Grade Inflation Revisited

In January I wrote about the “grade inflation” debate. Recently, Inside Higher Ed published a pair of columns on the topic.

One article looks at the relative prevalence of A grades. Reporting on a recent study, the article notes that 43 percent of all grades at a large sample of four-year colleges and universities are an A, and that this figure is 28 percentage points higher than in 1960, and 12 percentage points higher than in 1988. The other article offers an analysis of “why we inflate grades,” concluding it is a matter of pressure from students, administrators, colleagues, and finally, ourselves.

Taken together, both articles seem to imply that the graders got it right back then, but are somehow getting it wrong now. But this simply doesn’t ring true for me. In Bruner’s (1986) terms, it lacks verisimilitude. And curiously, the reverse scenario — that grades back then were too low — appears to have not been considered. Nor have I seen anyone consider the possibility that the grade distribution at each time period has been as right or wrong as at any other. What is missing in all of this is any recognition that the adjudication of grade distributions already presupposes an answer to the question: How many As “should” there be? Some have apparently concluded that 43 percent is too high. But such an evaluation is a fact/values judgment (e.g., see Putnam 2002). Any marshaling of facts already presupposes a certain constellation of values about the question, and vice versa. In other words, there is not some terra firma on which the question of grades and their distribution might come to rest. Grading is a disciplinary technique, and as such subject to ongoing values work.

Thus, as with the last time I reflected on this issue, I find it difficult to take sides. Moreover, on the heels of S&P’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, I found myself comparing and contrasting grade point averages (GPAs) with credit rating agencies (CRAs). Although both GPAs and CRAs have become highly embedded in their respective fields, perhaps even essential to the functioning of universities and markets respectively, it is not clear that inflation or deflation are the solution in either case. In the classroom, how and why do we grade? On Wall Street, how and why do we rate? For me, it is only in answering these questions that we can begin to understand the significance and the ongoing resignification of grades and ratings, whether half a century ago, or today.