The Curve

Kevin Drum has a post on Grade Inflation up today, but the data, and further commentary come from Alex Tabarok here. The interesting conclusions are that a)there was steep inflation 1967-72, probably associated with the Vietnam War and a second, more gradual inflation from 1987-lates data, and b)more junior faculty are easier graders. Tabarok, a self-described tough grader, also argues, on the basis of a to me only slightly related French experiment, that grade inflation isn't all bad.
In May of 1968 French students rioted, were suppressed by the police, but then joined by 10 million striking workers leading to a near revolutionary situation. To quiet things down many students that year were accepted to universities which in former and later years they would not have qualified for.
It seems that those students admitted under the looser standards did OK, in school and in life.

If you want to answer the question of whether grade inflation is bad, you have to first decide what grades are good for. Some possibilities: a)They promote competition among the students; b)They give prospective employers and graduate schools a basis for comparison; and c)They set standards for achievement.

In my own experiences with a & b, I recall vividly getting back my first exam in Advanced Calculus. It had been a tough enough exam that I had prepared myself by bringing a drop slip, but I was still shocked when I saw my score was only 37/90. I spent the rest of the class in a daze and filling out my drop slip. I didn't even notice that the professor had put up the list of scores and his grading curve. The 37 was actually the high score, and an A according to the prof's peculiar curve. that experience motivated me in a way that getting an 87/90 would not have, and I probably worked harder in that class than any other - I never got the 100% I wanted, but I did come a lot closer and I learned a lot.

There are problems with all three of the grade justifications I suggested. Competition makes the students enemies, to a degree, and encourages cheating. Standards for students, graduate schools, and employers are confused by the very different student bodies at different schools. We all know that the elite schools have much more selective student bodies, but how do we compare on the basis of grades? Is a C from Stanford as good as an A from Obscure City College? How does each compare with the B from Midrank State? Is it crazy that the 10 percentile student at Harvard has grades as good as a 90 percentile student at Nowhere State, especially when you know that the Harvard student probably had a better SAT?

There is a remedy for most of these ills, simple, painful, and extremely unlikely to be adopted: external examination. That is, have all students take the same final exams. I believe they do something like this in Britain. We even have a primitive, but very inadequate, version already, the GRE. The main reason schools will not like this system is that it will expose just how different the achievement levels of the students are.

1. Anonymous3:30 PM

You forgot one important point. Student evaluations of teachers were rare before the first big grade inflation. Student evaluations produce grade inflation because students give better evaluations to teachers who give them beter grades.