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UA grades on the rise

"I've tried to resist. But at some extent you have to go along with it to be fair with other students."
-James King, psychology professor

By Rachel Williamson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday Feb. 19, 2002

Statistics show nearly two-thirds of university grades are A's and B's

Getting high grades in classes across the university may be easier than some students expect - and it may be getting easier.

Statistics released by the Registrar's Office show that 64 percent of the grades given university-wide in 2001 were A's and B's, a number that has risen 7 percent since 1991.

The figures reflect a nationwide trend in higher education - students across the country are receiving higher grades than in the past - but administrators and faculty are divided as to whether this phenomenon, known as grade inflation, is actually a problem.

Alphabet soup

Grade inflation resistors like English professor Jonathan Penner say that when a majority of students are receiving high grades, the "excellent" and "average" students become indistinguishable.

Penner, who chairs a group concerned about grade inflation called Caucus on Grading, has collected statistics on grade point averages and grade policies.

Caucus on Grading, founded in 1998 by members of the department of English, meets to generate ideas about grading policies and inform the university about grade inflation. Since the group formed, faculty from other departments have joined.

Penner noticed a problem with grading standards when his students started evaluating him as a "hard grader." When he began teaching at the University of Arizona in 1978, a grade of C was average. But now, Penner notes, B is considered average and C is low.

The percentage of B's increased from 28 percent in 1991 to 29 percent last year, while the percentage of C's has decreased from 17 percent to 14 percent in the same period.

"As grades clump together at the top, they do less measuring," Penner said. "If the full range of A through E was used, grades would be more just."

But higher grades do not convince all UA faculty and administration that grade inflation is a problem or even exists.

Learning the ABC's

Freshman GPAs in the 1990s do not indicate grade inflation, said Rick Kroc, director of curricular and enrollment research. The average GPA for freshmen was 2.4 in 1994 and has increased to 2.7.

"Findings show that in the '90s, grade inflation has stabilized," said Kroc, also an adjunct assistant professor of higher education. He said that although grade inflation may have existed in earlier decades, the trend flattened out in recent years.

Students might also be doing better, said William Matter, associate professor of renewable natural resources.

"The data will probably indicate that average (GPA) is going up," Matter said. "But I'm not convinced that's enough to tell that grades have been inflated."

But a broader cross-section of students are attending college now compared to a more elite group in the 1960s, Penner said.

"It defies belief to think that this wide cross-section is better prepared, better motivated and better educated than the elite groups of the past," he said.

Grade inflation has not been formally discussed at UA since the Caucus on Grading held several meetings in 1999. Because it was unclear that grade inflation was a problem, Matter said, nothing was proposed to solve it.

Penner proposes the best solution to grade inflation is to encourage faculty to grade realistically and fair.

"I've tried to resist," said James King, psychology professor. "But to some extent you have to go along with it to be fair with other students."

Spelling out the system

Social science departments might inflate grades more than departments in the hard sciences, said Bill Calder, an ecology professor since 1969.

Statistics show that grades are not inflated in the chemistry department, which has a less subjective premise for grading. Faculty are less likely to use personal opinion to grade math and science-oriented answers.

For example, the percentage of A's in individual chemistry classes does not exceed 25 percent.

But in the communication department, more than half of the classes have rates of A's above 30 percent.

"I can see in social sciences that it's something more subjective when there are less specific answers," Calder said. "Because I know in that kind of situation I feel like I'll give students the benefit of the doubt."

The pressure to inflate grades, Penner said, comes from UA students, faculty and administration. Every year a peer review looks at student evaluations.

"The result is directly reflected in pay raises and reputation in the department," Penner said. "This gives them an incentive to inflate grades."

The administration is under pressure from the state Legislature to increase the graduation rate and decrease the dropout rate, Penner said. Because the university is rewarded and funded for keeping the graduation rates up, the administration will never act against grade inflation, he added.

"Lower grades mean increased drop-out rates," Penner said. "Teachers raise a red flag by giving what's considered a low grade."

But most students drop out for personal reasons, said UA president Peter Likins. And even if the average GPA was 2.5, Likins said, students would still graduate meeting the 2.0 GPA requirement.

Curving around the facts

Grade inflation, on a national level, seems to be most affecting Ivy League schools, like Harvard.

"Grade inflation is worse in the prestigious schools," said Michael Dues, communication department head. "Yet people think that a B at Harvard is more than a B at the UA."

More than half of Harvard University grades last year were A's or A-'s, and 91 percent of the Harvard students graduated with honors in June 2001. Harvard's large clump of A students sparked a national debate on university grading policies.

But studies show that universities of all types are experiencing grade inflation.

At Georgetown and Northwestern universities, more than 40 percent of the grades are A's or A-'s.

Students get caught in the middle, said Steve Smith, chair of the undergraduate council. But grades are ultimately a faculty decision.

"Grading is one of those responsibilities left to faculty and their sense of what's right," Matter said.


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