In 2004, CSUN instructors assigned twice as many As as Cs in upper division classes. The overall percentage of A grades at CSUN increases every year, which does not necessarily mean students are performing better. On the contrary, it gives cause to believe that academic standards are being lowered.
CSUN faculty has a reason to be concerned about widespread grade inflation, based on information from a recently published report by the CSUN Council of Chairs, which takes the first comprehensive look at grade distribution data at CSUN from 1990 to 2004. According to the study, the percentages of high grades have increased steadily at different rates in most college departments during the 16 year period.
In 2004, 36 percent of upper division grades were either As or A minuses, up 7 percent since 1990. Percentages of upper division B and C grades decreased from 34 and 21 percent in 1990 to 32 and 19 percent in 2004, respectively. D and F grades constituted less than 5 percent each.
“D is a passing grade and (instructors) are not using it,” said Shirley Svorny, professor and chair of the economics department, who was one of three CSUN faculty members involved in the study. “We want to encourage people to take a look at grading practices.”
The report found significant variations between different college departments. The departments in the Arts, Media and Communication college, which has a small enrollment, have seen their combined percentages of A and A-minus grades increase from 18 percent in 1997 to 74 percent in 2004.
A few departments show a decrease in the percentage of A grades, particularly in the College of Business and Economics Administration. In the lower division classes, the Business and Economics college has had a decrease in the percentages of A and A-minus grades from 28 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2004.
While six out of eight colleges are mentioned as having increasing percentages of A grades, without identifying them, the report points to two colleges as having significantly more As in 2004 than in 1990. Colleges with large increases in lower division A grades were Humanities and Arts, Media and Communication.
The report avoids identifying colleges and departments by name and does not assign blame. It simply suggests that each department should review its own grading practices.
“The numbers indicate that there is grade inflation,” Svorny said. “We don’t want to take the position that there is a problem.”
As a summary, the report concludes that grade inflation is slow and takes place gradually over time. The changes are significant, however, when looking at longer time period.
The issue of grade inflation is nothing new and periodically appears within public discourse. As an academic phenomenon, grade inflation was first examined in the 1970s. During the Vietnam War, students could be exempted from the military draft if they had high grades. Many professors felt compelled to spare students from being drafted by assigning higher grades.
“Once grade inflation is established it’s hard to get rid of because everybody likes (high grades), including students, their parents and the administration,” said Harvey Mansfield, a government professor at Harvard University and one of the nation’s leading critics of grade inflation.
The reason colleges should be concerned with grade inflation has to do with academic standards and the value of a college degree in the eyes of employers, graduate schools and law schools.
To prove grade inflation – rising grades without a corresponding rise in academic achievement – critics must demonstrate that students are not performing better than before, something that is difficult to prove. However, there is not much evidence indicating that today’s students enter college better prepared than their predecessors.
“The effect for employers is that they can’t trust the accuracy of an institution’s grades,” said James Sefton, a CSUN history professor who volunteered to work on the report. “The value of a degree is dependent on the reputation of an institution.”
Grade inflation affects all colleges, including the Ivy Leagues.
“It’s bad for the morale of the faculty,” said Mansfield, who teaches political philosophy at Harvard, where A grades are about 50 percent. “The purpose of education should be to help (students) find out what they are good at. Grade inflation gets in the way of that self-knowledge.”
The report avoids presenting grade inflation as a serious problem but acknowledges, among other things, that it could lead to a perception among freshmen that classes at CSUN are no more challenging than they are at a community college.
“When you give students the false impression that college is easy, you do more damage than good,” Sefton said.
The study, entitled “Grade Inflation at California State University, Northridge 1990-2005: A First Look,” does not compare CSUN to other colleges or identify any departments or faculty as examples of significant changes. The new report was concluded and approved in March by the Council of Chairs, but not released until August.
“The purpose for us was to look at ourselves,” said Professor Peter Nwosu, communication department chair and executive chair of the Council of Chairs. “Before last year, we never had this discussion”
The report, which was distributed to all department chairs and posted on the Council of Chair Web site in August, is meant to open dialogue among faculty about their grading practices. The goal is to repeat the grade inflation study every three years.
Every year the department chairs receive grade distribution reports on their own faculty but they are not required to share the information within the department. Part of the report are directives to make sure that grade inflation is being talked about in the different departments and that the department chairs report back to the Council of Chair before the end of the academic year, according to Nwosu.
“Grade inflation is something that each department is going to have to think about on their own,” Svorny said. “There is no recommendation except to try to encourage people within the department to try to pull together observations.”
Except for a summary of grade distribution numbers, the main part of the report includes a list of factors that contribute to grade inflation and suggestions on how to combat them. The factors include an emphasis on graduation that leads to a hurried academic atmosphere, an inadequate emphasis on CSUN’s academic standards to potential students, the use of Scantron exams, competition among departments and against community colleges for enrollments in lower division GE classes, and student complaints about grades and workload.
The report also points out that an increase in the reliance on part-time faculty, many of whom also teach at community colleges, has lowered academic standards. Furthermore, the report suggests that the university’s policy of using student evaluations of instructors to determine tenure may influence grading decisions among junior-tenure track faculty because they are worried about what their students think of them.
Another contributing factor, not included in the report, is the notion that “the purpose of education is to promote the self-esteem of students,” argues Mansfield. Instructors may be deterred from giving students bad grades because “it is such bad news.”
“We did not look at the ‘literature’ when we did this report,” said Sefton, who argued that to take a broad view of the problem encourages a brush-off approach, as grade inflation is a nationwide issue that affects all academic institutions.
According to Sefton, grade inflation is a manifestation of a consumerist education philosophy. The idea that education is a product, that degrees are entitlements and that the purpose of college is to provide services to students, who are customers, leads to an emphasis on graduation rates rather than academ
“The university becomes Cal State Kmart instead of Cal State Northridge,” Sefton said.
Grade inflation means, in a general sense, that grades have gotten too high and that set boundaries for grades have been exceeded. In a cautious and carefully worded statement, the report suggests that grade inflation is an issue that should be reviewed regularly by individual faculty and departments, because grading is faculty business.
The report also recommends that the college look at its graduation rate policies to make sure that academic standards have the “highest priority,” and that tenure evaluations are based more on faculty peer review than on student evaluations.
Mansfield suggested a more drastic measure, not included in the report, involving a departmental grading quota, where the number of A grades available to students are limited to a quota shared by the entire department. In that case, if one professor gives too many A grades, other professors cannot assign as many.
Another possible solution would be to institute grading policies based on the bell curve, a general statistical model that illustrates how human abilities are distributed in the shape of a bell. Business, Administration and Economics is the only college whose grade distribution remotely resembles a bell curve. All other colleges have distribution curves with a downward slant from A at the top to F at the bottom.
“If you have an elite program, using the bell curve would not be appropriate,” Svorny said. “In some cases it might be appropriate to use all As and Bs.”
The report refutes the idea that the University should get involved in grading practices, something that can be perceived as serious impediments to faculty’s academic freedom.
“We don’t want quotas,” Sefton said. “(Quotas) don’t take into account classes that are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.”
The idea to put the class distribution percentages next to the grade on the official transcripts would give employers a better understanding of the grade dynamics. Grade distribution information could have a significant effect on grade policies, and is already being offered through Pick-a-Prof.com, a corporation which posts detailed information revealing individual faculty’s grade practices for anyone to see. The corporation recently won a lawsuit against the CSU system in order to obtain the grade distribution information, which are public records.
“(Pick-a-Prof) raises some concerns of professors that students are just going to take the easy classes,” said Karen Bragg, a spokesperson for the Texas-based Pick-a-Prof.
The availability for students to review instructors’ grading practices could lead to either increased grade inflation, as more students enroll in “easy” A classes, or it could deem grade inflation less significant as employers and graduate schools adjust their requirements. Eventually, Pick-a-Prof could put pressure on departments to review their grading practices.
“We are being contacted by professors on different campuses saying, ‘Please expand the information,'” Bragg said. “If there truly is a concern about grade inflation, why would this information being brought to light make it any worse?”
The next step in the Council of Chairs’ effort to address grade inflation is a Nov. 14 meeting during which the authors of the report will discuss the issue with faculty.
“I don’t think you can completely prevent grade inflation because there are too many factors,” Sefton said. “But you can get a handle on it.”