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Fighting grade inflation: a cause without a rebel

Administrators, faculty members say inflation harms Brown but hesitate to institutionalize changes

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

“The fraction of the As is getting pretty high — too high for comfort,” said President Christina Paxson, adding, “It’s clear that there has been grade inflation” at Brown and its peer institutions.

Across the Ivy League, university administrators are grappling with skyrocketing grades.

Harvard faculty members expressed concern when they were informed at a December meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that the median grade in undergraduate courses was an A- and the most frequently awarded grade an A, the Harvard Crimson reported at the time. Yale, too, has confronted grade inflation in recent months, and an ad hoc committee on grading began hosting forums to solicit student opinion last month, the Yale Daily News reported.

Yet as Brown’s peers take a closer look at grade inflation, Paxson said she does not have any immediate plans to examine the University’s own grading policies. Though grade inflation is problematic, any efforts to temper it will go through existing structures, like individual departments, Paxson said.

But she said she would consider tackling grade inflation at a University-wide level if the trend does not slow over the next few years.

“If we can’t break this trend through mechanisms that are already available to us, then we would have to think about something else,” Paxson said.


Explaining inflation

Data provided by the Office of Institutional Research show that 53.4 percent of grades given at the University during the 2012-2013 academic year were As, a 36 percent increase from the 1992-1993 school year, in which As composed 39.1 percent of all grades.

This percentage would be even higher if the data did not include courses taken on a Satisfactory/No Credit scale.

The proportions of Bs and Cs have decreased over the last 20 years, falling from 29.1 percent to 21.6 percent and from 7.5 percent to 4.0 percent, respectively. Grades of no credit dropped from 3.8 percent of total grades to 2.7 percent over the same time period.

Life sciences have seen the steepest climb in top marks, as As have proliferated from 33.4 to 58.2 percent of grades in the past 20 years. In the social and physical sciences, As rose by 10 percentage points over the last two decades. The humanities have seen the most gradual rise in As, which made up 42 percent of grades in the field 21 years ago and accounted for 51.5 percent last year.

Grade inflation is a “part of a change in culture on the high end of the academy that goes along with students being more and more credentialed,” said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15, adding that students have come to see any grade below an A as unacceptable.

Students have developed a “sense of entitlement,” said Karen Newman, professor of comparative literature and chair of the department. “They all expect that they will continue to achieve at the high level at which they were achieving in secondary school.”

But Schlissel said an increasingly talented and prepared student body does not necessarily justify a commensurate rise in As.

Several faculty members suggested establishing higher expectations for students.

“Everyone’s coming in within six inches of the ceiling instead of four feet under. Well, let’s raise the ceiling,” said Stephen Nelson, higher education expert and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown.

Though Brown students may be more talented than the average student, “it is still possible to distinguish between performance levels at Brown, and that is what we should be doing to give accurate feedback,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education.

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 said student course evaluations, which play a large role in evaluating faculty members’ teaching, exacerbate the frequency with which As are handed out.

“If you’re a junior faculty member or looking for a promotion, you don’t want to have your course evaluations look bad,” Nelson said.

Several faculty members, as well as Schlissel, cited students’ permission to drop courses until the final exam period as a factor that drives up the percentage of As.

Another explanation for the lack of Cs and comparatively high number of As is the erasure of failures from a student’s transcript, said David Lindstrom, professor of sociology and chair of the department, calling this policy “almost academic fraud.”

Lindstrom said students have asked him to fail them rather than give them Cs.

Pluses and minuses

Some say the lack of pluses and minuses in the University’s grading system augments the number of As students receive.

Nelson described his frustration in assigning final grades to students who would fall in the B+ range at most institutions.

“When you have a student who is a really strong B+ and a student who’s a really weak B- it’s much easier to give that B+ student an A than it is to leave that student with the student who got the B-,” Newman said.

Spoehr echoed Nelson’s sentiment, saying he finds it “laughable — insulting — to be told I am (capable) of making only three distinctions about student performances.”

Schlissel said Nelson’s assumption that As at Brown are often in the B+ range is “very reasonable” but difficult to verify.

He added that he thinks instating pluses and minuses would better “assess nuances in students’ ability.”

“I always taught where pluses and minuses were available, and I like that,” Paxson said, but she added that “this is a decision for the Brown faculty and the Brown community at large.”

Yet even among those who support pluses and minuses, some question whether the move would curb grade inflation — including Paxson, who cited grade inflation at institutions with a traditional grading scheme.

The lack of pluses and minuses also cannot explain the increase in top marks at the University over time, since grading policy has remained constant.

The University has seen this argument hashed out in the past. In the spring of 2006, the College Curriculum Council rejected a proposal to add pluses and minuses by a vote of seven to six. All four students on the council voted against the proposal, which, if passed, would have gone before the faculty for a vote.

A 2003 poll conducted by the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning found that 82 percent of faculty members supported the addition of pluses and minuses, The Herald previously reported. Conversely, only 24.6 percent of students supported the proposal in a 2006 Herald poll.

Emeritus Professor of Biology Jonathan Waage wrote in an email to The Herald that the better question is whether grades are a good measure of students’ abilities at all and if the University should emphasize them.

“If our current system forces the outside world to look for other things than grades and GPAs to evaluate our students, that is a good thing,” he wrote.

Spoehr said some opponents of the policy change have argued pluses and minuses violate the spirit of the open curriculum. But “any student that thinks grades with letters and pluses and minuses are contrary to the open curriculum is still free to take every course S/NC,” he said.


Inflation’s impact

“Not being more rigorous in grading doesn’t allow room for the truly and unusually gifted student(s) to distinguish themselves,” Schlissel said.

Grades have “lost meaning, and that’s a detriment to our students,” he added, noting that “it’s an illusion that grades help you when everybody gets high grades.”

Grade inflation underprepares students for the harsher evaluation they will encounter in the world beyond Brown, Schlissel said.

High grades may mislead students into pursuing fields for which they are not well-suited, Nelson added.

Several people also expressed worry that grade inflation reduces student work ethic.

“The reward of a high grade” should motivate students to work hard, stimulating learning, “which in the end is what really matters,” wrote Roberto Serrano, professor of economics and chair of the department, in an email to The Herald. “We should all be worried about (grade inflation) and ready to fight against it.”

Last year, the Department of Economics recommended that As be awarded to no more than 30 percent of students in ECON 0110: “Principles of Economics” in an effort to curb grade inflation, The Herald previously reported. Many professors in the department elected to follow a similar distribution in other economics classes, though there was no official departmental recommendation for other courses.

The University should also consider the reputational threat grade inflation poses, Nelson said, adding that a fear of declining prestige has driven other universities to address the issue.

As a member of an admission committee for graduate programs at the University of California at Berkeley, Schlissel said, he and his colleagues knew which universities gave out As liberally and ignored those students’ grades.

“The value of a Brown degree might be worth more” if people beyond College Hill thought the University was more rigorous, Lindstrom said.

Surveys of incoming students indicate that they perceive Brown as an easy Ivy League school, Schlissel said, which he called “unfair.”

But both Paxson and Schlissel attributed this perception more to Brown’s lack of core requirements than to grade inflation.

“I would like to dispel the notion that Brown doesn’t have grades and Brown has no requirements at all,” Paxson said, noting that the quality of Brown courses is as high as at peer institutions.


The road ahead

Paxson, Schlissel and McLaughlin all said they would not directly tackle grade inflation in the near future.

For the administration to lead the charge against grade inflation would be too “contentious” a strategy, Schlissel said.

A few faculty members would have to raise the issue for it to gain traction on an interdepartmental level, McLaughlin said, but if “Paxson thinks it’s important, it will stay on the agenda.”

Paxson said she has no plans to act on the issue soon, but noted that the next dean of the College would “be a natural leader for facilitating this kind of discussion.”

McLaughlin said he “could not imagine” the search committee for the dean of the College is not asking candidates about grading policy.

But Todd Harris ’14.5, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, wrote in an email to The Herald that any alteration to grading should be driven by students, not administrators or the faculty.

While some hope official measures — like the addition of pluses and minuses or grade deflation — will be considered to stem the tide, others tout the efficacy of communication and vigilant departmental leadership.

“My hope is we can break this trend without having to move to the formal grading policy that Princeton had, which, though effective, did some damage,” Paxson said.

Paxson said she has “mixed feelings” about Princeton’s grade deflation policy implemented nearly a decade ago. Though it succeeded in reducing the number of As at the university, it also increased competitiveness and grade awareness among current and prospective students.

“Students were less likely to take a course where they thought the grading policy might be more strictly enforced,” she said. “This is not the kind of atmosphere I want to cultivate at Brown.”

Several faculty members and administrators interviewed suggested that spreading awareness about the standards expected of faculty members would reel in those giving out too many As.

As dean of biological sciences at Berkeley, Schlissel made all the faculty members for whom he was responsible aware of the percentage of As given out by their colleagues, which made some outliers take a tougher approach, he said.

Some department chairs at Brown are already making use of a similar tactic.

Lindstrom said he “looks for outliers,” particularly faculty members who give out high numbers of As in lecture courses in which grades should vary more evenly.

“We get printouts of what the grades are in all of our faculty’s classes, and we can therefore compare and see what the percentages are,” Newman said, adding that she speaks to colleagues who are “way out of line with what our norm is.”


  1. well when the admissions rates drop below 10% what do you expect to happen? these are the top students. for the most part they will do all of the work and then some. how does this reflect badly on the University? if they earned the grades, they should be given them.

    • angry comment section regular says:

      yeah bro, brown students are prob just way more talented than e.g. princeton or MIT students (or are those schools just deflated? lulz)

      it’s categorically false that “for the most part” kids are going above and beyond in their classes. yeah brown students are generally intellectually curious etc etc but most people in this age range are gonna take the easy road whenever possible.

      • Guesty McGuesterson says:

        princeton has an A cap, so yes, it is deflated. Do we know what percentage of MIT’s classes are graded on bell curves compared to ours?

  2. Small rant. I hate these supposed “crises” over “grade inflation”. It seems like the idea of grade inflation is completely based on the idea that some students should do relatively worse than other students; which completely defeats the point of education. Grades should be an absolute evaluation of how well you know the material. It’s not really surprising that when you stick thousands of students who did well in secondary school in one place, they all continue to do well.

    If students want to “distinguish” themselves in courses, they can get a PhD in the topic they’re learning about. Furthermore, part of their “distinction” comes in the school that they go to.

    The article’s mention of how the number of “As” has increased rapidly in the past few years seems to completely disregard the intelligence of their population. 20 years ago, Brown was not need blind. Students who attended had money and many did not care about grades. A bachelor’s wasn’t necessary and no one was really applying for advanced degrees. Grade regulation makes getting into advanced schools particularly difficult for students coming from competitive schools.


    • angry comment section regular says:

      tough luck for them. they could have just gone to an inflated school if they cared that much. every school has advantages and disadvantages.

      edit: students who choose more rigorous majors (no matter what rhe school) face similar ‘difficulties’ in those number games. again, tough sh1t. coulda chosen a different major.

      • angry comment section regular says:

        oops — this comment was me, i tried to delete it when i realized that i wasn’t disagreeing with you

  3. What about the impact of the fact that at Brown you can drop a class up until reading period? Is there any data about how many students who would get Bs and Cs are dropping courses at the wire thus enriching the population of students earning As?

  4. Your interactive graphic is broken – each time I choose a new subject, the scale gets considerably larger and the lines do not move accordingly (try pressing “overall” several times and you’ll see the lines continue to get lower on the scale)

  5. This is what happens when tuition skyrockets and institutions lose courage. It may be a problem endemic to the model of private higher education itself. In any case, the Ivies can protect the integrity of their degrees and transcripts only by working together to curb grade inflation as a cohort.

    Princeton undertook this move unilaterally and the results have been less than optimal for their students. Brown students are “top of the class” caliber. Only when Ivy league transcripts are understood generally as a set of uniquely rigorous evaluation documents – different in kind from other institutions’ transcripts – will grade inflation as described in the article be curbed.

    The reality of life after Brown is that graduate school admissions are a GPA + LSAT/MCAT/GMAT/GRE game. No admissions committee (or computerized application vetting program) is capable of or interested in reading 32 course performance reports from a Brown graduate.

    Good luck explaining to brown (or other Ivy parents) that Johnny and Susie’s undergraduate degree was indeed worth $160K when their grades don’t stack up to state university graduates.

    At Brown, +/- distinctions would be helpful.

  6. angry comment section regular says:

    brown’s reputation as a good place to learn is just fine, in my opinion, even if it’s common knowledge that grades here are a joke (which it is, and they are).

    there are two cases in which i might consider inflation to be a problem:
    1) if it’s unfair to kids at less inflated schools. i guess there are a few situations in which it is, like law school admissions, which are HIGHLY numbers-driven. but in general, nah, any employer/grad school admissions office that really cares that much about grades will probably make it their business to take into account the grading scale of the school.
    2) if employers/grad schools/whatever take it SO MUCH into account that they’re skeptical of kids with high grades if they’re from brown and similarly inflated schools… like they NEED the upper differentiation to really consider a kid. i highly doubt this is the case. i’m sure if they’re that obsessed with taking the TOP TALENT EVER, they’d consider plenty of other things before letting the decision come down to the probability that student A’s 4.0 from brown is less legit than student B’s 4.0 from princeton — like students’ accomplishments outside of class.

    tl;dr: who cares, this might be eyeroll-worthy but i fail to see how it’s a “problem” in any nontrivial way

  7. Curb grade inflation, because we all want to live in a world where our potential grade is worth more than our potential educational enrichment. As a a school that prides itself on focusing largely on its undergraduates, it seems wholly disingenuous that Provost Schlissel is even mentioning what “graduate” programs think. Are undergrads only meant to provide the most premium fodder for graduate schools? Does it not make sense that students who have always performed, will continue to perform? Are grades solely meant to differentiate one from their peers, or rather are they meant to gauge how much of the material has been mastered. The problem was solved long ago. If a Professor feels you know A% of the material, then the student deserves an A, even if the entire class does equally as well. In the end of the day, what matters most is what one knows, a grade is a good yard stick to measure with. Our grading methods should not turn into a system that creates an artificial scarcity of “grades” (as the Princeton system allows). Knowledge, is not a limited resource, it can be limitlessly obtained by all. It just depends on how much a student is willing to learn this said knowledge. If 53.4% of students are doing so, then 53.4% of students deserve the A,

    • angry comment section regular says:

      i agree with this post in principle but i’m not sure how it applies to the situation here: i can tell you with absolute certainty that the standards are really low here compared to at many other schools (not a transfer student but i can of course get a good sense by talking to people at diff schools abt what type of performance is required, material covered, and so on). if kids “deserve” ‘A’s here for their performance, they deserve ‘A’s at other, less inflated schools at the same rate (or a higher one). now if you want to extend this and say that grades should be higher across the board, sure, that’s cool. (after all, rigorously differentiating between students across different schools perhaps misses the point of education in the same way. then we face some pragmatic issues b/c hiring/grad school decisions need to be made somehow. but ok, let’s just put more emphasis on soft factors.)

      but no, kids here aren’t disproportionately ‘deserving’ of good grades here to the same extent that they are receiving them, as you seem to imply here.

      • If the problem is low standards, which I will flatly say as both a humanities and and Science concentrator is simply not true, then we need to correct the material and the Professors that are teaching it. We should not follow a path of grade quotas. However, this may lead to a result contrary to the new curriculum, where students will only take classes they believe are “easy” in comparison. I would much rather have classes where it is possible to receive an A, without losing the opportunity to learn something very beneficial. Of course the argument would then be that we have the S/NC option, but in the grad/med school age we live in, this may not be a plausible option for most students. Thus, the system as it is now, is generally rather stable. Material should perhaps be tweaked here and there (intra-departmentally of course), and not university wide policy– which could have very detrimental effects on our educational process (which I pay 61K for).

        • angry comment section regular says:

          i agree that the system’s fine as it is, lines up well w/ brown’s (totally admirable) philosophy and all that. i also believe wholeheartedly that grading here is a total joke. *shrug*

        • The current equilibrium IS that many students choose an easier class because of the lack of +/- in the grading system. The difference between a B+ and a B in many people’s eyes is much larger than any other incremental gap in the +/- grading system range. Thus students have an aversion to tougher classes where a B+ is likely for them because their honest efforts will result in a B. To avoid this downside risk, they’ll go for the classes with the more attainable A.

          • angry comment section regular says:

            *blank stare*
            are we talking about the same brown university here?

  8. Brown -is- grade-inflated. We can definitely get away with getting easy As for doing less work than students at other institutions. I agree with most of the comments here that there shouldn’t be arbitrary grade quotas, but there definitely needs to be higher standards and more standardization for how grading is done across all departments. Without +/-, the A/B/C/NC system as it is lacks necessary nuance.

  9. The villain here isn’t grades… it’s mushy standards. In an environment where everything at Brown has become “relative”, anything goes. And the first to go is standards. Grades mean nothing because students and faculty have their collective butts in the sling together to look good.

    • yeah, e.g. a lot of the times the graduate school has absolutely no say in individual departments’ businesses to the extent that graduate school general rules don’t even actually apply to them. worse still individual departments may not have an explicit or documented standard and call the shots verbally and subjectively.

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