Faculty scrutinize grading trends

With the GPA cut-offs for Latin honors at an all-time high, Yale College faculty are beginning to investigate grading trends.

At the first Yale College faculty meeting of the year last Thursday, Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced the creation of an ad hoc committee on grading policy to be chaired by economics professor Ray Fair. Though the University has kept information about its grade trends private since the 1970s, Miller said faculty have been observing long-term GPA trajectories across the country, and the new committee will examine Yale’s relation to these trends and the function of grades as a “pedagogical tool.” Miller said she would not speculate on the prevalence of grade inflation ­— a rise in the average grade assigned to comparable levels of academic achievement — at the University before the committee reports its findings, but six professors interviewed said they think grade inflation has contributed to climbing GPAs.

“I don’t know any faculty members who think they have lowered their standards,” English professor David Kastan said. “But I also don’t know anyone who doesn’t think there is grade inflation.”

The minimum GPA required for Yale students to graduate with Latin honors — given to no more than 30 percent of the graduating class — has steadily increased over the past decade. Members of the class of 2012 needed a 3.80 GPA to graduate cum laude, a 3.89 to graduate magna cum laude and a 3.95 to graduate summa cum laude, compared to 3.72, 3.82 and 3.91, respectively, for the class of 2006.

Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor at Duke University who has researched grade inflation, said GPAs at colleges nationwide have been on the rise since the 1980s. Based on Yale’s honors cutoff levels and historical grade breakdowns, Rojstaczer estimated that the average GPA in the University is probably around an A-, a one-point increase from the B- average he estimates Yale had 50 years ago. Though Rojstaczer attributes this estimated increase to a number of factors, including heightened student expectations and a “modest” growth in the caliber of students, he said grade inflation is key to understanding the trend.

David Bromwich ’73 GRD ’77, an English professor, said grade inflation is not the only explanation for rising GPAs, as students in advanced courses within their majors or preferred areas of study often work harder and produce “first-rate work.” Still, Bromwich did not discount the influence of grade inflation, adding that many students are unsatisfied with grades other than A’s, which he said can put pressure on professors to give students better grades.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who inferred from student evaluations that he might be a harsher grader than some of his colleagues, said he has never felt pressured by his colleagues or the administration to become any more lenient. At least a quarter of the 40 students who evaluated Kagan’s “Introduction to Ethics” course last fall recommended future students take the course Credit/D/Fail.

“People at Yale are so smart, so talented — we’re not doing you any favor if we don’t continue to push you and really hope you become the best you can be,” Kagan said. “To do that, we need to really have a full range of grades.”

Rojstaczer, the former Duke professor who has studied grade inflation, said he thinks following grading models implemented at universities like Princeton is the best method of minimizing grade inflation. Since 2004, no more than Thirty-five percent of students may achieve grades of A+, A or A- in undergraduate courses at Princeton, according to the university’s website.

But Kastan said Princeton’s method is not perfect. While the policy may allow for sharper distinctions between “good” and “excellent” work, it might prevent students from earning the grades they deserve because professors are only able to award a certain number of top grades, Kastan said.

Miller said members of the ad hoc committee are currently combing through research pertaining to national grading trends and the psychology of grades.

“All these things prompt a conversation, but they don’t give much indication which direction this conversation will take,” Miller said.

The ad hoc committee on grading policy plans to present its findings at the February Yale College faculty meeting.

Comments

  • ldffly

    Grade inflation taking off in the 80s? Try the 60s when keeping undergrads from being exposed to the draft motivated easier grading. Then you can tack on the rising cultural denigration of standards in general and you get the situation we’re in now. As things stand, you meet a student with a BA, you have no idea what was demanded of him. It’s hard to imagine Yale getting that loose, but if the College is headed in that direction, it needs to be stopped.

    I don’t know Prof. Kagan, but I’m glad to hear of his attitude. Philosophy should not be easy. Nothing easy about it. There should be demand for rigorous argument along with piles of reading and writing. Of course, who will respect you for going through all that when you’re done! LOL

  • The Anti-Yale

    I’ve forgotten most of what was stuffed into my head in 17 years of college. But I know where to go to find it. To quote my post yesterday:

    The point of learning is not to accumulate stuff from class in your head, but to raise the ship a little bit in the Panama Canal of your mind, until you emerge suddenly in the Pacific, a 1000 feet higher.

    PK

    MDIV’80MAMED

  • yale_senior

    I think one of my professors put it best when he said “if Yale doesn’t want everyone to be getting so many A’s, it should admit worse students.” Why is anyone surprised that as every year goes by and another percentage point or two is knocked off the admissions rate that, in turn, students don’t perform better?

    I think that other point is that in a look of humanities classes, especially seminars, where the whole class is based around one large 20-page paper at the end, it is pretty rough to just dole out a C, when likely the student worked for entire days if not weeks putting the paper together (I also think that the students who brag about cranking out 20-page papers in a single night, are usually either lying, or helping out the curve for the rest of us). If there is a policy to control grade inflation, it should also come with a policy to make sure that professors are describing clear assessment standards and sticking to them.

    • BubbaJoe123

      Grades are a relative metric. Personally, I’d have preferred a firm curve for those who met the course requirements. In other words, assign any necessary F’s, and then take the rest of the students, force rank them, top 25% get A’s, next 25% get B’s, next 25% get C’s, etc.

      If you do this across the university, then there’s no issue of non-standardized grading policy between disciplines, and it’s transparent.

    • jamesdakrn

      > “(I also think that the students who brag about cranking out 20-page papers in a single night, are usually either lying, or helping out the curve for the rest of us)”

      You’re Welcome

  • The Anti-Yale

    “I think one of my professors put it best when he said ‘if Yale doesn’t want everyone to be getting so many A’s, it should admit worse students.'”

    Bravo!

    And professors should refuse to allow anyone to tamper with their grading policies. This busybody intrusion into professorial prerogatives is part of the national obsession with standardizing the unstandardizable, and it is of the worst order.

    What next?

    Let’s grade the human soul, and make sure it conforms to a normative “curve”.

    UGH. UGH. UGH.

    PK

    MDIV’80MAMED

  • penny_lane

    Could grades be compared to other metrics, such as the average SAT scores of entering classes, or the GRE scores of recent graduates? I’d be curious to see how “modest” the increase in student ability really is.

    Plus, as it’s become harder and harder to secure jobs and get into graduate school, I’d wager students might be working harder to boot.

  • kallisti

    The fundamental problem with grades is that different people take them to be indicative of two entirely different things – (1) an evaluation of your performance relative to expectations, and (2) an evaluation of your performance relative to your potential. The former incentivizes grade inflation, because the higher you perform relative to expectations the greater the job opportunities you will gain. The latter in contrast incentivizes grade deflation, because as Kagan notes a full grade range is needed to indicate where a student lies relative to his or her own potential. This tension between the purpose of grades, both as a tool to quantify your abilities and as a tool to encourage greater effort to reach new heights, causes significant confusion in interpreting what a grade actually means and what grades students actually deserve.

    The solution to this problem seems to me obvious – remove the confusion by having two different scales. The first scale would be a simple gauge of the student’s performance relative to expectations. A student meeting expectations should receive an A, with the grade dropping downward the farther from meeting expectations the student falls. The second scale would be a gauge of the student’s performance relative to what the professor believes to be the student’s level of potential, and could have values like BP and AP for below and above potential, respectively. This scale could be expanded to accomodate other points on the spectrum, but its basic purpose is only for the student’s self-growth.

    The first objection to this system one might raise is that it fails to distinguish the students who shine far beyond the A mark from those who just barely make the cut. But I would argue that it isn’t the job of the professor to pit students against each other by reducing the grade of a student who truly made the cut because another student exceeded it. If you want to recognize a student who exceeded expectations, do so by writing glowing comments or awarding him for academic excellence. But penalizing people who deserve A’s because of other students who are far beyond the level of the class isn’t ethical.

    The second objection would be that if students could be sure to get an A just by meeting expectations the desire for self-improvement wouldn’t be enough to ensure that they push their limits. Call me naive, but I thought the point of Yale’s whole rigorous admissions process was to weed out the students who are not self-motivated and who authentically aspire to expand their abilities? (Why else would so many students subject themselves to the torture of Directed Studies?) I also think that the approach of motivating students by making making A’s nearly impossible to achieve is unhealthy and stress-inducing – students should be prompted to push their limits by academic zeal and a lust for learning, not anxiety about a lower GPA and the doors it might close.

    I think I’ve made my case. Have at me :)

    • HighStreet2010

      So the best possible grade would be an A for expectations and BP for below potential, thus showing that even without trying you can do all the work for the class. An AP would be equivalent to saying that the professor thinks you were dumb, but somehow you pulled it off. Trying hard an getting a B would really suck, since a B & AP score would mean that you really deserve less – would it be better to get a B- and BP, then hope to show improvement later?

      You’re also opening an entire can of worms because now professors have to pass judgement on someone’s ‘potential’, which is an a) entirely nebulous term b) non-objective and c) easily biased. Let’s stick to grading the actual work rather ‘what someone could have done’ or ‘how hard I think he worked to do what he did’. That’s hard enough as it is.

    • joematcha

      This is exactly what my HS did; we had our grades and also effort grades on a 5 point scale. People with average grades (B- or higher in all classes, I think) but high effort grades (all 4s and 5s) had the same privileges as those on honor roll.

      While it wasn’t a perfect system since it’s a bit ridiculous to tell someone in an AP class that though they have an A they aren’t working hard enough (should I be writing short answers next to the bubbles I’m filling in on multiple choice tests?) and it also provides another avenue for people to be smug tools (I have an A and my teacher wanted to give me a 1 effort grade because I don’t ever try!), I do think it had its value since grades clearly were about meeting expectations and there was no question about that.

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  • kallisti

    I think I wasn’t clear about something – the AP/BP grade (or wtvr other grade on that scale you get) is only for you – in other words, it isn’t public information. It never shows up on a transcript. The only incentive of that grade would be for you to want to push yourself to grow and learn. So an A + BP is the same as an A + AP in the sense that as far as your employer is concerned he just sees an A.

    Thus you’re right when you say that grading potential is entirely nebulous, non-objective, and easily biased, but that’s why it’s not a grade for the public to see – it is a subjective interpretation of the professor based on your performance. If the class is too large to scale this (e.g. classes in SLB Auditorium) then you would only receive a letter grade and not a “potential grade.” But if the professor / grader knows you personally and has read your work before, then they can have a better sense of how your current work stacks up against your previous work and can give u insights into your potential.

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