Editorial — Grade Deflation: A Different Problem not the Solution

The Impact of Efforts to Influence Grade Distributions on Student Diversity and Vulnerable Facutly

Grade inflation has been a problem for decades.  Obviously, it’s vexing.  Nationwide, administrators and faculty have not found effective ways to address it.  Now we have a new problem: grade deflation efforts.  Universities and colleges are looking for quick fixes to the complex, convoluted problem of inflation and are trying strategies, such as penalizing instructors whose class averages are higher than others’, either university-wide or at the college or department levels.  I call this “externally imposed grade deflation”.  It does not emerge from an individual teacher’s desire to use grades more effectively to help students learn.  Instead, individual faculty members are being cajoled, scolded, and threatened with negative consequences – up to and including being fired – if they don’t start giving more bad grades.  The question as to whether or not the students receiving more bad grades merit them is secondary.  The issue is about numbers and reaching benchmarks.  A bad grade helps faculty reach their benchmark, thus, in terms of the individual faculty member’s livelihood, well-being, and status, a bad grade is helpful and a good grade is harmful.  Faculty are incentivized to look for the flaws rather than seeking to raise all students up to higher levels of knowledge and performance.

Here is why grade deflation policies do not work and actually cause immeasurable problems.  More importantly, at this historical moment, they are in direct opposition to other initiatives at the university.

Diversity and Campus Climate

Diversity matters.  Every member of the University benefits from having a rich and varied group of students, all contributing myriad ideas and experiences to community discourses.  This vibrant culture exists on the contingency that students from multiple backgrounds, identifies, and perspectives actively want to be here.

Precisely because so many students have had varied educational experiences leading up to their enrollment at Penn State, their preparations may have been very different.  Women and minorities, in particular, may have been exposed to cultural expectations that encouraged different approaches to learning and performance.  This means that these students may not always be positioned to immediately embrace the types of rubrics and evaluative strategies that disciplines have developed through years during which there were not very many diverse perspectives being included.

In essence, students from diverse backgrounds may find themselves vulnerable to placement in less desirable areas on the grading curves.  Teachers, forced to find students to whom they can give bad grades, may perceive markers of difference as indices of lower academic performance.  (For research identifying this trend, see “What Happens When an Elite American University Kills Grade Inflation” – “the policy exacerbated existing racial gaps in student grades…Black and Latino students…saw larger negative effects on their grades”).

This issue grows more complicated in the current political climate.  Faculty Senate has held important discussions regarding diversity, equity, and bias.  In September, a group of thoughtful, articulate students from diverse backgrounds joined a plenary session to discuss ways that faculty might better foster inclusive learning environments.  Several students emphasized the significance of being able to discuss issues of importance to them, even if those issues were tangential to the course topic.  Several expressed how much they would appreciate being able to voice their views and life experiences without being evaluated or confronted with alternative positions.  In January, The Committee on Educational Equity and Campus Climate proposed teaching best practices that included allowing students to weight the assigned activities for a class according to the student’s individual learning styles and refraining from expecting students to participate in class as part of their grades.  Instructors were also encouraged to establish personal, supportive relationships with their students.

Clearly, these are early efforts to attempt to redress a very long history of uneven access to education and opportunities.  By advertising our awards for diversity and presenting the university as a welcoming space for all, we seem to be making an implicit promise to help level the playing field – to make special efforts to raise all students up to the best of their abilities.  Strategies for accomplishing this goal seem nascent and we need many more discussions, much more analysis, and far more practice before we get it right.  The introduction of grade deflation efforts into this – I would argue – more important project, merely adds complications and confusion to an already complex agenda.  How is an instructor, on the one hand, able to offer tutoring to a student for whom English is a second language, or understanding to the economically challenged student who is late to classes due to childcare issues, when the instructors are being evaluated, themselves, according to their ability to identify and penalize “weakness”?  Who is to define “weakness” in such an uneven environment?

A Troubling Message from The Chronicle of Higher Education

This January, Eric Barron, excited about an article he had read in The Chronicle, addressed the Faculty Senate.  Among other points that Barron raised, he noted that the article predicted that the demographics of most universities would be shifting dramatically in future decades.  The students of the future would be more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion.  Perhaps even more importantly, many would be emerging from high schools identified as failing to adequately prepare students for college and others would be facing severe economic crises.  This would seem to amplify and underscore the importance of the efforts in the previous section.

Unfortunately, another section of the article made the seemingly illogical suggestion that students should learn “less by syllabus” and more “by learning to fail”.  First of all, the disparagement of learning by syllabus is blatantly offensive to college level instructors.  The syllabus – listing useful readings, important topics for discussion, learning projects, and key disciplinary dialogues – is a representation of the special expertise, knowledge base, and skills that a faculty member accrued through years of schooling, study, work with mentors, reading, and research.  To dismiss the syllabus is to paint the modern college instructor as basically incapable of “professing” and holding valuable ideas and training that they can share with others.  The instructor, instead, becomes one who simply asks the student to try to learn something then “coaches” them until the instructor can prove – with rubrics and evidence – that the student has failed.  Meanwhile, why ought these students of the future be “taught how to fail”?  Have they not already overcome challenges and disadvantages?  Mightn’t it make more sense to teach these students how to succeed instead?

This would seem to be the worst possible historical moment at which to “transform education” by introducing lower grades and increasing opportunities to fail.

Student Seeking Employment

Beyond the most striking contradiction and lack of logic at the core of any efforts to discuss campus equity and grade deflation at the same time, there are myriad other reasons to tread slowly into the latter conversation.  All students experience the impact of efforts to curve and lower their grades when they enter the job market or graduate school application process.  Even if faculty are under orders from their departments to make 3.0 the average grade point in their classes, the student’s B+ (an above average grade) will look, on transcripts, exactly the same as the Harvard student’s B+ (where the average is a 3.5, meaning a B+ is below average).  Graduates will simply be going out into the world with lower grades and no way to explain that.

In addition, students will have less influence over their grades.  In the current system, if all students in a class perform well, all students are justly rewarded with strong grades.  Under a system in which individual faculty members are penalized for having their students do well and rewarded for giving bad grades, faculty will be strongly incentivized to give some of those high-performing students bad grades.

Faculty at Princeton reported that this had a negative impact on students’ psychological well-being and mental health.

What about Learning and Academic Freedom?

Education professors are always studying the relationship between evaluation and learning and always producing new research and theories.  Right now, individual faculty members are able to work with individual students to determine what evaluation system is right for that situation.  They can investigate what types of grades will be the most motivating, fair, and just for each class type.  Individual faculty members are also able to utilize grades in ways that work optimally with their larger pedagogical processes.  We’ve all agreed that diversity is a core value in university life.  Should we not value diversity in the different ways that faculty members work to nurture, encourage, and promote learning in all of its forms?  Is there not room for many different pedagogical approaches?  The more types of teaching and learning that we cultivate here at Penn State, the more likely we are to find some that work ideally for many different learners.   If departments and administrators take away a faculty member’s authority to determine what grading scales and distributions work the best in their own individual classes, then those administrators are further limiting that faculty expert’s ability to creatively impart their knowledge, and depriving students of having a full, extensive experience of that faculty member’s pedagogical talents in a holistic package.

The Faculty Vise: Attack the most Economically Vulnerable Faculty

If departments are told that they must be sure that their classes curve to a specific point, their first logical step will be to begin punishing teachers whose students perform well and push up the curve.  These teachers may be scolded, denied various benefits within the department, or simply fired and sent away.  There are different types of faculty members.  Clearly the tenured, named, senior professors are insulated against these types of “sticks”.  Faculty seeking tenure and nontenured faculty will bear the brunt of the burden because these are people who literally *can* be fired at any time, in any place, for any reason.

A lecturer confronting the imposition of a university-wide bell curve ought to be afraid — very, very afraid.

That type of faculty member is put in a sort of pressure cooker.  Their administrators threaten to fire them if their students perform too well.  Yet, senior faculty also observe their classes, and may want to fire them if their students are *not* thriving and doing well.  SRTEs are proven by research to correlate to a certain extent to grades.  Faculty can be fired for receiving low SRTEs.  There are also nationwide news stories about faculty members being fired when they are served with harassment complaints.  Our culture is changing.  Efforts to eliminate harassment and discrimination on campuses are part of an important project to create a more just and fair world.  These efforts, however, are new and are not always pitch perfect.  Some news stories have revealed that dissatisfaction with grades played a role in several harassment complaints.  Nontenured faculty can be fired and publicly humiliated after harassment allegations.  Thus, a teacher is terrified of displeasing administrative authorities, but also of upsetting a student who has at their disposal the power to file not only harassment complaints, but law suits.

This places the faculty member in an excruciating vise, threatened with being fired, humiliated, and punished from all sides.  These faculty members are experts in their own fields.  They are not trained negotiators or lawyers.  Their pay grade does not merit this level of pressure.  Faculty are already the public face of the school.  The faculty interact directly with consumers spending a great deal of money for their educations: the students.  Asking the faculty members to more aggressively evaluate, and potentially directly insult, these consumers forces them to open themselves ever increasingly to levels of risk and exposure for which they are not trained or prepared.  Meanwhile, shouldn’t a student paying exorbitant rates to learn something hold the reasonable expectation that they will actually learn that subject well rather than experience it as just another “opportunity for failure”?

How is a teacher supposed to effectively help students learn when they are dealing with this level of perpetual terror?

Have other Schools tried this?

Yes, they have.  Princeton and Berkeley, for example, tried to impose externally developed grading parameters upon the faculty.  It caused problems.  After much drama and chaos (which distracted from actual learning), they changed their minds and stopped doing it.

No One Likes the Grade Lowering Strategies that are Actually Logical and Workable

There actually are ways to quickly and easily lower the average grades across a university.  Many law schools have employed these methods and they work. The key practices would be:

  • Blind grading: either a different faculty member would grade the student work in a class or the class’s instructor would encounter that work in a completely anonymous fashion.
  • No office hours or extra help: obviously, if a grader is going to be charged with judging work anonymously, they cannot have previously encountered – or even, themselves, contributed to – that work.  Furthermore, since everyone is being evaluated anonymously and in relation to each other, it would be unfair to provide additional help to some but not others.  Teaching would consist of presenting ideas to the class as a whole and posting information on-line so that everyone had the exact same access.
  • Rank students instead of grading them: make a hard ranking from strongest to weakest then apply whatever grading curve the university requires.
  • Abolish grades. Yale Medical School has done well without them for years. Another option would be to try more pass/fail options.

None of those options are ever discussed here.  Frankly, they don’t sound pleasant to me…but at least they make sense; they are logical.  The only idea I ever hear is subjective and vague.  It usually involves charging an administrator – a dean or department head – with the task of getting their unit’s average grades down.  The administrator then approaches a group of faculty with vastly divergent degrees of power – famous named professors and part-time adjuncts alike – and tries to figure out who can be effectively pressured into lowering their grades.  Faced with such an amorphous situation, the administrator usually just ends up criticizing faulty with high grades.  Among the nontenured faculty, that criticism escalates to threats of denied promotions, then denied promotions, then threats of being fired, then being fired.  This is so obviously an utterly absurd plan.  It shows nothing resembling creativity, attempts at fairness, logic, or critical thinking and should not even be discussed at an institute of “higher learning”.

 “An Immodest Proposal”: Dystopia Ensues

What is the Darwinian Fixed Term Faculty member to do?  What would survival of the fittest and the invisible hand suggest?  I’d  begin, of course, with gas-lighting.  I’d identify the dominant personalities in the classroom and draw them into my elite circle of fans.  Then, I’d ask the weaker performers into my office where I would talk in circles around them about how I was trying so, so hard to help them improve and they seemed incapable of understanding the most rudimentary readings despite the help I lavished upon them.  But, in reality, I’d just be confusing them.  Then, in class, when they acted confused, my dominant elite would stare at them as if they were very unstable.  I’d spend a lot of time in class pontificating on Derrida or Baudrillard in ways that would have nothing to do with our assignments, but would make me sound smart and witty (important to keep the SRTEs from fully hitting the bottom….that’s where the gas-lighting comes in: confusion is ALWAYS the fault of the student, not me).

There are a few logistical steps one can take as well: schedule your senior classes after 3:30 on Fridays – the students who sign up will be the disorganized ones who got stuck with annoying class times.  Then, they will want to miss most Friday classes for “Senior Year – it only comes once!”.  I’ll just dock the points right off their heavily weighted participation grade every week.  If the Equity Committee says I can’t grade participation, I’ll give a quiz on Fridays and say it’s “required by my department.”

If I should be so lucky as to have, say, a single mother with a special needs child, I should have plentiful opportunities to dock her for everything from late submissions and arriving to class even one minute late to missed classes and distraction during discussions.  I mean, how can she really do a great job taking care of the precious soul who depends up her for life itself if she is consumed with my “rubrics” and draconian rules?  Hopefully, students will develop mental illnesses but won’t realize what’s going on until it’s too late to seek help.  They should drag down the curve in all sorts of desirable ways.  Maybe some students won’t even be able to afford the books….or a laptop.  Score!

You can catch a few additional absences by scheduling class in the library or a museum or computer lab, writing that clearly on the syllabus, but never mentioning it in class…until you arrive at the library and, at exactly one second after class begins, start registering the penalties.

Rubrics facilitate the lowering of grades because you can just plunk down a low number in a category (say, “free from error” and, when students complain, point to some misplaced metaphor or something).

Of course, if a student comes to you asking to “late add” a class (hopefully, really late) jump on that immediately.  Explain that “to be fair” you cannot reteach all of the materials that everyone else learned in, well, class.  So, the student will need to acquire the information some other way.  They will need to take any missed exams the day they add the class.  They will also lose attendance points for all courses missed since the add/drop period ended.  These types of students are almost always disorganized and entitled, but desperate, so will agree to whatever you tell them.

Finally, Under NO uncertain circumstance should you accept an honors student into your class.  Sure, some will sneak in with early enrollment, but NEVER agree to do honors options (this is often dissuasion enough) and never ever late add one of them.  They are very bad for your GPA.

Where Did the Good Go?

Does that sound like an awful existence?  It does to me.  I wouldn’t feel like an “educator”, rooted in “educo”, which means to draw out from within.  As scholars have articulated since Hippocrates and, later, James Agee, in Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a fundamental goal of human compassion is the eschewing of causing harm to other beings.  Agee uses the argument as a peon against suicide – you may be free from worry when it’s over, but those who loved you will suffer agonizingly.  Essentially, even if you can’t do anything grand to really help other people, at least you can try not to hurt them.

Under my “bad grade” plan, I’d spend most of my time shattering my students’ dreams, making sure that they would never want to write or do history again, and making them feel distressed about the advisability of taking out those student loans. That’s not good for them, but it’s even worse for me.

I’ve always considered teaching a calling and a sincere way to help students develop the confidence to try new things, hone their skills (especially in areas where they already have budding talent) and learn about some key ideas and trends in history and rhetoric.  This will all help them to become compassionate, helpful individuals in their own careers, paying it forward.

If I’d wanted to earn my living scamming people, alerting them to the fact that they might be stupid, or crushing their hopes, I would have become something else — a litigator, a Wolf of Wall Street, or at least someone who got paid exorbitant amounts of money?  I doubt I’d last t00 long under my cold and calculating regime.  Putting the students through “survival of the fittest” and “weeding out the weak” is not in my nature.  Darwin himself suffered depression when he realized that species evolved in such a brutal manner.

Making sure that students have a positive learning experience in class is good not just for them, or even just for me, but for the University.  During a recent alumni event, I was able to have a good conversation with an alumnus who donates to the College and sponsors an exchange trip with China.  He couldn’t get enough of telling me about a German professor  who, upon hearing that this future alum only needed one more class to graduate, gave him a spur of the moment opportunity for verbal extra credit and changed his failing grade to passing.  Forty years ago and this act of flexibility and empathy shines as a clear memory.

Fairness: Does it Matter Anywhere Anymore?

Ultimately, this is about simplistic fairness – a child could understand it.  If a teacher is penalized and harmed because their students seem to persistently perform well, then that doesn’t seem fair.  It imposes reverse incentives.  The teacher is rewarded when students perform poorly and passively accept lower grades.  This leads to a system in which the teacher is not motivated to try to help anyone to do better…but actually to wish that more students would make significant and easy to document mistakes.  What kind of learning-nurturing, mentoring, supportive relationship does this form between student and teacher?  A weak one.  The student can’t control whether or not the other students in their class are talented or not.  If they are in a class where the GPA needs to be pushed down, the teacher, not because it delights them, but because they are terrified of being fired, will give them a bad grade.

Nothing about the imposition of grading demands from external sources – administrators, faculty senates, or departments – is fair or just.

There may well be a problem with the fact that grade inflation leads to most grades being clumped near the top. It is, however, a national crisis that necessitates a national solution rather than harmful efforts at individual campuses.

*A humane solution addresses the myriad cultural issues and does not simply tell departments to force their faculty to “give more bad grades”.  We deserve a better solution than that.* 


For Further Reading

Faculty Committee Advises Princeton to Eliminate Grade Deflation Policy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/08/princeton-grade-deflation_n_5662208.html

Black Students Were Hurt the Most when Wellesley tried to Control Grade Inflation: http://www.vox.com/2014/8/26/6067175/grade-inflation-college-wellesley

The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation :http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/dangerous-myth-grade-inflation/

The Case for Grade Inflation in Legal Education (article abstract): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2261393

In Defense of Grade Inflation at Harvard: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/in-defense-of-grade-inflation-at-harvard/282039/

What Happens When an Elite American University Kills Grade Inflation: http://qz.com/245006/what-happens-when-an-elite-american-university-kills-grade-inflation/


Grade Inflation



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