Subscribe to The Brown Daily Herald Newsletter

Sign up for The Brown Daily Herald’s daily newsletter to stay up to date with what is happening at Brown and on College Hill no matter where you are right now!

Subscribe

University News

Concerns persist as grade distribution remains steady

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, November 19, 2012

The distribution of undergraduate grades has remained consistent in recent years, with the proportion of As fluctuating between 53 and 55 percent since the 2008-09 academic year, according to data released by the Office of Institutional Research. About 53 percent of grades received last year were As, 22 percent were Bs, and 4 percent were Cs. Out of those students taking classes S/NC last year, about 88 percent – or 17 percent of total grades given – received an S, boosting the proportion of students receiving the highest possible grade in a course to 71 percent. 

The grade distribution within the four designated areas of study has also remained steady, though all divisions have experienced an increase in the percentage of students receiving As in the last decade. Currently, As make up about 52 percent of grades in humanities, 57 percent in life sciences, 49 percent in physical sciences and 55 percent in social sciences.

This trend has also been evident nationwide, as the percentage of As has risen drastically in the past few decades, with the largest increases occurring in the most recent years. Grades rose nationwide between 1940 and 2009 at universities where there were no systems of grade control in place, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Teachers College Record. 

“Grades will almost always rise in an academic environment where professors sense that there are incentives to please students,” the researchers concluded in their report. But grade inflation “has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance,” according to the report. 

University administrators noted that Brown’s policy of not adding pluses and minuses to letter grades may be another factor in its own skewed statistics.

“Grade inflation is a national trend in both high schools and colleges,” wrote Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron in an email to The Herald. “Brown’s simplified system of just three letter grades (vs. no credit) makes the shift perhaps even more visible.”

Stephen Lassonde, deputy dean of the College and adjunct assistant professor of history, said “pluses and minuses would be good” from a professor’s perspective because they would help “define a student’s performance.”

Lassonde also said he feels that students’ opinions about grades have shifted in recent years. 

“There are more disputes over grades than 20 years ago,” he said. “Students challenge about their grades more often, and that worries me. The student has to take responsibility.” 

This change may be a result of increased pressure to excel from parents and friends, he said, adding that professors may ultimately end up feeling this pressure as well.

Both deans added that the administration is aware of the issue of grade inflation. 

“We do ask chairs to monitor the grading patterns of courses in their departmental curriculum,” Bergeron wrote. “Each semester, chairs receive a report highlighting large-enrollment courses in which a significant proportion of the students received an A. They are asked to speak to the instructors about the reasons for the distribution.”

“This is the most direct way that we try to raise consciousness about this issue,” she added. 

“At a certain point, if everyone is getting As, then why isn’t everything just pass or fail?” Lassonde said. “It is something we are conscious of, and if the numbers went up enough, then something would have to happen.”

Alison Simmons, a professor of philosophy at Harvard who has served on academic integrity boards at the college, also thought the grade distribution at Brown might be more apparent because of the open curriculum and the S/NC option. 

But she also said policies instituted specifically to curb grade inflation, such as Princeton’s rule of allowing a maximum 35 percent of As in undergraduate courses, can cause their own problems and seem extreme. 

She echoed Lassonde’s statement about noticeable changes in student sentiment. At Harvard, “more students are upset if they don’t get an A,” she said. “This generation is different – it is one that grew up online. Students think differently and they communicate differently. Grade inflation is affected by this.”

In the classroom, Simmons said she worries that “if students are already getting all As, what do I have to teach them? I’m not sure how to get that balance between learning and grading.”

Students also said they were aware of grade inflation. 

Adam Bear ’13, a cognitive science concentrator, said it is sometimes hard not to feel as though people receiving the same grade work at different levels. 

“Occasionally, I feel it can be a little ridiculous,” he said, adding that this system is unfair to those who work harder.

Andrew Lee ’13, a cognitive science and philosophy double concentrator, said grade inflation could be unfair if certain departments have higher grades than others, if these people are later competing for further education opportunities.

Giulia Basile ’13, a Hispanic studies concentrator, wrote in an email to The Herald that she has noticed grade inflation on several occasions during her four years at Brown. Basile wrote that she is happy the S/NC option exists, but she feels that there are students who abuse the system and do the least amount of work possible to still pass.

“Brown has kept me happy and much less stressed in my four years here,” Basile wrote. “However, maybe without the S/NC option, I would have had to genuinely learn by now that I am a smart and worthy student regardless of what my grades say. Recognizing that small failures do not devalue me as a person – that’s important.”

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

  1. This: “‘Occasionally, I feel it can be a little ridiculous,’ he said, adding that this system is unfair to those who work harder.” What a dispiriting experience to work obsessively on a project and receive an indistinguishable evaluation from someone who didn’t.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at herald@browndailyherald.com.