Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Grade Inflation

By Jim Coleman

Among some of the criticisms levied against higher ed. today are allegations of grade inflation. Students receive the same diplomas and grades as there predecessors while actually accomplishing less. CCAP recently reviewed data in the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study to see if such claims could be substantiated. We look specifically at public and private doctorial institutions between the years 1990 and 2004

There is no doubt that the grades of undergrads have been creeping up over the last 14 years. Initially, however, it is not clear if the higher grades are a result of better performing students or grade inflation. In order to see if the higher grades are the result of student’s abilities we compare their average GPAs with their Average SAT and ACT scores (see figures below). The results are mixed.

SAT score generally do not correlate well with GPAs (.39) at public institutions and inversely (-.29) at private. This suggests that student grades have little relationship with the students’ aptitude, grades increase regardless of the students’ abilities. There is a stronger but still unimpressive relationship between GPAs and ACT scores. The correlation between ACT scores and GPA is only .60 at public schools and .20 at private ones. The ACT Scores suggest that student grade increases, particularly at private schools, have little to do with the knowledge accumulated by students in high school, again suggesting grade inflation may be at work.

Obviously, a small scattering of data points over 3 year intervals isn’t going to settle the question of whether or not there is grade inflation, but the lack of a strong positive relationship between SAT and ACT scores vis-à-vis GPA should give one pause. As it suggests that current student grades are being cheapend by the watering down of academic standards.


ecklesweb said...

This summer David Davis-Van Atta at Vassar presented some really interesting work he's done on grade inflation.

The gist that I got from his findings - and my apologies if I mangle this - were that over a long term (40 years) at an institutional level, grade inflation was an observable phenomenon. But when you break it down to the semesterly credit load for faculty, the trend he has observed amounts to something like only one grade a half-letter higher than the previous semester out of all of the grades assigned to all of the students that faculty member taught.

In other words, grade inflation effectively doesn't exist at the micro level, but it is very clear at the macro level. It's a really interesting systemic issue.

capeman said...

I don't believe these graphs. It's not credible that there have been such large rapid rises in the SAT at both public and private doctoral universities. Did they leave out recentering or something? Anyhow, something looks way off here. Is there an explanation, or is this just sloppy research?

ecklesweb: what are you saying? That there's just a slight creep in grades assigned from one semester to the next? But that over 40 years it accumulates into significant grade inflation? If that's what you're saying, it makes perfectly good sense. I don't see that there's any mystery.

right-wing prof said...

I am very proud that I get excellent teaching evaluations while still:

* not watering down my courses. Actually I make them very difficult and make sure the students know they are difficult, that they are learning a lot of material and should be proud of it. (in advanced classes anyhow, I have no control over something like the syllabus in Calculus I.) Then I assign fair grades at the end, my median grade in a senior level class is typically a B-. For many of my colleagues the median grade is an A-. Some even give out all A's.


capeman said...

RWP a B- average for a senior level class sounds a bit low to me, at that level, the math majors should be performing a little better, in my opinion.

I have been teaching a senior level course for several years, the median in the first term is something like B-/B and the median second term is something like B/B+. For whatever reason they seem to get it better as time goes on.

I doubt that anyone in my department is giving an A-/A grade curve in any senior class except perhaps in very unusual circumstances.

Mad Dog said...

It appears that recentering is folded into the data (SAT Scores).

"Other critics have noted that the SAT itself has changed since the mid-1990s in ways that make it a less credible yardstick. Students must complete the math section in 60 minutes, rather than 90 minutes as was once the case, but they may use a calculator throughout the testing period. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the writers of the SAT were checking how various demographic groups performed on various math questions. Some of the questions that stumped them were dropped.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, said of the purging of questions, 'rather than hold all children to high standards, the SAT was lowered to reflect the poor education that some children receive.'"


I find the ACT/GPA data a bit troublesome. But I would not presume it to be the result of bad research. I think such a statement is a standard pot-shot by capeman (not a very inspiring person). I would consider this blog a very interesting general observation, and one that begs more empirical study.

capeman said...

mad dog -- inspiring or not, I can at least see when absurd data are being presented. For example, the SAT scores at private doctoral institutions. The graph says they dropped about 200 points between 1990 - 1993, then shot way up again. This is simply absurd on the face of it, lacking an explanation (which has not been forthcoming). Anyone who knows anything about the slight annual variations in SAT scores, or the relative stability of SATs in the U.S. News rankiings, can immediately see the absurdity.

Anyhow, there is plenty of documentation of grade inflation based on more complete (not to say rational) data than presented here. There's no doubt it's a real phenomenon. But silly presentations like the one here do nothing to make the case.

Mad Dog said...

You are a "gun is half loaded" person. You just... Ho-Hum... Yawn... zzzzzzzz

Melissa said...


Did you only read the last paragraph of mad dog's post? Because I think he or she was agreeing with you, but did it without the oportunistic, standard capemen fare.

And, by the way, most of your comments are "pot shots", negative, and uninspiring. That's not an attack, it's just the plain truth.

capeman said...

OK, Melissa, your potshots are the plain truth, mine are just potshots. (Doc Vedder's are right up there with Messiah Obama.) Thanks for clearing that up. Very insipring!

Do you have anything at all to say about the obvious absurdity I raised concerning the "data" here?

Brian Manhire said...

Grade Inflation in Engineering Education at Ohio University

Lenny said...

Grade Inflation in Engineering Education at Ohio University

Couldn't that have merely been the result of Ohio U's engineering students' abundantly documented penchant for plagiarizing the work of students at better universities?

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...


Ha ha ha, but, no. Pretty much all of the instances of plagiarism at OU have been graduate students copying the work of earlier graduate students in the same program. In other words, OU students were plagiarizing other OU students, not students at other universities.

Melissa said...


"Do you have anything at all to say about the obvious absurdity I raised concerning the "data" here?


Tom Matrka said...


You are incorrect in your assertion that “OU students were plagiarizing other OU students, not students at other universities.” Ohio University graduates also frequently stole and published the work of authors outside Ohio University.

A few weeks ago, one such case was confirmed by the original author, Victor Lombardi. You can read for yourself by following the link below to Victor Lombardi’s website.


There are more similar examples. This goes beyond grade inflation; for years and years Ohio University professors have been awarding graduate engineering degrees to students who chose a good article or book to copy.

Daniel said...

Mr. Matrka,

I said "pretty much all" of the cases of plagiarism involved OU students copying from other OU students. I've seen the website you cite, and I agree that it is a sad commentary. Certainly the plagiarism went beyond copying a previous student's work here and there, but I stand by my original point.

Also, I think you are unfair to paint with such broad a brush with the comment "for years and years Ohio University professors..." To my knowledge, the number of professors found to be guilty of not having memorized the entirety of the written literature on their subject is exactly three. What I detect here is desperation on your part to try to get your name back in the headlines since your 15 minutes of fame came and went long ago.

Plagiarism is first and foremost the crime of the person doing the plagiarizing. No one, I repeat, no one can guarantee to catch any and every instance of plagiarism that crosses his or her desk. I dare any professor out there who has ever directed a thesis or dissertation to stand up and state unequivocally that there isn't a single instance of what might be construed as plagiarism in any of those documents. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone...