Grade Deflation or Not?
Administrators, faculty, and students talk about myths and realities
During her freshman year at Syracuse, Talia Kornfeld, now a School of Hospitality Administration junior, earned a 3.5 GPA while admittedly doing “almost nothing.” She transferred to Boston University in search of a more urban campus, a social scene less centered on sororities and fraternities, and greater academic challenges. When she arrived here, Kornfeld says, she worked much harder, but her grades, ironically, were a lot lower: she had a 2.2 last year. She’s just one of many BU undergraduates who think they aren’t getting the grades they deserve. Those students fear there’s a University policy to hold down their GPAs in order to enhance the University’s prestige by a display of academic rigor built on rigid curve grading.
Indeed, while plenty of other universities face charges of grade inflation — professors flooding student transcripts with flabby As — BU is encountering claims of “grade deflation,” a belief that the University mandates a certain median grade in classes or a predetermined curve of grade distributions.
For years, BU officials have said that this isn’t the case, but the claims have persisted. This summer, the University’s grading policies received national attention in a New York Times article headlined “Can Tough Grades Be Fair Grades?” In 2004, grade deflation made the front page of the Daily Free Press, which also featured an editorial in 2005 decrying the practice as a “crime against students.” Meanwhile, an online petition circulated to protest BU’s grading standards has garnered more than 800 signatures. And BU’s grading commotion was even riffed on in the blog of an English professor at George Washington University who wrote a grade-deflation operetta.
In order to find out the facts, we interviewed students, faculty, and University administrators and reviewed spreadsheets of average grades and grading distributions at BU, covering many years, schools, and departments. The bottom line: there is no Boston University policy requiring a certain median grade or grade distribution. In fact, the GPAs of BU undergrads and the percentage of As and Bs have both risen over the last two decades. Currently, the average GPA of a BU undergraduate is 3.04, with about 81 percent of all grades earned in either the A or B range.
“There’s no policy in the College of Arts and Sciences, period, without qualification whatsoever, of imposing quotas, curves, bell curves, or any other kind of grade distribution,” says Jeffrey Henderson, dean of Arts and Sciences. “Some courses in the college do have curves, but that’s up to the professors.”
So what sparked all the commotion, the editorials, the petition, and the libretto? A closer look reveals that claims by students like Kornfeld are not pure fantasy. More accurately, this is a battle of perceptions resulting from an attempt to combat grade inflation and grading inconsistency. It’s the story of rising expectations colliding with the pressures of a university bent on holding a line.
The big picture: living in an inflated world
The thing about grades is that their meaning depends largely on context. And one of the biggest changes in that context at many universities has been rampant grade inflation. Stories about easy As began to surface in the early 1990s: the average GPA at Stanford climbed from 3.04 in 1968 to 3.44 in 1992; between 1984 and 1999 the percentage of A and A– grades at Georgetown jumped from 28 percent to 46 percent; and a study of 34 colleges by a Duke professor revealed that between 1992 and 2002 the average GPA at private colleges went from 3.11 to 3.26.
While there’s debate about exactly how severe and widespread grade inflation is, the consensus seems to be that wherever it occurs, it has the potential to rob students of the motivation to excel and to dull the shine of extraordinary accomplishment. Furthermore, because the trend has been more pronounced in humanities classes, it is surmised that grade inflation might be driving students away from studying sciences, where grading has remained relatively strict.
In the late 1990s, while BU officials were hearing these tales of runaway grades, the provost’s office was preparing for a University accreditation review. Assembling data for the review, Linda Wells, current dean of the College of General Studies, found two disturbing trends, which she outlined in a 1998 memo to Dennis Berkey, who was then the provost. First, there was the high percentage of A to B+ grades in certain classes, such as the CAS Core Curriculum classes (73 percent) and foreign languages (often 70 to 80 percent). The bulk of Wells’ review focused on CAS, the largest college on campus, which enrolls more than 40 percent of BU undergraduates and provides liberal arts courses for most of the rest. In CAS, between 1994 and 1998, the average GPA climbed from 2.84 to 3.1, and the percentage of A grades went from 29 percent to nearly 36 percent.
“[These grades] indicate either that the standards aren’t high enough in the courses, or As are being given for less than outstanding work,” concluded Wells.
The second trend she noted in her memo was a grading disparity between colleges and between different sections of large classes. For instance, in one large introductory psychology class, 82 percent of one section earned A grades while another could manage only 15 percent.
In response, Wells’ committee proposed two University-wide actions. First, as a policy, Latin honors were limited to the top 30 percent of a college’s graduating class. Second, BU began distributing data to deans and department chairs showing the grading by each professor along with the grades that professor’s students received in their other courses.
In the first year of these distributions, CAS data were accompanied by recommended grade distributions, centered on a B. But Henderson stresses that in subsequent years only data were sent, as they continue to be every spring.
The data and the discussions that follow are meant to spur dialogue about grading standards and what Wayne Snyder, a CAS computer science professor and associate dean for students, refers to as a “self-regulation process” among professors. “When you look at a bunch of grades, you say, ‘Gosh I’m way at the top end here. Maybe I’m not intellectually rigorous enough,’” he explains.
BU Provost David Campbell says that while avoiding grade inflation has been one motivation for distributing grading data, “the most important reason is to promote fairness by decreasing grading disparity,” particularly in large, multisection courses. “Fairness in grading is something students should care about tremendously,” he says.
Students sometimes say they’ve been told by faculty members that their grade would have been higher but for a distribution mandate from above. But both faculty and administrators dismiss these stories as individual professors being too timid to stand up for their own standards.
“They’re just weenies,” says Snyder. “They don’t have the guts to say, ‘No, you deserved a D. Your work was substandard.’”
Patricia McAnany, a CAS professor of archaeology for nearly 20 years, says she grades by judging students against an absolute scale of excellence in class discussions, written assignments, presentations, and exams.
Leo Reyzin, a CAS computer science assistant professor, discusses grading with other faculty in his department, he says, to ensure “there’s some reasonable consistency, and that our grading makes sense to each other.” Reyzin happens to grade on a modified curve — meaning that rather than aiming at a fixed median or percentage of any grade, he looks for “clustering” in the final scores from student work and exams and assigns the top cluster an A or A– and the next cluster Bs, and so on.
Indeed, according to Campbell, every undergraduate college at BU follows the CAS model of providing grading data but allowing departments and professors to determine their own grading standards, with one exception — the School of Management maintains target GPAs, adjusted annually, that vary between lower and upper division courses (where grades tend to be higher).
Peter Arnold, an associate professor of operations and technology management and director of undergraduate faculty at SMG, notes that the target GPAs at the school have risen since he started at BU 20 years ago, from between C+ and B– in his first years to today’s targets near a solid B for lower division courses and B+ for junior and senior courses.
“These are only guidelines based on historical performance of students,” says Arnold. “They can go up and down depending on the performance of students in any particular class.” He adds that professors are not required to follow any particular grade distribution. “There are lots and lots of ways of getting to the average,” he says.
Great expectations: when everybody’s above average
So, what did all those distributions of data and grading discussions accomplish? In the short term, between 1998 and 2003, they led to some “grade compression” around the B. In other words, while the number of As and Bs awarded in CAS remained relatively stable, the percentage of As dropped from nearly 36 percent to about 28 percent and the number of Bs jumped from about 45 percent to just over 50 percent.
The final tallies still left grade distributions significantly higher than they were in the mid-1990s. The 79 percent A and B grades in 2003 in CAS was down slightly from 80 percent in 1998, but well above the 72 percent achieved in 1994. The average GPA in 2003 was 3.01, down from 3.1 in 1998, but up from the average a decade earlier, which hovered around 2.84. Furthermore, since 2003, grades have been rising again, in terms of both As and Bs and average GPA, which for CAS was 3.04 for the 2004–2005 academic year. Only the rate of increase is down from the pace of the late 1990s. Had that pace continued, it would have put the average GPA at 3.6 by this year.
Nevertheless, a straight B average like BU’s is lower than that of many other selective universities, where grade inflation has gone relatively unchecked. That’s the rub, says Wells: “Students live in the context of their friends who are at other universities, and they know what their friends are getting for grades.”
And it’s not just the inflation of grades at other universities that affects how BU students perceive their GPAs. The abilities and preparation of BU students have also increased in the last two decades. Using the SATs of entering freshmen as one measure, the mean score went from 1115 in 1984 to 1278 in the fall of 2005. For CAS freshmen, those scores jumped from 1119 to 1315 over those same years (a mid 1990s SAT recentering accounts for a portion of these increases). As a result, says Henderson, students and their parents expect this top-tier performance to continue into college.
“The competition to get into good colleges is so fierce that people are spending big bucks for coaches and admissions counselors for their kids,” he says. “And then the kid comes here and gets a B–. He never got a B– before. He was a brilliant student, at the top of his high school class. Why should he get a B– at BU?”
Or, as Kornfeld, the SHA student, puts it, “Nobody wants to feel mediocre.” And here’s where the grading issue leaves the relatively solid ground of statistics and takes a philosophical turn. One would expect, after all, that the number of top grades would rise as better students enroll in the University. Indeed, that’s a justification many professors at other universities give when they hand out nearly all As and Bs.
But, according to Henderson, the academic rigor of a college should keep pace with the abilities of its students. As a result, the syllabi of all CAS classes are reviewed every year, and, he says, “we tell departments to keep an eye on the courses that they offer to make sure that they’re current and challenging.” Naturally, such raising of the bar is a drag on GPAs.
The real world: what’s a GPA worth?
Grades also carry plenty of weight outside the classroom. For instance, about two thirds of BU undergraduates receive some financial aid from the University, usually contingent on meeting a GPA threshold. Students must maintain a 2.3 to keep University grants for need-based aid. Thresholds for merit-based scholarships, such as the half-tuition University Scholarship and the full-tuition Trustee Scholarship, are higher — 3.2 and 3.5, respectively.
“As the parent of a very bright man,” writes one signer of the online petition protesting BU’s grading policies, “I am very, very disappointed after his first year at BU. He is there on a merit scholarship but risks losing it, because he is .11 away from the GPA he needs.”
Anne Shea, BU’s vice president for enrollment and student affairs, often hears these types of concerns, but, she says, they are exclusively from students receiving merit-based aid, about 10 percent of all freshmen. Last year, 11 percent of merit-based scholarships were not renewed because students were not making “satisfactory academic progress.” However, students with any predetermined financial need who lose a merit-based scholarship will have that need covered by the University so long as they achieve a 2.3, something 91 percent of BU sophomores were able to do in 2005. In the 2005–2006 academic year, 62 percent of all BU undergraduates received a 3.0 or better, and 47 percent scored above 3.2, the highest percentages in seven years.
“These are top students,” says Shea. “It’s extraordinarily rare for somebody to come into the University and fail to achieve the bare minimum required for need-based aid. If they do, that’s the case of a crash and burn.”
A bigger worry than financial-aid cutoffs among many students, and also among some faculty and administrators, is how BU’s uninflated grades are interpreted by graduate school admissions officers, fellowship selection committees, and potential employers.
“If BU wants to restore grade integrity, fine,” says Liz Spellman (CAS’07), a history and classical civilization major. “But I want it to be a known policy, so that people know that my 3.3 matters more than a 3.7 from someplace else, because I had to earn my 3.3.” (In 2005, 75 percent of BU sophomores earned below a 3.3).
On this issue, the opinions of BU faculty and administration are mixed. Most agree with Wells, who has doubts about how important GPAs are to prospective employers. “An employer may never even ask for your transcript,” she says. “They want to know if you have a degree, and then they want to know what kind of work you can do.”
However, several did say that GPAs are important for graduate school admissions, and that BU should do a better job of making its rigorous grading standards known. “We certainly could do more in terms of taking a principled stand that we distinguish between excellent, good, and subpar performance,” says Campbell.
“The problem is that our students come from a responsible school, where they’re really challenged and have to work for good grades,” Henderson says. “And they’re up against students from equally prestigious schools who have higher GPAs due to grade inflation.” While many universities don’t disclose average GPAs, here’s a recent sampling for comparison: Emory 3.3, Dartmouth 3.3, Notre Dame 3.4, Harvard 3.4.
Indeed, while much noise has been made about grade inflation at American universities, very little real progress has been made. For example, after the embarrassing revelation that in 2001 more than 90 percent of its graduates earned Latin honors, Harvard capped the number of honors graduates at 50 percent and pledged to bring grades under control. But four years later, the percentage of Harvard undergraduate grades in the A range was exactly the same: 48.7 percent.
At least one prominent university, however, has recently enacted a very public grade deflation policy. In the spring of 2004, the Princeton faculty adopted a new grading policy targeting a cap of 35 percent A grades in undergraduate courses and 55 percent A grades in “junior and senior independent work.” Prior to the policy, in the 2003–2004 academic year, about 46 percent of Princeton undergraduate grades were in the A range (47.9 percent in the previous year).
In addition to publishing the policy details and progress reports, every transcript issued by the Princeton registrar includes a letter explaining the new policy. An online FAQ page includes excerpts of responses received from graduate school admissions deans and fellowship officers whom Princeton informed of the grading standards.
So, how can BU lessen student and parent worries about how the transcripts of its graduates are weighed in a grade-inflated world? One possible solution has been discussed among BU’s deans for several years — a contextual transcript that both reports a student’s grades and provides information such as the median grade in each class. A few universities issue some kind of contextual transcript, the most well-known being Dartmouth, which began the practice in 1994.
“I’m very much in favor of contextual transcripts,” says Arnold of SMG. “They tell more of the tale and allow students to point to an additional dimension of the grading data.”
But others aren’t so sure. Campbell says that contextual transcripts were discussed again at this summer’s Council of Deans meeting, but that concerns remain. “The number of schools that use them seems to be dwindling,” he says. “And the anecdotal data is that schools have stopped issuing them, because students don’t ask for them.”
One option, he says, is the development of a class-rank system. “As the BU student body gets better and better,” he says, “this would remain fair, because it would rank you in comparison with your peers.”
Campbell also believes that more openly stating BU’s grading standards is an idea that merits discussion. Henderson concurs. Whatever steps BU officials take next with the University’s grading policies, he hopes they’ll do it as publicly as possible. Henderson believes BU could become a national model for dealing with grade inflation. However, he also thinks students are owed “an adult conversation” about grading.
Then there is the question of what people are buying in higher education. “If you pay high tuition to go to a top private school, do you deserve a good grade?” Henderson asks. “We say we’re upholding standards and challenging students and giving them a first-rate experience in the classroom. Well, is that what people want, or do they just want credentials?”
In Henderson’s opinion, rigorous standards should be part of the undergraduate experience. BU charges “top dollar for tuition for a good education,” he says. “If students come here and aren’t challenged, then I think we’re cheating them.”
Chris Berdik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in BU Today on September 14, 2006.