Too Many Rhinestones

Colleges and universities routinely produce lots of things, including evidence about their students’ accomplishments and credentials.  Students’ athletic achievements, for example, are reported with fanfare and detail.  The measuring rods for athletic achievements don’t change over time– yards per rushing attempt in football means the same thing today as in previous years.

But what if the number of inches per yard on football fields were falling at an unknown rate?  That is, suppose that yards were getting “shorter.” Yards per rushing attempt would be rising, but the statistic would have diminished information value, particularly for making comparisons across time.

Fortunately, a yard is still a yard in college football, but the same cannot be said for course grades as a measure of academic achievement.  An “A” today doesn’t mean as much as it did in previous years.  Likewise, A’s at college X and college Y are losing comparability.  The same holds for A’s in, say, economics compared to, say, English composition.  Decades of college and university grade inflation, proceeding at varying rates across schools and disciplines, have stripped course grades of much of their evaluative content.

Grade-based honor rolls, deans’ lists, graduation honors, and class ranks are also becoming ho-hum awards.  At our university (Ball State University [BSU] in Muncie, Indiana) the grade-point measures for cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude have been bumped up from 3.4, 3.6, and 3.8, to 3.6, 3.8 and 3.9, respectively. Too many rhinestones are masquerading as diamonds.

Those and other experiences prompted us to look at grades in 26 “threshold” (introductory) courses at BSU. The table below offers evidence about grades in these courses for autumn semesters in 1990 and 2009.  Column 1 lists the courses by their university catalogue titles.  Column 2 indicates the number of students receiving A, B, C, D or F grades in each semester (in 2009 plus/minus grades were permitted).  Columns 3 and 4 show percentages of course enrollment receiving “A’s” and “B’s” in the two semesters.  Columns 5 and 6 show the grade point averages (GPA) for the two semesters.   (Given that the initial year is 1990, previous decades of grade inflation are already built into the numbers.)

Incidentally, to say that our university was forthcoming in providing this information would be a serious overstatement.  Our requests were alternately ignored and stonewalled, notwithstanding the fact that scores of people on campus have such access and publicize grade point averages for various groups of students.  Our request was not complicated by student privacy issues; we did not request student-specific grades, just overall course grades.  We finally obtained the grades via the Indiana Access to Public Records Act.

The immediate thing that stands out is that grades rose substantially between 1990 and 2009. Of the 26 courses, the percentage of A’s and B’s rose in 24.  Grade point averages rose in 23 courses.

Just to cite one example from the table, in 1990, 52 percent of the students enrolled in Principles of Marketing received grades of A or B; by 2009, 80 percent received A’s or B’s.

Alas, even our own department—economics—succumbed to inflation.

Our administrators never mention grade inflation publicly, but they do feign at dealing with it by convening faculty meetings directed at what is called “Assurance of Learning (AOL).”  AOL is a national effort, mainly by business schools, directed at defining inputs into the college classroom.

Administrators call our AOL meetings “brainstorming” sessions. To this end, faculty “brainstorm” about undergraduate business knowledge—that’s right, we “brainstorm” about knowledge.  We also “brainstorm” business ethics, separately for undergraduates and MBA students. We wonder whether different ethical standards for undergraduates and graduates exist.   Perhaps the most cosmic brainstorming sessions have been MBA sessions on “leadership management,” “change management,” and “decision making.”

We do not, however, brainstorm about grading standards and academic excellence. After all, the academic DNA of the people presiding over AOL is the same DNA that has afflicted decades of administrators who have neglected their responsibilities as custodians of their college and university grade vaults.

For decades, these same people have hidden behind the “academic freedom” mantra and allowed faculty to debase standards on the grounds that they must be free to act as they wish as teachers.  In our college, faculty grade distributions do not figure in the assessment of a person’s teaching when he/she is being evaluated for promotion and tenure.  We think that is amazing and have no reason to believe this omission is unique to our college.

Current federal and state legislative efforts to offer colleges and universities monetary incentives for graduating students in 4 years will only exacerbate grade inflation.  Professors don’t have to be rocket scientists to figure out that low grades can delay student graduation, thereby undermining state funding and faculty salaries.  The legislative “fix” will be like putting grade inflation on steroids.

The time-honored measuring rod for students’ academic accomplishments and credentials are still valuable.  Unfortunately, those in charge of overseeing those measuring rods are incapable of administering the standards.  So when the last strains of Pomp and Circumstance fade at graduation, we’ll have a better idea about how students performed as athletes than as students. As the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Chester Finn writes, “Once everyone’s wearing rhinestones, you might not notice someone wearing diamonds.”