learn effectively if the stakes of exams are drastically lowered. 

In spring 2023, I enrolled in “STA 101: Data Analysis and Statistical Inference” to fulfill one of my Quantitative Science (QS) credits. The class began with 120 people, but since attendance was not mandatory and all sessions were recorded, a once large lecture transformed into a seminar-like experience. As students watched lectures from the comfort of their own bed rather than face to face with their professor, one may only assume that learning was diminished. In the case of Stats 101, the course content was difficult — at least for me, who had never coded before and had anticipated an AP Stats-style course rather than one entirely based in “R Studio.” However, the only two exams were take-home, and students were given a week to complete them while having full access to any and all available resources. May I repeat this: 

Any and all available resources. 

Now, some professors will argue that in the “real world,” students possess complete access to the internet and all the content it holds; thus, we should replicate this environment during test taking. However, students will never fully grasp the material as well as they would have if they could only rely on themselves and their knowledge to complete exams. In addition, when incentives to study decrease — such as when cheat sheets are allowed or take-home exams are introduced —  the incentive to properly master the material as we otherwise would have also decreases. As someone who received an “A” in this course and yet in no way feels prepared to take 200 level statistics or — better yet — apply these skills in the workplace, I am a first-hand account of this. 

Yes, of course, I recognize that many and likely most students are self-motivated and driven by the pursuit of knowledge. But let’s just say it how it is. Duke students also care about grades; therefore, when a short cut is offered, it is not irrational to presume that a notable portion of the student body would take advantage. When intense course loads and extracurriculars mean that students are already crunched for time, who can really blame them?

Some may call me a traitor for writing this piece. Honestly, I deserve it. I mean, what type of student demands that school be harder? 

Well, I guess I am.

Alex Berkman is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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