More than half of grades are now A’s, data show

For the first time in recent memory, the majority of grades Brown students received last year were A’s, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research.

The proportion of A’s given increased to 50.6 percent in 2007-08, 1.1 percent higher than the previous year and a new peak for a figure that has risen significantly over the last decade. Since the 1994-95 academic year, the proportion of A’s given has increased 15.8 percent.

According to the data, students in humanities, social science and life science classes all receive A’s at least 50 percent of the time, with only physical science professors giving out fewer than half A’s – 47.1 of physical science students received top marks last year. The percentage of A’s awarded is up across all disciplines in the last 10 years.

Overall, 21.7 percent of students received B’s last year and only 4.2 percent received C’s, with “satisfactory” grades going to 19.9 percent of students. The remaining 3.6 percent of grades given last year were “no credit.”

The proportion of both B’s and C’s awarded has declined as A’s have risen over the past 10 years. The proportion of S’s awarded has hovered at or just above 20 percent during the same period. The proportion of students taking classes S/NC has been roughly constant.

James Dreier, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and professor of philosophy, said he did not want to jump to the conclusion that grade inflation caused the increase in A’s. Instead, he said, the data could reflect better high school preparation and higher admission selectivity.

“I think people should not rule out the possibility that students are just doing better,” he said. “We don’t have to always look for nefarious or bad reasons.”

Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine, who has taught at Brown since 1959, said that incoming students now have stronger academic backgrounds than they used to.

“I’m doing more sophisticated stuff now in my courses than we used to,” he added.

But Valen Johnson, author of “Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education” and a professor at the University of Texas, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that a more talented student body shouldn’t alter the grades students receive.

“Grades are a comparative measure of student performance among students at the same university,” he wrote. “If a college admits particularly talented students, then a C must be defined relative to that university’s student pool.”

Whatever the reason for the rise, Brown is not alone. Grade inflation has been a hot topic in higher education in recent years, and a 2002 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that rising grades have been “especially noticeable” in the Ivy League. In 2004, Princeton became the first Ivy to cap A’s, setting a goal that only 35 percent be awarded. Over the subsequent three years, the percentage of A’s its professors distributed fell from approximately 47 percent to 41 percent, The Herald reported last year.

Dreier said he disagreed with Princeton’s approach, which he said only helped with “public relations.”

“In general, I don’t like the registrar or the dean of the College to tell the professor how to grade,” he said.

Fiona Heckscher ’09, a member of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, said she strongly opposes the idea of mandated grade standards, adding that her friends at Princeton don’t like the policy.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that 50 percent of Brown students are doing A-level work,” she said.

The New Curriculum and the existence of shopping period mean that Brown students are more able than many of their peers to take classes they know will not be overwhelmingly difficult, she said.

Students are “making conscious choices” to find classes with workloads they can manage, she said.

Another difference in comparing Brown to other universities is the lack of plus and minus grades. A 2001-2002 University study found that many faculty members felt Brown’s grading system created pressure to give higher marks.

That study also found that 60 percent of faculty respondents – 109 out of 181 – “felt pressure to inflate grades.” The survey identified student admission into graduate school, student evaluation of professors and student success at finding a job as contributing factors to that pressure.

Pressure to receive positive course evaluations is one of the biggest causes of grade inflation, according to Johnson. He recommends colleges consider discarding the bottom 20 percent of a faculty member’s evaluations, for instance, if that professor gives C’s to 20 percent of his students.

Schools could also “statistically adjust the value of student grades according to the grading practices of instructors,” he wrote.

Hazeltine dismissed the notion that evaluations have a large influence on professors’ grading. While professors may enjoy receiving positive evaluations, he said, they don’t figure prominently in evaluating professors for tenure or promotions at Brown.

Fewer students are “goofing off” at Brown in recent years, he added, pushing up the number whose work warrants at least a B.

Brown professors face two problems, Hazeltine said: It can be difficult to distinguish good work from great work, and it is also hard to tell competent students they did not deserve an A. If there were a grade of A-plus, or if a B were more widely regarded as a very good grade, professors would have an easier time separating their students, he said.

“There really are people who excel, who really excel,” Hazeltine said. “By definition, there can’t be very many of them. There isn’t any sort of way to reward them.”