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.

Grade Inflation or Resignification?

Recently a colleague drew my attention to a New York Times article on college grading. The article begins by asking: “if everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean?”

Exhibit A in the article is Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina (UNC), who is “working to fight grade inflation.” In his opinion, “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade.” By comparison, average college grade point averages (GPAs) have been rising for decades. At UNC, for instance, the average GPA has climbed from 2.49 in 1967 to 2.99 in 1999 to 3.21 in 2008.

A committee that Professor Perrin leads is working with the UNC registrar “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts.” Reflecting on their progress, Professor Perrin notes: “It’s going to be modest and nowhere near enough to correct the problems… But it’s our judgment that it’s the best we can do now.”

The irony of this comment is hard to escape. Apparently, even someone for whom an A is a mark of excellence finds it necessary in practice to proceed on the basis of work that falls far short of that standard. In other words, sometimes good enough — or even mediocre work — may be the best possible outcome. It also highlights how evaluation is perhaps best left internal to those engaged in the work itself.

By comparison, when subjected to external evaluation, clashes are likely. For instance, I wonder how Professor Perrin would feel if his Dean gave him a C (or gasp, even a D or F) for his efforts come annual review time? Or should he instead get an A, in consideration of the efforts he made on this difficult subject?

Although I can sympathize with the problem — a clash over evaluative standards — for me it is not clear that some kind of “deflation” or “revaluation” is the antidote. And these tensions are at the heart of my ambivalence over whether “grade inflation” is a problem worth worrying about, at least as currently framed. In the real world — ie, in practice — collective outcomes are never simply the aggregates of individual efforts. A team of A students or B students or C students may or may not accomplish great things, but regardless, it will have little (perhaps nothing) to do with their college grades.

This approach — of providing “extra information” — is problematic for me on a second level. Conceiving of grades as some kind of “information” space, misses out on what may be the root problem, namely one of meaning. If my premise is correct, then the crisis is not one of grade inflation but of grade signification. What do grades signify? In what ways are they meaningful? Are they a mark of adequacy? Exceptionalism? Anachronism? No amount of extra information can answer these questions. Perhaps the time for grading has even come and gone in some situations? For instance, in the context of a class like business ethics, the idea that “I” might grade “you” is anathema to fostering ethical discourse. And yet, universities require that grades must be given.

In a world of one best way, perhaps grades were useful. But in a world where the destination is in the making even as the journey unfolds, what counts? Indeed, what might a “post-grading” grading scheme look like?