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University News

Econ dept. looks to curb grade inflation

Professors are restricting the number of As to keep grades from losing meaning

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2013

In an effort to control grade inflation, many professors in the Department of Economics will follow an official departmental recommendation to award 30 percent of students As, 40 percent Bs and 30 percent Cs in ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics,” said Roberto Serrano, professor of economics.

Serrano said the department has recommended faculty members more closely monitor grade distributions in their classes, but grades will ultimately depend on the style of the individual class. For example, he said, the recommended distributions will be hard to follow in small seminars.

“Being serious about grades is the best incentive” for students to apply themselves, Serrano said. “The idea that everybody should get an A is just terrible.”

Louis Putterman, professor of economics and director of undergraduate studies for the economics department, said he agrees with Serrano and was surprised when he first heard some economics professors award mostly As.

“When I came to Brown a little over 30 years ago, there were a relatively equal number of As, Bs and Cs,” Putterman said. “Until some unspecified time, I believe that was the prevailing ethos.”

Serrano said the department believes in fairness and that the “rules of the game” — the department’s grading policies — are given to students upfront.

Both David Braun ’14, an economics concentrator, and Alyssa Garrett ’15, an economics and applied math concentrator, said they have been in classes where professors announced they would give a certain number of As, Bs and Cs.

Braun said he has taken classes in which the number of As was said to be capped at 50 percent, and one this semester in which the limit is said to be 30 percent. In his syllabus for ECON 1710: “Investments I” last semester — which included a grade distribution of 30 percent As, 30 percent Bs, 30 percent Cs and 10 percent No Credit — Lecturer in Economics Dror Brenner wrote, “As far as your transcript is concerned, you should neither be punished nor rewarded for taking this course.”

Garrett said she thinks grade inflation is important to monitor and has been influential for students. She recalled one job recruiter on campus telling her, “You need to have above a 3.5, because we know you can do above a 3.5.”

Professors concerned about establishing negative reputations sometimes find it helpful to explain grade distribution rules are department-wide, Serrano said. “It is not about being mean — it is about imposing an academic standard of excellence,” he said.

Garrett noted the University’s standard of awarding only straight letter grades — and no pluses or minuses — may contribute to grade inflation. The difference between an A and B is much greater than that between an A- and B+, so implementing a plus and minus system could make the prospect of receiving a lower grade less intimidating, she said.

Putterman, Serrano, Garrett and Braun said grade inflation is not just an issue in the economics department, but also for the rest of the University. Serrano said he worries about losing grades as a means of distinguishing a student’s abilities, adding that it is important for the University to address the issue and open a campus dialogue about the ramifications of inflation.

“Any solution has to be instituted on a department- or University-wide basis,” Garrett said. “One professor can’t alone fix grade inflation.” She added that she commends the economics department for taking the initiative.


A previous version of this article indicated the grade distribution by which 30 percent of students receive As, 40 percent of students receive Bs and 30 percent of students receive Cs applies to all economics courses. In fact, the distribution applies only to ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics.”

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  1. heyholetsgo says:

    Princeton here we come. If you want to fight grade inflation at Brown, eliminate or curve only-A courses such as Engn9 or ridiculous courses such as African dance. But aside from some jocks, econ classes attract very hard working people (aka future investment bankers and consultants). Curving this concentration at 30% A will be brutal, especially because I can already tell that many people with Bs and Cs will drop Econ classes right before finals and this will screw others over!!!! Please tell me somebody is doing something about this insanity!
    The new “average” curved Econ GPA is a 3,0! So what will recruiters say when the “new” econ grads come out with lower GPAs while every other Brown concentration and all other schools but Princeton (which is know for grade deflation unlike Brown) is having average GPAs of 3,5 and 3,6? Thank you Brown, but from now on I will advise students not to take this sinking concentration that has become a Princtonian enclave!

    • The above poster is right. A blanket curve is a lazy solution. I wish Brown had +/- distinctions. Since we don’t, grading according to publicized standards that specify how a letter grade correlates to a student’s performance and mastery of the course material will solve this. If all students work is at an A level, then the entire class can (and should) receive As. If the entire class works at a C level, then a 100% distribution in the C range is equally appropriate. A blanket curve allows professors not to lift a finger with regard to improving assignments and their evaluations of student work. Fair (and rigorous) performance measures and precise grading are the solution to grade inflation. Alas, this sort of solution involves more work.

      • I took a course last semester in the econ department where the standard deviation was 1 point out of 40 (equivalent to a point taken off for getting the wrong sign). This blanket policy as you say, is simply laziness of the department and a failure to properly assess students.

    • Why don’t you guys study the class materials, and stop studying the grading?

      • Thanks, dude. Because even if everyone studies the material, and masters it, they’ll still end up with mediocre grades. How does it make sense for those 30% of the class that score 100% on a final to receive As, those 40% that score 99% on the final to receive Bs, and the remaining 30% that score 60% on the final to receive Cs?

        BTW. Do departments have the freedom to unilaterally change grading distribution? Would be interesting to find out how that works.

      • If everyone in the class scores a 90% + on the material, then there will be people who got 90% of the material right and got a C.

  2. Time For S/NC says:

    F it. If the grading distribution is going to be manufactured, then why bother. I’ll be taking any future econ courses pass/fail. Students shouldn’t have to deal with this.

    • Good luck, but beware! Part of the new Econ grading scheme is that only half of students in each class can score an S when opting for S/NC. S inflation is out of control all over campus.

  3. H.M. Hamade says:

    At a school like Brown, you would keenly expect that grades would be rewarded based on two criteria: performance, and distribution. For in reality, they are two sides of the same grading scale coin. It’s simple, all the class must do is not put a quota on grades. When grades are fitted to a larger class size, then grades will naturally fall on a bell curve. However, as mentioned below, hypothetically speaking if there is a quota, then those students that are in the top 30% that receive a score of 100% will get an A, where those that get a 99% will fall in the B, then below that the C mark. This does not make sense. It punishes students who have mastered the material, but failed to beat the statistics. The way it should work is to remove the quota, set up a threshold based on the varying scores (meaning the professor should predict what a fair grade for an A, B, or C is, fix that point on a scale, if it is too high then adjust to the 30-40-30 percent rule. In this manner even if 100% of students reach that threshold then they should all receive their complementary grade). This way the grades are given fairly to those that worked hard for such a score, and fairly to those that did not. This system will not reward those who understudy, but additionally will not punish those who do study but are pushed back by those students that preform slightly better. At the same time if the professor’s standards are too high, the 30-40-30 curve will normalize the grades. However, ideally speaking, the best system would be for each professor to give grade evaluations. This way employers will get a sense of the students’ strengths and weaknesses, rather than just clumping it all up in one letter grade.

  4. The best schools in the nation should be capable of figuring out a grading system capable of distinguishing students at different levels of mastery/scholarship but surprisingly little effort has been devoted to this task. That neglect is surprising because grades are a very important aspect of our educational system. Accreditation agencies should work together to establish criteria considered Best Practice for colleges and universities. After all, grades end up being the currency used to gain entry to competitive graduate and professional schools and 1st jobs. It’s hugely important.

    There is mounting evidence that grade inflation is effective for the recipients of the higher grades but problematic for everyone else. For example, for high school students applying to college and for college students applying for grad school or jobs, students with inflated grades are more likely to walk away with the prize compared to those from schools that don’t inflate grades (but who have equal or better achievements)-even when the person making admissions decisions is told explicitly that an A in one school is really like a B in the other. In other words, once the evaluator (charged with making an admissions/hire decision) sees that one transcript contains higher grades than another, nothing else matters. It is hard for the evaluator to abandon the initial reaction of preferring the higher grades even when told that the high grades were earned in easy classes or at a poor university while the transcript with the lower GPA reflects much stronger classes at a better but harder school. (see Moore, D.A., Swift, S.A, et al (2010). Correspondence bias in performance evaluation: Why grade inflation works. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 36, 843; Swift SA, Moore DA, Sharek ZS, Gino F (2013) Inflated Applicants: Attribution Errors in Performance Evaluation by Professionals. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69258. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069258; And see Drew, C. (2011).Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard), New York Times). Is it surprising that students drop the more difficult courses/majors in favor of fluff when they see that curriculum difficulty level and Grade A base rates aren’t considered as important as an inflated GPA when it comes to getting into a decent law or business school. Why accept B+’s competing with the very strongest students studying STEM when you can join the weakest students, earn all As and join similar minded humanities students attending the best business or law schools.

    Differential (and I would argue deceptive) grading practices (where As are given freely in soft subjects while the STEM faculty can barely stand to award anything above a C) are responsible for the flight away from STEM classes by students who entered college intended on majoring in math or science but switched to humanities which has a higher proportion of As despite not having a higher proportion of better students or harder workers. In other words, students in sTEM are punished for choosing the more difficult yet needed curriculum with poorer grades (if effort and ability were equated across the disciplines). A partial solution is for colleges to use standardized scores (say Z scores) and to publish the distribution within classes. Since students will be compared across colleges once they graduate, there should be some concerted effort to standardize grading system or to find ways that students who used their college years to actually learn difficult content won’t be punished with a more punitive grading system compared to those students majoring in Fluff. A school that is graduating 60% of its class with A averages has eliminated the discriminatory aspects of grades or they have introduced a situation where tiny differences across students-ones that don’t reflect real differences-are used to distinguish student because the only differences across students are at the .001 level.

    Perhaps it is time for colleges to consult STEM faculty to help them figure out how to construct a fair grading policy that works within the school and that conveys meaning to those outside the school charged with determining the value of a particular transcript.

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