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Thursday, March 10, 2016

A minor rant on grade inflation

This is a comment I posted on a blog elsewhere.

Grade inflation is one of those topics that nags at me. The linked article refers largely to “elite” universities. Other things equal, I would have expected average grades to have gone up somewhat in those institutions, because they have become even more selective. Unless their selection algorithms are even more messed up than we would have thought, they should be doing a better job of selecting students more likely to succeed. Why wouldn’t grades rise?

And that’s without considering two other phenomena that extend beyond elite institutions.

The first is the more widespread availability of assistance for students–study skills, writing/math/language labs, tutors (I’m adjuncting at a reasonably selective private liberal arts institution right now that has tutors available for intro econ; until the mid-1980s, or even later, many if not most public universities did not offer tutors for those courses), and so on. An immense amount of research on which study practices work better (and for which types of students), and that information is fairly widely available.

The second is that more and more institutions–yes, even elite schools and R-1s–are at least paying more attention to preparing people to teach and supporting better teaching practices. This is true at all of the institutions at which I have taught, and it appears to be true generally. There has been an explosion in the number of journals that focus on teaching in higher education, with actual evidence of what does and does not work. Institutions have teaching/learning centers and run series of workshops. So, I would contend, the average effectiveness of instruction has increased.

Put all this together–why wouldn’t we expect grades to have risen? If I am correct, the only way to prevent that is for grading standards, far from eroding, to become more stringent.

I do not intend to imply that no one anywhere has eased up. I simply intend to argue that a rising average grade distribution is not necessarily *proof* that standards are eroding. Hell, I’m not sure it’s even *evidence* that standards are eroding.


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