Grading off the Curve

For The Nashville City Paper

The problem of grade inflation at learning institutions may be worsening, and if not stemmed, Vanderbilt and other universities could near the epidemic proportions seen by Harvard University and reported on by The Boston Globe in 2001; A record 91 percent of Harvard students graduated summa, magna, or cum laude spurring the article and the subsequent fallout in educational journals.

Vanderbilt’s student newspaper, The Hustler, reported on the issue last week, citing a significant rise in Latin Honors from 1991 to 2002.

Grade inflation is a hot topic right now, said Richard McCarty dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Arts and Sciences. Families with high school seniors are going through the acceptance turmoil. McCarty said whenever a school with Harvard’s standing is targeted for a having a problem, the issue becomes national.

“Vanderbilt does not have the magnitude [the problem of grade inflation] that Harvard faces, but I think we would be less than responsible if we weren’t mindful of where we stand now in terms of the rate of increase and the average grade point average of our students over time and the percentage of our graduating seniors that receive Latin Honors,” McCarty said.

Grade inflation is the escalation of grade point averages over time, leaving in its wake the perception that grades are being devalued. The problem is particularly concentrated at Ivy League schools that draw high achieving students who often attract high school valedictorians with top SAT scores.

Surveys show that in 1969, 7 percent of students reporting earned A-minus or higher, and 25 percent earned C grades or below. In 1993, 26 percent of students reporting earned A-minus or higher and 9 percent earned C grades or below.

“If you look at schools that have open enrollment policy, they don’t have the problem because so many students do not complete the four years of college and that tends to pull the average GPA average down,” McCarty said. McCarty refuted the theory that today’s student are more competitive and doing better work.

“I don’t accept that, McCarty said. My concern is that we have a grading system in place in the college of arts and science that allows us to recognize the truly distinguished performance. If all grades are on the basis of 90 to 100- that’s the entire grading range-it’s going to be hard to distinguish the very competent or even excellent student.”

Some suggest that grade inflation originated in the 60s with the pumping up of grades to get students out of the war and/or students flocking to colleges to avoid the draft.
Others believe the corporatization of higher learning has led to universities behaving more like merchants than educators, in turn schools ensuring that parents can have something to show for their high tuition bills.

The loosening of administrative policies nationwide, such as the lessening of tough core requirements and the movement to more electives, also could be a factor as is the fear of professors giving poor grades because it might affect their evaluations by students.

Art Overholser, senior associate dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, said during the ’60s there was a shift in policy nationwide.

“In many institutions, and Vanderbilt is among them, the rules have changed. Students get to retake courses under certain circumstances to raise their grade. That didn’t happen when I was in college. There are more opportunities to take courses pass/fail. The policies of dropping a course without a grade well into the semester are more prevalent,” McCarty said.

“Grade inflation at Vanderbilt was largely under control, but if we’re not careful we’re going to be in the same boat Harvard is in now in a decade or so, and I don’t want that to happen,” McCarty said.

Overholser said over the long haul there has been some grade inflation but none that he has seen recently in his graduating seniors.

“Over the last three years that I’ve been doing my job, this fall the senior engineering class at Vanderbilt had a mean grade-point average of 3.11,” Overholser said. “Three years ago that number was 3.10. So over a few years in the school of engineering there has been no grade inflation. Now that doesn’t mean, of course, that that applies to all of Vanderbilt, and I certainly would not argue against the contention that over the long period of time, like 30 years or so, there hasn’t been grade inflation.”

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