Grade inflation can’t be fixed by the numbers

In the newest development in the national discourse on college grade inflation, Princeton University proposed a new policy to limit the number of “A” grades (A+, A, A-) awarded. Under the new system, which will be implemented if the proposal is approved by the faculty, each department can give out no more than 35 percent of any type of A to students in its courses.

We hope the University never institutes a similar system here. To do so would be to standardize something that is inherently subjective and would create more problems than it would solve. At the same time, while the system itself may not warrant restructuring, perhaps our attitudes could use some readjustment. Princeton’s new reforms are the latest in a series of reforms undertaken with the hope of quelling grade inflation. Stanford’s academic review in 1994 examined grade inflation and Harvard has reformed its grading scale to minimize inflation and changed its honors criteria to limit the number of students who can graduate with honors.

At Yale, however, no such moves toward institutional change have been made. Whereas Princeton’s proposal was inspired, in part, by the finding that nearly 48 percent of all grades given at the school are some form of an A, Yale does not even release grade distributions, a decision with which we agree. Releasing grade distributions, and then trying to tamper with them, could even spur inflation — by encouraging departments with a lower percentage of A’s to hand out more of them in order to attract students, for instance — and could create a new set of academic problems.

Princeton’s proposed reforms are poised to be just as complicating. Although on paper it may create departmental equity, such standardized distributions of grades should not be so readily accepted as a positive. It seems Princeton’s new system will penalize departments that have lots of small seminars, in which a greater percentage of students may be doing truly A-quality work than in a large lecture class. Additionally, it could create faculty tensions. Which professors will be entitled to hand out A’s to more than 35 percent of the class? Will the more senior professors get to give the grades they want, while those lower on the ladder are forced to assign whatever grades are left? Even Princeton’s potentially standardized grade distribution doesn’t seem to make it any more likely that students will be getting the grades they actually deserve.

By itself, the fact that average college grades have increased from several decades ago is not itself sufficient proof of grade inflation, as Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead correctly notes. Because ascertaining the extent of grade inflation is so difficult, and because no institutional solution yet seems likely to actually make matters better, we feel Yale is correct in not meddling with grades.

But that does not mean we shouldn’t all be conscious of inflation. We hope professors regulate themselves and really consider giving out the full spectrum of grades. Most importantly, though, we wish we could change the prevalent attitude that a ‘C’ is considered failure. Professors should not be afraid to give C’s, or grades even lower, and students shouldn’t be afraid to get them. Few students seem to even consider the possibility that a low grade might be deserved — ours certainly have been. Instead, students here treat a bad grade as some sort of moral injustice, often making the offensive argument that any work at Yale would be ‘A’ work at another school. Students do not, contrary to what many seem to believe, have an inherent right to good grades just by virtue of being here.

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