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Grade inflation is a costly phenomenon.

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Last Tuesday, an amazing thing happened. A college professor told the truth about grade inflation. Writing in the Washington Post, Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke University admitted that he no longer gives any grade lower than a B. If he were to do so, he wrote, fewer students would sign up for his courses and his teaching career would suffer. Not wishing to be deemed a failure, Rojstaczer simply gives students what they, their parents, and the university all want: high grades regardless of merit.

In his own defense, Rojstaczer notes that the phenomenon of grade inflation is not limited to his classroom or school. Every major university has seen a general increase in grades for the same work. According to data Rojstaczer has collected, the average grade-point average has risen by almost half a grade since 1970. At this rate, he estimates that by mid-century all grades will be A’s.

The problem of grade inflation is not confined to universities. According to a new study by the University of California at Los Angeles, college-bound high school students show substantially higher grades today than they did 30 years ago. In 1972, 42% of students entering private universities and 25% of those going to public universities had A averages. Today, 70% of the former and 53% of the latter have such an average.

One possible explanation for this trend is that students simply are smarter today than in years past. But this is clearly not the case. According the College Entrance Examination Board, the average combined score on the Scholastic Assessment Test (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) has fallen from 1059 in 1967 to 1020 in 2002. However, this greatly understates the magnitude of the decline because in 1995 the SAT was “renormed.” In practice, this statistical legerdemain added 100 points to everyone’s score — 76 points to the verbal score and 24 points to the math score.

What this means is that for anyone who took the SAT before 1995, if you want to know how well you would do today you must add 100 points. Keep this in mind when some friend brags about how well his child did on the test. You can knock 100 points off for grade inflation in comparison to how your generation did.

Of course, the issue of grade inflation is not new. A recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences notes that there have been concerns about the problem since at least the mid-1970s. The roots lie in the vast expansion of college enrollment in the 1960s, as the postwar Baby Boom generation came of age.

As the Baby Boomers moved through the universities a number of factors contributed to grade inflation. A key one was the Vietnam War, which encouraged professors to go easy on their male students, lest they lose their student deferment and be drafted into the army. At the same time, education philosophy was changing, causing universities to drop many required courses in areas such as mathematics, science, and languages.

Reinforcing the inflationary trend in grading was the growth of student evaluations in promotion and tenure decisions for professors. Obviously, students tend to give good reviews to those that are easy graders. And as graduate school became the norm for increasing numbers of college students, there was more of a premium on good grades. In this sense, credential inflation — requiring more and more education to do the same job — has contributed to grade inflation.

Unfortunately, grade inflation is not costless. One consequence is that students are discouraged from taking science courses, where the nature of the subject matter has held down grade inflation, in favor of those in the humanities, where it is rampant. Over time, this has caused universities to drain resources from science programs. Eventually, this will harm economic growth by reducing technological innovation and advancement.

Another problem is that gifted students are discouraged from giving their best. Why should they when other students doing half as much work get the same grades they do? At the same time, professors have no way of encouraging their best students because they can’t give grades higher than an A. The result is a general dumbing down of achievement and quality in our higher education system, while students and their potential employers are deluded into thinking that everything is okay.

Lately, there has been a bit of a backlash against grade inflation, following the disclosure that half of all grades at Harvard were A’s in 2000, up from a third in 1985. Moreover, according to the Boston Globe, 91% of seniors graduated with “honors” that year — far more than at any other Ivy League school. This led the university to put a cap on such honors beginning in 2005. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

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