A look at grade inflation


One night four years ago, Terry Tranter went home and told his wife his teaching job at the Carlson School of Management was on the line. 

He was a tough grader, so students avoided his class and gave him bad evaluations. This had meant a salary freeze and a mandatory teaching seminar for Tranter, who refused to give students grades he didn’t feel they deserved.

The next year, Carlson implemented a grading policy that saved his job but forced him to change the way he graded students. The new policy required him to give a median of a B+ in his upper-level courses.

Tranter has seen a shift upward from what he considers an average grade, a C, since he began teaching at the University in 1979, part of an inflation trend occurring both at the University and across the nation.

Ten years ago, the average GPA at the University of Minnesota was 3.0, now it’s 3.14.

The national GPA average has increased by between .1 and .15 in the past 10 years and has gone up almost a full letter grade since 1960, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who researches grade inflation and higher education.

Robert McMaster, dean of undergraduate education, said the inflation at the University is negligible and that there has been no institutional action outside Carlson to change grading. But some professors say grade inflation has reached a point where students are losing motivation and learning less because they feel guaranteed an A or B.

This past semester, grades of B or higher made up 78 percent of A-F grades given, an increase of 7 percent from fall 1999.

Grades have been going up for decades, but why, and whether it’s a problem, is still debated. Some say teachers are grading easier, while others say students are smarter or better prepared.

Those at the top of the University say curbing grades is not their responsibility – yet.

For now, it’s up to the approximately 6,300 University faculty to decide the distance between an A and a C.

Defining fair

There are more advanced placement courses in high schools, and the class rank of incoming University freshmen has gotten more competitive. This means a smarter, better-prepared group of students are coming into the University, said McMaster.

It also means colleges, like the College of Biological Sciences, have become more selective. CBS had 1,300 applicants in 2000 and 6,000 in 2009, while the number of people admitted has remained roughly the same.

The college has also seen one of the largest increases in percentage of A’s – about 10 percent in the past decade, the majority of which happened in the past five years. This is second only to the College of Pharmacy, with a 12.3 percent increase in A’s over 10 years.

This is a significant number when contrasted with the changes in other grades in CBS, the majority of which have altered less than 1 percent.

Students’ mastery of an “increasingly impressive” amount of material and better preparation have resulted in better grades in the past five years, said Robin Wright, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs in CBS. Within those past five years, grades have risen dramatically: From the spring of 2004 to last fall, there was a 9 percent increase in A grades. All grades below B- have decreased.

Wright teaches a newly formatted 2000-level biology course, which gives students who did poorly on a paper or lab chances to correct their work. This class style better prepares students for their future, she said.

“I haven’t been able to hold the bar high enough that they don’t meet it and then some,” Wright said.

Students’ ambition may be a reason behind the inflation, McMaster said, and things could change as faculty realize they can raise the expectations of the courses and “push[students] a bit harder than we used to.”

But another biology professor, Ron Jemmerson, said the idea that students can master more material is untrue. His experience has been the opposite.

The microbiology professor, who has been at the University for 25 years, said he learned more than his students when he was in college because the classes touched on more topics. As the amount of information available becomes vast, instructors are more selective in what they cover and do not go as in-depth. The students have less to learn and are simply required to “regurgitate bullet points,” Jemmerson said.

“They think they’ve mastered the material, which they have not,” Jemmerson said. “If you don’t know details, you don’t know science.”

There are still students who surprise him with their intelligence and others who struggle with the course material. “It’s not like all of a sudden all these brainiacs are in my class; that’s definitely not the case,” he said.

The average grade in Wright’s class is an A, which she said is not a problem. “The whole point is to learn … grades come as a side effect,” Wright said.

Her class is not the norm in CBS, where A’s made up 32 percent of A-F grades last semester. The class is also above the University-wide average of 34 percent A grades.

Letting students redo assignments and giving take-home tests have contributed to the high grades, Wright said. But the grades are still earned and are not curved lower, she said.

“Would it be fair if 89 percent was an F? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” she said.

College is a challenge to see “if you can swim fast enough to not get eaten by the shark,” Wright said. “Creating a curve is just adding a faster shark.”

But Jemmerson said having the majority of students end up with an A is not fair to students who are doing truly outstanding work because they are no longer distinguished. Twenty percent of students in his class earn an A or A-.

The University’s definition of an A, according to its grading policy, is “achievement that is outstanding.” If everyone gets an A, the letter has lost its meaning, Jemmerson said.

Basing grades on hard work rewards effort instead of competency and doesn’t translate to the real world, Jemmerson said.

“What they’re succeeding at in our school system is building the confidence of the student, but sadly it’s without reason. It’s kind of false confidence,” he said.

Diverse grading cultures

Like Jemmerson and Wright, professors in every college and department have differing opinions on how to grade. This leads to large gaps between University course sections and departments in grade distribution.

In the Institute of Technology, about 22 percent of grades given in fall 2009 were A’s, compared to 55 percent of grades in the College of Education and Human Development.

Despite changes in how colleges are structured, the overall trend in the number of A’s given out has been a steady shift upward – though a few schools buck the trend.

Schools that had the highest percentage of A’s 10 years ago have seen slight decreases. The College of Education and Human Development, the School of

Dentistry and the College of Veterinary Medicine, which awarded A’s for more than half of the grades given in 1999, have all seen decreases in the percentage of A’s.

A more dramatic change has occurred at the Medical School, where A’s have dropped by 16 percent. These grades apply to non-medical students taking courses in the school, as medical students only earn pass or fail grades. The decrease is not a result of any policy change, said spokeswoman Mary Koppel.

Administrators cannot pin down a solid reason why a certain college may have gone down or up with grading. They attribute the differences to the faculty who are directly responsible for grading their students consistently.

McMaster said evening out the grading between schools is not something Academic Affairs does.

“We know there are different cultures in terms of grading across the University, so I think the major issue for us is consistency year to year within a program,” McMaster said.

Professors from departments across the University said the administration had never directly interfered with their grading.

But several professors said that their grading had been reviewed and questioned by the heads of their department.

Watching for grade consistency in the College of Liberal Arts is part of Assistant Dean Nanette Hanks’ job. Every year, Hanks breaks down the grade data for the college, separating it into departments. Looking at data on a department level makes it easier to find the source of overall increases or decreases in the grade percentages.

The increase in A’s in CLA has gone up by more than 5 percent since 1999, which Hanks said is not troubling.

If the data showed an individual department that was going above the aggregate 5 percent increase, the college would be very concerned, Hanks said.

“Then we would drill down to the individual courses. Which are the individual courses we are seeing this in? What’s going on here?” she said.

The CLA administration has to investigate an outlying increase once every few years, and usually it’s a result of one particular class, she said. The college has never seen an abnormal percentage of A’s across an entire department.

The marching band class was investigated a few years ago because about 95 percent of the 300 students who enroll in the class every semester receive an A.

CLA contemplated changing the course to pass/fail, but the number of music majors who take it for credit was too great, so the A-F grading system remained. The class skews the department’s data every semester, Hanks said.

Hanks said she doesn’t have an opinion on what is fair in grading and that the decision should fall on the faculty who work with the students every day.

While the nature of CLA’s courses makes it more subjective than other departments, such as IT, there is still a strict determination and oversight of faculty grading methods, which are reviewed by the CLA board. Faculty don’t just grade “in a vacuum,” Hanks said.

In CLA, 36 percent of grades last school year were A’s, up from 29 percent 10 years ago.

McMaster said faculty are “pretty vigilant” at monitoring grades, and the fluctuation in grading models depends on what works best for different types of courses.

“Nothing’s really broken here,” he said.

In 2006, the grading at the Carlson School of Management needed a fix.

Carlson’s option B

The school was turning out some of the state’s top business students, but with 37 percent of the grades being A’s, companies recruiting from Carlson had no way to determine who they were.

This percentage of A’s was less than average for the University’s different colleges, but only Carlson made a change to a school-wide grading curve, a move Rojstaczer called “very unusual.”

The new curved policy has a target median grade of a 3.0, a B, for lower level courses and a 3.3, a B+, for upper level courses.

Similar target grade suggestions have been made at a few private colleges like Princeton University and Wellesley College, Rojstaczer said. Princeton has one of the lowest average GPAs in the Ivy League, 3.28 in 2008, because of this institutional response to grade inflation.

Similarly, Reed College in Oregon is institutionally keeping its grading low but is still maintaining a competitive enrollment.

Alex Halverson, a sophomore and international business major in Carlson, said the curve that was meant to separate out the different levels of student ability has had the opposite effect for him.

The straight-A high school student, who has two jobs and leadership roles in two campus groups, became a B student in Carlson and said he is one of many.

Halverson said he gets all A’s in his German minor, but in Carlson it’s different.

Whether he puts in extra effort to distinguish himself in a course or bombs a test, Halverson said he still ends up with a B.

“Why make the extra effort?” he asked.

The Carlson grade policy has slowed down inflation, but grades have stayed at a high level. The percentage of A grades has decreased by 12 percent from 2005 to fall 2009.

But B grades have increased by about 10 percent, according to University data.

In fall 2009, 92.3 percent of Carlson grades given out were in the A or B range, above the University-wide average of 84.4 percent.

Carlson spokeswoman Erin Rath said in an e-mail statement, “the grading policy is a useful tool for helping to ensure that the grade is an accurate reflection of the quality of work performed.” Carlson administrators declined a phone interview.

Terry Tranter said the policy does little to help the “rampant grade inflation” at the school. At an annual review with the department chair a few years ago, Tranter said he was told that students are less willing to work hard and pay attention to detail than they used to be, and the department had to adjust.

“We’ve gotten to the point where the grading philosophy at Carlson is: If it moves, give it an A, and if it doesn’t move, give it a B+. My dog is a B student at Carlson,” he said.

With the new policy, he tries to keep the A grade competitive and only gives two or three in every class.

Erik Johnson, who graduated from Carlson last year, said that the A he received in Tranter’s 5000-level accounting course helped him get an internship at a Fortune 500 company.

“His A’s are worth something, and companies know they’re worth something,” Johnson said.

An A for an A: Teacher evals

Student-based teacher evaluations add to the pressure to keep grades high. The University introduced evaluations in 1993.

The evaluations are used when deciding on faculty salary, promotion and tenure.

How a professor grades influences students’ decision to take a class – and may impact how they evaluate the professor. A recent Kaplan study showed 45 percent of 1,229 college students and recent graduates who use public evaluations like RateMyProfessors.com said their choice to take a class was influenced by the professor’s reputation for grading easily.

Rojstaczer said student evaluations are the “primary culprit” for easier grading at colleges and universities.

Tranter said he received low evaluations before the change in the Carlson policy forced him to raise his grades in 2006 – then the evaluation ratings shot up. He said other teachers have told him they don’t give the assignments they should give or the grades students deserve because they can’t afford low evaluations.

Tranter said there is a subtle pressure to “dumb it down” and go with the flow. “You can’t get anybody to stand up and say absolutely, ‘I’m for quality.’ “

Evaluations became popular in the 1980s. The idea of rating your teacher is part of a greater cultural switch to viewing students as consumers rather than people searching for knowledge, Rojstaczer said.

“If you’re customers, and students are customers, you want to keep your customers happy. How do you keep your customers happy?” he said, “You ask them if they like their teachers and then you include those evaluations.”

Future of inflation

This cultural switch coincided with a second historical wave of grade inflation in the 1980s. Grades have been going up in the United States since the 1930s, but what Rojstaczer calls the “first wave” of inflation didn’t hit until the 1960s.

At the University of Minnesota, the average GPA in CLA was 2.27 in 1960, and by 1970 it was 2.77, an average increase of.05 every year, according to faculty senate documents. The average GPA dipped in the 1970s but picked back up again in the mid-1980s. Since then, grades began rising steadily – part of a wave that has not yet slowed.

It’s getting more crowded at the top of the grading scale, and the bell-shaped curve that was once the norm has shifted to the left as the percentage of grades given out drops off at a B-.

In fall 2009, the percentage of B- grades across the University’s colleges was 6.6, while B’s made up 15.4 percent of grades. After the B- drop-off, the percentages just get smaller, making up a long tail on the end of the one-sided curve.

Rojstaczer’s Web site, one of the only public comparisons of inflation across higher education, shows this shape is not unique to University of Minnesota grades, which are similar to other big public universities.

At the University of Wisconsin, the average GPA was 3.25 in 2008. McMaster said he can’t explain the difference between the schools.

“I’d like to think it’s because our faculty are a bit harder … and more rigorous,” he said.

Ivy League schools have seen some of the highest grade inflation. The average GPA was 3.45 at Harvard University in 2005 and Yale University was 3.51 in 2008.

Whether the school is public or private, West Coast or Midwest, grade inflation has hit at almost all levels of higher education – and even high schools.

At the University of Minnesota, it would take an average of a 3.3 or 3.4 GPA to make McMaster “suspicious,” he said.

If the current rate of inflation continues, the average grade received at the University will be almost 3.3 in 10 years.

High school inflation

While many University administrators say the school is getting more competitive applicants, the inflation of high school grades makes that difficult to judge.

The change in high school and higher education grading occurred in unison. From 1990 to 2000, the average high school GPA increased from 2.68 to 2.94, according to a National Assessment of Educational Progress transcript study from 2005.

Incoming students have better qualifications than in previous years because colleges are receiving more and better applicants. This year the average high school rank of incoming students at the University ranged from 81.1 percent to 94.5 percent, depending on the college.

The University does not rely on the GPAs of incoming students as a measurement but prefers class rank because it gives admissions a basic metric to measure students by, Robert McMaster, dean for undergraduate education, said.

McMaster said one “troubling trend” among high schools is fewer schools are computing class rankings. “I think they’re doing that because they don’t like the way the rank is used,” he said.

Some high schools have started rewarding anyone who received a 4.0 the valedictorian title.

The higher high school grades are partially the result of pressure put on teachers by “helicopter parents” who want to keep their child’s grades high, Stuart Rojactszer, a former Duke University professor who researches grade inflation and higher education, said.

Once the students get into college, it is average for their GPA will drop by half a grade point, Rojstaczer said. So a 3.8 GPA student in high school would have a 3.3 in college.

But students who are used to seeing straight A’s struggle with this change. Because of the culture in the high schools, it is “physiologically impossible” to give someone doing the work a C, Rojstaczer said.