Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Average American's Grade is Inflated?

Interesting stuff on grade inflation.

My guess is that my grades have inflated somewhat over time as well, but mostly due to the move from Texas Tech to McGill.  I taught a big intro class to American and Texas Public Policy at TTU which was one of two classes required of all students, and I didn't have enough TA support to assign essays.  Multiple choice exams plus lots of very disinterested students meant low averages.  Now, I teach classes which are optional to students who are much better prepared and passionate.  Plus essay exams and papers.

However, McGill does have a culture of grade DEflation, where I have colleagues that refuse to out more than a few As for a class of two or three hundred.  Compared to them, I am guilty of having more inflated grades, but thanks to this culture, students do not expect A's and tend not to be too grade-grubbly.  They are in it for the stuff and not just to pass through with a good grade, mostly.  The students here are pretty amazing--really bright, very interested, and work really hard.

I do not have a grand explanation why grades have inflated in the US, although it may be due to profs breaking down their standards in the face of an entitled generation.  I have no evidence that this is true.  This is the predictable stance of the website cited above:
The author believes that the resurgence of grade inflation in the 1980s principally was caused by the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education. Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase. In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content. Both intellectual rigor and grading standards have weakened. The evidence for this is not merely anecdotal. Students are highly disengaged from learning, are studying less than ever, and are less literate. Yet grades continue to rise.

It may be the case that the students are simply getting better, but given the writing we have all seen, this is probably unlikely.  It could be that with greater pressures (nastier job markets, increased service loads, larger classes, more adjuncts) that professors prefer less hassle and are less willing to enforce stricter standards.

Indeed, that last category is the only real trendy trend*--over the past couple of decades the number of tenured/tenure track folks teaching has gone from over fifty percent to under fifty percent, with more and more classes taught by temporary folks (graduate students, visitors, short-term folks).  These individuals have very little incentive to foster and maintain high standards as they have no stake in the particular institution.  And one can imagine a tipping point where the more permanent folks might consciously or unconscious relax their standards because the students have developed different expectations from their classes with the temps.

Perhaps one could test this by comparing the GPAs at schools with more and less temp faculty or over time as schools altered their composition of profs over time (plenty of data, plenty of multivariate, time series type tools handy).  It may also be the case that we have not seen such a change in the composition of community college teachers so the trends are less apparent. 

One last thought--the other upward trend that coincides with grade inflation--the proliferation of ultimate frisbee.  And we all know that ultimate is correlated with better academic performance.

Any thoughts on this from the profs in the audience?

 *  That is, we have a steady change in grade inflation and the only variable that seems to be on such a steady trend as well is the increasing percentage of teaching by temporary folks.  Hence, trendy trend.

Thanks to Steve G's FB link.


Chris C. said...

I think you'd really need to compare it at an individual class level, if at all possible. School-level data would require some form of matching and would probably actually be more effective on a departmental level.

A quick dataset made from the last 4 years of grades from my undergrad department (Int'l Affairs) shows that out of 196 separate classes with a mean GPA of 3.218, those with tenure-track professors had a 3.134 avg. with a .37 SD and those with non-TT instructors (I dropped adjunct professionals without academic aspirations or permanent researchers from this total; there weren't many anyways) had a 3.302 avg. with a .28 SD.

I also checked for tenured vs. nontenured tenure-track profs and found a 3.041 mean with a .5 SD for tenured ones and a 3.2 mean with a .265 SD. So it's really the tenured ones who grade low (minimum class GPA-1.85!). I could play around with this more, but I think the picture's fairly clear.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Saideman, here's my take on the topic of student motivation. Perhaps you will disagree to some extent but much of the difference between the preparation of Texas Tech students vs. McGill ones - local students still form ~55% of the student body at McGill, last time I checked - can be explained by the use of an additional barrier between high school and university for that 55%. When CEGEP graduates arrive at a university, they gain U1 status, as opposed to the out-of-province students, who have to endure the rigors of U0 before they get up to speed with the locals.

And for the local students, it's so easy to get into Arts (if I'm not mistaken about which faculty you taught in) that even average CEGEP graduates can study there. Did you feel that the local students were better and more motivated than the others when you taught at McGill?

One last thing: Are Carleton students closer to Texas Tech or McGill, with respect to skill and motivation?