In this article I review and comment on a recently published study about patterns of grades assigned by professors. the study reports that currently, 43% of the grades assigned in college are As (in private schools, 49% of all grades are As). The trends reported provide evidence in support of a theory of grade inflation.
Should this issue matter to accountants that read The Summa? Yes. College grades and GPA permeate the profession. A collegiate education, with a degree in accounting, is a fundamental requirement for becoming an accountant. The largest accounting firms (please note that I did not say the best, or top, accounting firms) require a minimum GPA for the opportunity to interview. Traditionally, this GPA has been 3.50, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this threshold is rising. Accounting professors categorize students by GPA and only give scholarships and recommendations to the students with the best grades. Moreover, memories of academic adversity and its overcoming (or not) die hard. Decades later, I remember the grades I received in every accounting course. I also remember the scores received on many tests and papers.
The article highlighted here is”Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009” by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy (published in 2011). Rojstaczer and Healy gathered grade data from a total of 200 American colleges and universities over a 70 year period. Only a few schools supplied data for all 70 years. 135 schools supplied data for 2009, with 65 not supplying 2009 grades but supplying grade data for prior years. The 135 schools supplying data are both private non-profit schools (32%) and public schools (68%), with a total of 1.5 million students. This sample is biased, because it under represents private non-profit schools, which assign higher grades that public schools.
Given the incredibly large sample size, it is likely (in my opinion), that Rojstaczer and Healy have accurately captured the trends in grade assignments for the entire population of American colleges and universities for the period studied. It is likely, however, that percentage numbers for the late 2000s understate the number of A grades and overstate the number of C grades.
The first interesting results from Rojstaczer and Healy are shown in Figure 1, excerpted from their study.
Percentages for letter grades were constant from 1940-1960. A grades were 15%, B grades were 33%, C grades were 35%, D grades were 12% and F grades were 5% of all grades assigned. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the percentage of B grades and A grades increased dramatically, and C, D and F grades decreased. By 1972, A grades were 32%, B grades were 39&, C grades were 20%, D grades were 5% and F grades were 4%. For the next ten years, the percentage of A grades decreased while C, D and F grades rebounded. Starting in the mid 1980s, A grades as a percentage of the total increased to 43%, B and C grades decreased to 34% and 13%, and D and F grades stabilized at 5% each. It is worth reporting, the grade of A is now the most commonly assigned grade in higher education.
Rojstaczer and Healy then split the sample into private and public institutions, and showed relative grade distributions for 1960, 1980 and 2007. In 1960, the grade distributions were nearly identical for private and public schools. But in 1980 and 2007, private schools were assigning at least 10% more As and Bs than public schools.
Rojstaczer and Healy explain that the increase in A and B grades of the Vietnam War era was due to external and political factors (providing many citations for this). Professors were awarding higher grades to keep male students in school. But the end result was to abandon traditional grading standards that previously had remained constant for decades. The gradual increase in A grades for the past 25 years, they say, results from both external and internal factors. The external factor is professors raising the percentage of A grades so that students could better compete for post graduation jobs and further schooling. The internal factor is an emphasis of consumerism, culminating in the proliferation of student satisfaction surveys to almost all schools. Because student satisfaction surveys are used to evaluate faculty teaching, professors have incentives to assign higher grades to influence student satisfaction. The implication of the current period of rising A grades is that instructors have modified previous grading standards.
Rojstaczer and Healy note that the trend in assigning more A grades shows no sign of abating. They also show that admission test scores (SAT/ACT) remained constant over the 70 year period.
Rojstaczer and Healy provide an interesting story to explain their results. Is it the correct story? I agree that the grade inflation of the Vietnam War era was due to external and political factors. As a college student during this time, fellow students testified about the pressure they placed on instructors to raise their grades, so the students could stay out of the war. I also heard professors talking about consciously changing grading standards during this period to keep male students out of the war. At the time, faculty and students both thought that the war was the reason for higher grades.
But is the story correct about the grade inflation of the past 25 years? This one is not talked about openly by professors or students. I can testify to the temptation of increasing the percentage of high grades so as to preclude students coming in to argue for higher grades. This is, of course, related to student satisfaction surveys (aka student evaluations of teaching). Students mark their satisfaction surveys based on their perceived expected grades. If they don’t receive the expected high grade, they come in and argue for a higher grade. Having taught at both public and private schools, my personal anecdotal evidence is that private school students are much more likely to come in and argue for higher grades. Faculty then respond by increasing high grade assignments, and the patterns revealed in Figure 2 are the result.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a paper on some grading issues. When I did my research, I cam across numerous references to the need for a set of grading standards. A grading standard is useful to professors because it provides a guide as to acceptable grade distributions. When I arrived at BGSU, I received a verbal description of the departmental grading standard. Also, the department issued a report every semester as to the grades actually assigned and the GPA section by section. It was useful for me to know what other profs believed was acceptable in assigning grades. My current school, Concordia College, has been unable to give me any guidance whatsoever as to what is an acceptable grade distribution.
I would be interested in see 70 years of data comparing lower level against upper level undergraduate students. There is usually a large difference between these two groups. Also, I would be interested in see masters degree grade distributions. Does anyone have any idea what this would look like?
Debit and credit – - David Albrecht