The gentleman’s A

College grades keep rising, complains Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor.

The new analysis found that the average grade-point average at private colleges rose from 3.09 in 1991 to 3.30 in 2006. At public colleges and universities, the increase was from 2.85 to 3.01 over the same time period. The study also examines — and seeks to refute — the idea that students are earning better grades simply because they are better prepared. The greatest increases in grades appear to be coming at flagship public universities in the South and at selective liberal arts colleges.

At Brown, a majority of grades are A’s.

Community colleges are the exception: Instructors give plenty of C’s, D’s and F’s.

See for more, including graphs.

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  1. Impose what my law school had: all exams and papers graded blindly, and on a curve.

  2. Dick Eagleson says:

    This whole grade inflation thing got started in the late 60’s when anti-war college professors gave undeserved high grades to many male students who had enrolled in college strictly to evade the draft and would otherwise have flunked out and lost their student deferments. Student deferments were ended in 1970 and the U.S. military has been all-volunteer since 1975, but no wretched educational trend, it seems, ever goes away on its own even if its generative cause disappears.

    It certainly can’t explain all of the difference between community college grades and those of four-year institutions, but I note that, at least here in California, and unlike most four-year schools, community colleges do not give half- or quarter-point course grades. That is, numeric grades are integer-only; no 2.5’s or 3.75’s awarded in individual classes.

    Dave J,

    Curve grading is poor practice because it unmoors grades from any hard and fast relationship to achievement standards and can also cover professorial incompetence. Each course should have a defined increment of knowledge and mastery that students are expected to acquire and demonstrate. The testing administered should be sufficient to establish how well each student does in acquiring said knowledge and mastery. If all students excel, they should all get A’s. If no student excels, they should all get F’s.

    In the latter case, the result may be due to either the uniform incompetence of the members of a given class or, more likely, the inability of the professor to impart the expected knowledge/mastery to his students. In either case, a high failure rate is a flag to invite diagnostic and remedial attention.

    Curve grading assumes student abilities, and grades, in any given class should always be normally distributed. I don’t think this is a usefully defensible assumption. I also think it gets steadily less defensible the further up the academic rungs one looks. The average quality of students is better in upper division classes because of the winnowing done in the lower divisions.

    In almost any class, there will be enough individual variation that a normal distribution can be imposed, but it might well be quite a narrow bell-shaped curve. Consider a class where, for instance, the worst student averages 93 percent and the best 100 percent. In a regime of standards-based grading, everyone gets A’s. These grades correctly reflect both that the students are all first-rate and that the professor is good at his job of getting the material across.

    Using curve grading, the 93 percent student would, perversely, fail along with anyone getting 94 – 96. Unlike the case of an all-fail class under a standards-based grading paradigm, the failed students in our just-examined hypothetical will be inappropriately stigmatized – and so might their instructor.

    By the same token, but in the opposite direction from the standpoint of academic excellence, a class in which the grades ranged from 43 – 50 would show anyone with 47-50 as passing when, on the basis of standards, all should have failed. Maybe the students are dolts. Maybe the prof is an incompetent time-server. Statistically, the final grades provide no useful guidance in deciding which of these is more probable. In fact, just looking at the grades from our two hypothetical classes gives the impression that the two classes are roughly equivalent when that is anything but the case. By forcing grades to fit an arbitrary a priori curve, the diagnostic value of grades is largely destroyed. Neither problem classes, profs or students can be reliably picked out on the basis of grades alone. Nor can those who are outstanding.

    Curve grading is mathematical malpractice and should be banned.

  3. Right. They acuse K-12 of sending them underprepared students, then award that underpreparation with A’s.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    Some California community colleges offer plus and minus grades. The community college I go to recently started awarding them.

    I agree with Dick’s argument about curves, but disagree with the examples he uses to prove it. This is a pet peeve of mine. If, in a certain class, all the students get 93 percent or above, that might mean that the students are exceptionally good or the teacher is exceptionally talented– or it might mean the teacher wrote easy exams. We must ask, 93 percent of what?

    When Mr. Fang was in college, he got something like 37% on the Putnam Exam, a national math contest. (I don’t remember the exact number, but it was very low.) Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Bad enough to put him in the top ten nationally. Percents mean nothing without knowledge of what a certain score represents.

  5. I read Dr. Rojstaczer’s arguments about grade inflation at the Ivy-caliber schools not being reflective of an increased quality of student and frankly, didn’t find them all that convincing. An applicant would get rejected by Harvard today with the same grades & SAT scores that were enough to get my dad accepted in 1967. Same thing would happen to an applicant to Stanford today with the same qualifications that got me accepted in 1995. There are fewer “Gentleman’s C” grades because there are a lot fewer average students and a lot more overachievers.

  6. “There are fewer “Gentleman’s C” grades because there are a lot fewer average students and a lot more overachievers.”

    Now everyone is above average. Riiiiiiight.

  7. Dick Eagleson says:

    Cardinal Fang,

    To reiterate, from the first paragraph of my response to Mr. J:

    Each course should have a defined increment of knowledge and mastery that students are expected to acquire and demonstrate. The testing administered should be sufficient to establish how well each student does in acquiring said knowledge and mastery.

    I did not, admittedly, state explicitly anything about how such knowledge and mastery standards, or the exams based upon them, should be developed. In general, I favor the development of both standards and exams by parties other than those doing the teaching. NCLB, at least in theory, attempted to establish a reasonably uniform national set of standards. Based on a set of standards, from whatever source, there are many independent organizations that develop examinations. These should be contracted by individual districts or schools to do their thing.

    This is particularly the case if so-called merit pay for teachers is ever made dependent upon analysis of standardized testing results. Letting the teachers design the tests in such a case would constitute an obvious and flagrant conflict of interest.

    The Putnam exam cited is, indeed, a test developed independent of any organization subsequently allowed to administer it to its charges – albeit an admittedly extreme example and one used for purposes quite apart from routine assessment of routine progress.

    I share the good Cardinal’s concern that our present-day norm of teachers defining their own achievement standards and exams, even in the absence of merit pay as a consideration, tends to produce the same kind of result we’d expect if cloth merchants were each allowed to define their own definitions of “yard.”

  8. The other side to this coin is that the average SAT scores and student qualifications at the top schools has risen while their average GPAs have not surpassed that of many of the lower tier schools. While one may complain about the majority of students at Brown getting an A, I say the majority of these students would get an A at a different institution. There has not been a lot of commentary on the intellectual segregation of the Universities across the county. Many of the Universities take students (or end up getting) students near their usual mean and standard deviation.

    During my medical school training many of the students who attended Penn, Harvard, and MIT would complain to me that they had a difficult time getting As in there premed courses because they were graded on a curve with only 40% of the class receiving an A. This was the case even when the average test grade hit the mid 90s. On the other hand I went to a smaller private University on a full scholarship and had no problem getting As – all I literally had to do at times was show up. While grades were inflated at my school, the tests were even more so. Some of my professors told me that they had to take difficult items off the tests in order to have higher averages. Other teachers made tests difficult to the point where the average was in the 50’s and the test had to be curved.

    Based on my experiences, I do not think 93% (a high school A) should be the standard. Individual tests can be altered so that the questions on them have different levels of difficulty so that even the dumbest class can achieve that level or the smartest class in the country not obtain even a B level when looking at a simple 80% (look at percent correct for GRE scores, the CPA exam, and the USMLE). If anything tests themselves need to be standardized so that they contain items of a similar level of difficulty in order to better compare students at University A compared with University B. If University A has students with an average SAT score of 1000 and high school GPA of 3.0 while University B’s students scored 1560 with a high school GPA of 3.95, the results may be very scary if their tests were swapped. University A may not have a single student pass. Lower tiered schools need to bring down their average GPAs and people probably need to leave Brown alone. I can safely say that my 3.9 GPA from University A probably would be deflated quite quickly there.

  9. Physics Teacher says:

    I have a simple solution (not mine, actually, but I think it’s good).

    A grade should be reported as a pair. For example B/3.8, would signify that you got a B, but the class average was a 3.8, or mostly A’s. People would quickly lose their enthusiasm for A/4.0 filling their transcripts. Then, a B/2.0 would suddenly look more impressive

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    True, Physics Teacher, but even then, the B/3.0 in physics is better than the A/3.0 in some bogus sports marketing class.

  11. Physics Teacher says:

    Cardinal Fang,

    True, but it’s fairly common knowledge that sports marketing is far more challenging and abstract than physics. You don’t need any math to do well in physics. You just need to make posters of Einstein and compose raps about energy. 🙂

  12. “There are fewer “Gentleman’s C” grades because there are a lot fewer average students and a lot more overachievers.”

    Now everyone is above average. Riiiiiiight.

    At the Ivies, this is basically true. Back in 2002, the dean of Harvard College noted that there had been a whopping 130 point increase in the average SAT scores of admittees (after adjusting for the re-centering of the exam) between 1986 and 2001. Given that the selectivity of Harvard has increased since 2001, it is reasonable to assume that there has been a further increase in the test scores of those admitted.

    My youngest brother graduated high school in ’03 and his good friend was valedictorian of their class. The kid had stellar credentials, and had he applied to college in the mid-’90’s like I did, he would’ve easily been admitted to the school of his choice. But admissions had gotten way more competitive, and he was rejected by both Harvard and Stanford. He wound up attending a good-but-not-top-tier university.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    I’ve got to agree with Crimson Wife about the difficulty of getting accepted to an Ivy. Those admitted students are smart, focused and hard-working. They all had A averages in high school. I don’t see the point of giving Cs to students who remain smart, focused and hard-working just because all their classmates are also smart, focused and hard-working.

    But when we start moving down in selectivity to the not-top-tier liberal arts colleges, then the grade inflation starts to become less defensible. Though, even then, a lot of those schools are admitting way better classes than they did even ten or fifteen years ago.