Throughout the last year, the issue of grade inflation has often been in the national media spotlight. Shocking revelations about the skyrocketing rise in the percentage of A’s and the promiscuous granting of Honors awards at Harvard University especially have fueled debate. The chart below indicates the national trends.
Despite this, some teachers and parents in Alabama might choose to console themselves with the theory that grade inflation is limited to the Ivy League or other elite private colleges. They would be wrong to do so.
The grade inflation epidemic has infected the flagship institution in our state, the University of Alabama. To fully comprehend the extent and nature of the problem, it must be examined as one component in a larger phenomenon: Grade Distortion. We define grade inflation as the increasing percentage of high letter grades awarded to students over a defined period, unrelated either to improvements in student abilities or changes in instructional quality.
A second subset of grade distortion is grade disparity. In some ways it poses a far more serious threat to educational quality and basic fairness in grading. The level of grade distortion can be measured by calculating the differences between units internal to the university (colleges or departments) in the percentage of higher letter grades awarded to students in a defined period.
First, let us consider the best known component of grade distortion: grade inflation. The earliest available statistics for the University of Alabama from the early 1970s reveal that grade inflation was already well underway. An average taken of all four full semesters (spring and summer) between the fall of 1972 and the spring of 1974 show that A’s represented 22.6 percent of grades in all undergraduate courses. This was considered so high that the Office of Institutional Analysis at the University of Alabama (now the Office of Institutional Research) warned at the time that “the percentage of A’s and I’s awarded has been steadily increasing” especially among undergraduates.
Unfortunately, these warnings fell on deaf ears and grade inflation accelerated to new highs during the next three decades. Today, it has reached crisis proportions). In the last full semesters (Fall 2000 to Spring 2002), the percentage of A’s in all undergraduate courses has risen to 31.1 percent, a startling 37.6 percent increase since 1974. The only exception to this upward trend is the College of Engineering which registered a slight dip in undergraduate A’s from an already high 37.3 percent (1972-1974) to 36.0 (2000-2002). Meanwhile, the College of Commerce and Business Administration recorded a 99.3 percent increase, while the College of Education comes in with a 42 percent increase over thirty years in the proportion of A’s it awards. The last figure is less than we had first calculated, but only because Education awarded a greater percentage of A’s 30 years ago than we had first thought. (In 1972-72, the perentage was 39%, not 21%). Now, as then, the College of Education ranks first in percentage of A’s handed out among all the academic colleges at the University of Alabama.
What has caused grade inflation at the University of Alabama? In 1996, the Office of Institutional Research concluded that grade inflation was due to “admission of better prepared high school graduates.” While it is not our purpose here to examine possible causes for grade inflation, there is little evidence for this claim. In the last 30 years, the average ACT scores for entering freshmen have increased by relatively little (from 22.9 to 24.5), an amount difficult to reconcile with the 37.6 percent increase in undergraduate A’s over the same period. It strikes us as significant that the University never released the 1996 report, called “Grade Inflation,” and that administrators have now sealed access to the data we used to compile this report.
Now, let us turn to the more serious component of the problem. We call it “grade disparity.” To view the issue in isolation, we have focused on the percentage of A’s in the departments of the College of Arts of Sciences, the largest college at the University of Alabama. In addition, we have limited our analysis to 100 and 200 level courses, the so-called gateway courses for freshmen and sophomores. Because such courses are of an introductory nature, a traditional goal is to winnow out students before they can advance move on to more advanced courses. Thus, the percentage of A’s in gateway courses is generally, or should be generally, lower than in 300 to 500 level courses. If the percentage of A’s consistently exceeds 20 percent at this level, we believe that a serious grade inflation problem exists.
The disparities between departments in 100 to 200 level gateway courses are striking. The most inflationary department in the College of Arts and Sciences is Women’s Studies. In the last two years, the average percentage of A’s in that department averaged an almost unbelievable 78.1 percent. Of those, almost half were at the grade of “A+.” Other highly inflationary departments are Theater/Dance (51.4), Religious Studies (48.5) and Music (48.1). The five least inflationary departments are Biological Sciences (11.1), Geography (13), Geological Sciences (14.2), Math (14.6), and Anthropology (14.8).
WS(Women’s Studies), Phil (Philosophy) Tht (Theater and Dance) Hist (History) Rel (Religious Studies) Anth (Anthropology) Mus (Music)Geol (Geological Sciences) Art (Art History) Geo (Geography) Eng (English) Bio (Biology) ML (Modern Languages) C Dis (Communication Disorders) Soc (Sociology) CJ (Criminal Justice) Pol (Political Science) Phy (Physics & Astronomy) AmS (American Studies) Psy(Psychology)Chm (Chemistry)
Perhaps size is the reason for these disparities? Women’s Studies courses are smaller and self-selective, whereas other 100 level courses are much bigger and tend to fulfill distribution requirements. But this cannot be right. Philosophy courses at the same level tend to be small, too, and the students who take Philosophy are self-selecting. Yet Philosophy awards less than 15% A’s, and only about 2% A+. Clearly, “grading” itself means something quite different in the two departments.
Though both of our departments (Anthropology and History) fall in the 15 percent or lower range, we certainly do not claim innocence. The differences are relative at best. Grade disparity exists within nearly every department on campus. The Blount Undergraduate Initiative is a case in point.
During the last two years, the percentage of A’s has varied dramatically in courses which randomly assign students and give the exact same readings. In the spring semester of 2002 (which is typical of previous semesters) one instructor gave 81.7 percent A’s in such a course while another gave 37.4 (see note on sources). The other five awarded 53.7%, 46.6%, 38.4%, and 46%. In the Fall of 2000, the numbers are nearly as disparate: 55.1%, 38.6%, 56.2%, 47.0%, 47.4%, and 58.3%. In the Spring of 2001, the class averages for number of A’s awarded were: 64.5%, 18.7%, 56.2%, 69.8%, 83.2%, 18.7%, and 71.5%. These kinds of disparities reflect more than simply the fact that Blount instructors change year to year, or semester to semester: it reflects an overall policy of indifference to clear and consistent academic standards.
Another major factor in grade distortion is the introduction of the “No-Credit” (NC) grading system in two department, Mathematics and English. The NC system was introduced, apparently, to enchance student retention by making it almost impossible for students to fail introductory math and English courses. Needless to say, if low grades are excluded entirely from introductory courses, then a department’s overall grade averages will be distorted. Please see our special report on this subject.
Grade disparity and grade inflation of this nature serve to undermine educational quality and standards. It also shortchanges the best and hardest working students. When grade disparity is rife, as it is at the University of Alabama, the overall Grade Point Average can no longer be said to adequately reflect comparative abilities. The grade of the A student in the course which demands little effort is placed on an equal plane with the student who has to struggle to earn the same grade in a more difficult course. The system creates perverse incentives for students to “shop around” for professors who have reputations for giving “easy A’s” and serves to degrade the efforts of those students who might otherwise take “harder” courses. Under such a system, the student transcript loses its value a source of information for potential employers who need to judge the comparative qualifications of UA graduates.
What can be done to reduce grade inflation? Several possible solutions deserve serious consideration. First, the University of Alabama could require that all student transcripts not only include the grade for the class, but also the average grade for all students enrolled in the class. Prospective employers could then get a better idea of whether that A- is to be admired or ignored, and the students would be less prone to shop for easy grades.
Another proposal to rank students in each class will be considered by the Faculty Senate in the fall semester. The system would be relatively simple to implement. In a course of 30 students, for example, the third best student would receive a ranking of 3/30. A cumulative ranking for all courses (which could be converted into a percentile) would also be listed on the transcript. Ranking is not intended to replace letter grades but to supplement them. It provides employers and admission committees with another source of information for student ability and thus serves as a corrective for disparities in letter grades.