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University grades are inflating

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A disturbing inflation of grades at universities has occurred in lockstep with higher-education-for-everyone policies pursued by governments.

As a result, when students receive an A or a B, there are few ways to discern whether they actually earned it. High grades are often little more than empty letters included -- and expected -- with the price of tuition.

Grade inflation -- the concentration of grades at the high end of the grading scale -- has been a growing concern among professors and administrators since the early 1970s.

After publishing their 2007 book, Ivory Tower Blues, which addressed a litany of problems with the education system, including grade inflation, James Côté and Anton Allahar, decided to keep their research up to date through their website.

In a recent posting, they outlined the trend towards inflated grades at Western.

Côté and Allahar discovered that between 1974-75 and 2008-2009, the proportion of first-year students earning As and Bs increased between 10 and 20 per cent, while there was a 10 per cent increase across all years.

Their "mini-study" is supported by a 2000 paper that appeared in the journal Canadian Public Policy. It found a comparable shift at seven different universities.

Similarly, between 2002 and 2005, a University of Lethbridge task force on grading reviewed the available data for mostly Canadian and American universities and concluded that grades are converging at the top end of the scale.

There is some dispute about whether grade inflation reflects an erosion of standards. It might be the case that students are simply better prepared today than they were a generation ago.

However, even if students are better prepared (a tenuous proposition) it is not clear why that should matter. Grades indicate what a student has accomplished in terms of demonstrated ability, but they are also highly dependent on the rest of the cohort. That is, grades are often relative measures.

The grade students earn in any given course will measure their ability in and of themselves but also their ability compared to others. If everyone in a class gets an A, that sends the signal that they are all above average, an impossible outcome.

As Côté and Allahar put it, "even in a hypothetical class of geniuses, there will still be average geniuses."

At Western, grade inflation is almost entirely attributable to a policy change in the late 90s that saw departmental funding tied to enrolment. In order for departments to compete with one another, grading practices were slackened.

Perhaps the most important driver of grade inflation is pressure from students. Such pressure is not new. When professional schools, like law, began requiring undergraduate study as a prerequisite for admission near the beginning of the 20th century, there was an upward push on grades.

But the scale of grade inflation today is peculiar to the past four decades.

This is sometimes blamed on a market mentality that views the customer as always right, but it is not that straightforward. To blame grade inflation on a customer-service mentality assumes that universities have a say in whom they serve.

Instead, in exchange for public funding, universities have largely had to tolerate admission practices that ensure higher education is broadly available, with little regard for the academic ability of applicants.

Because so many students view university not as a place of intellectual inquiry, but as a necessary evil required for entry into the workforce, and because of both implicit and explicit expectations of governments, the cause of grade inflation becomes easily apparent.

And this is why it cannot be easily reversed. Some schools, however, notably Princeton University, have had some success in getting control of grades by implementing policies to ensure the distribution is normalized.

To address the problem across the system as whole, we might have more luck if we just abolish grading altogether. When everyone is an A student no one is.

Carson Jerema is editor of Maclean's On Campus.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2010 A15

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