Offsetting Grade Inflation

In 2008, a committee of faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill was astounded to discover that the average grade of a Carolina student was 3.213—well over a B average. Led by Andrew Perrin, a professor of sociology, the school’s Educational Policy Committee began looking at how other universities were dealing with grade inflation and decided that “contextual grading” was the best way. Last fall the university began to use it.

Contextual grading is the policy of reporting not just what the individual student earned in a course, but also what the class average was, thereby providing the “context” for the grade. Getting an A in a class where almost everyone gets an A is not so much of an accomplishment as getting an A when most of the other students earned Bs and Cs.

Grade inflation won’t necessarily end with contextual grading, but its effects are reduced. Anyone who wants to look deeply into a student’s GPA can find out if it was built up by taking lots of easy courses where As are common, or by taking challenging courses where grades still represent different levels of achievement.

Some history will help explain how we have gotten into this problem.

Grade inflation has been a feature of American universities since the 1980s, says Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor of geology, environmental science and engineering. He is recognized as a leading expert on grade inflation and has developed a grading database of about 230 schools.

In the 1950s, American universities and colleges gave very similar grades, says Rojstaczer, with the average about 2.52 or a C-plus. Grades began to rise in the 1960s, then leveled off, and started rising again as the 1980s approached. According to Rojstaczer’s records, private universities grade about 0.3 points higher than public schools, but premier southern universities, including public ones, are among the worst offenders.

Some universities have already adopted policies to combat grade inflation. For example, Princeton set a standard that fewer than 35 percent of the grades in any undergraduate class should be A’s. Wellesley has a similar standard.

Beginning in 2009, Professor Perrin and a team of other faculty members began examining other schools’ policies, but they rejected the “so-many-As-per-class” approach. Such systems assume that grading should be the same across all disciplines. 

Perrin, a Swarthmore graduate, personally liked his alma mater’s approach for its honors students, where a committee of faculty reviews each student’s grades every semester. However, for a major university the problem was “the expense involved in bringing in external examiners to examine a class of thousands of people; [it’s] just prohibitively expensive,” he told the Pope Center.

After several years of study, Perrin, his team, and the Educational Policy Committee finally decided on contextual grading. Each student’s transcript now contains not only the grade that particular student received but also the average grade given in that course section.

Thus, graduate schools and potential employers who look at the transcript can see how that student’s grade compares with other grades given in that class. In addition, professors and teaching assistants can see whether the grade distributions in their classes are similar to those of others teaching a different section.

When this policy was announced, students were less than enthusiastic. Many thought it would hinder their ability to get into graduate school or make it more difficult to find a job since it would reveal the relative value of their UNC grades, while transcripts from most other schools do not. 

Even some faculty members were unsure as to whether grade inflation is as big an issue as the university is making it. Vice chancellor and provost Bruce Carney told the Daily Tar Heel,  “Yes, we give high grades at Carolina, but I’ve heard faculty argue that we have better students than at other places.”

Recently, however, faculty, staff, and students at Carolina have been supportive of the new policy, said Perrin, now that they have more information about it. He believes that students “can and should recognize that it’s not a zero-sum game. Having Carolina known for quality education and rigorous grading is good for students once they’re out on the job market and competing for graduate schools and so on.”

As others look more closely at the policy and what it really entails, they are starting to agree that it is, as Perrin says, “a win-win approach.” 

Perrin also notes that the university has contacted multiple graduate schools and big-name companies to ensure that this policy does not hurt Carolina graduates. The responses received from various institutions have ranged from “not particularly interestedto very positive, and no one has been against the new policy, explained Perrin in his interview with the Pope Center.  

Many faculty members at Carolina hope this policy will encourage students to take more challenging courses instead of taking easier courses for a GPA booster.  Perrin believes that some students avoid math and science courses because they are more harshly graded. But now their transcript will actually show the meaning of their work in those sections.

Adding more information to students’ transcripts will also, they hope, prevent students from feeling entitled to a certain grade in a seemingly trivial course. Such entitlement is visible, for example, when a student complains to a professor about receiving a B in a course he or she thought would be an easy A.

Contextual grading is still in its early phases; the results of these first few steps will be analyzed after a five-year trial period. Perrin and his associates are concerned that this policy may not go far enough.

E-mails and contacts from various other institutions of higher learning have been streaming into Chapel Hill’s offices asking for tips on how to curb grade inflation at their universities, Perrin says. UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas system are discussing implementing this sort of policy on their campuses. 

The first step in dealing with any problem is admitting that you have one. It seems that some American colleges and universities have admitted that they have a grade inflation problem and some are now trying to find out if contextual grading or some other policy is the best way of handling it.