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Econ dept. looks to curb grade inflation

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

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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