Grade Inflation – the “dirty little secret” of academia

“Would any of us have gotten into medical school today?”

This was the tongue-in-cheek question I posed to my classmates at our medical school reunion last year. They were rather amused by it and, being very much aware of the high academic standards required by our current admissions processes, believed the answer was an obvious “no”. I tried to raise some doubt arguing (with what I thought at the time was more fantasy than reality) that our marks, like the dollar, had been “devalued” over the years. They weren’t really buying it. However, I’ve since come to learn that what I thought at the time was fanciful conjecture was closer to truth than I realized.

We’ve all become quite accustomed to the term “inflation” as it relates to economics. The dictionary definition goes like this:

 

“a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services.”

 

To those of us less financially sophisticated, it basically means a dollar doesn’t buy as much as it used to. The important corollary is that the amount of money we possess or earn becomes progressively less valuable as its purchasing power steadily diminishes.

It’s perhaps a little surprising to find the same term applied to academic grades. In fact, considerable information is available on the topic, which has been termed by some as the “dirty little secret” of university and college academic programs.

Well, if it’s a dirty little secret, it’s certainly not a very well kept secret. A Google search of the term took less than half a second to come up with over 4.5 million references:

 

 

 

There’s actually a website called GradeInflation.com that features the following chart prominently:

 

And so, a closer look at the phenomenon would seem to be in order. With the capable assistance of Sarah Wickett, Health Sciences Librarian, we identified a few key papers to shed a little more light on the topic. We set out to address three questions: Is there real evidence of grade inflation? If so, what are the causes? Does it matter?

 

Is it real?

Paul Anglin and Ronald Meng of the University of Windsor undertook a study of this issue that was published this year in Canadian Public Policy (volume xxvi:3). They compared the grades awarded by seven Ontario universities in 12 first year courses between 1974 and 1994. To summarize their findings:

  • The average GPA rose in 11 of the 12 courses. Of the 80 course-university combinations studied, 53% had grade inflation of at least 10%, 31% had no statistically significant change, and grades fell in 16%. The rate of inflation was not uniform, with the greatest increases occurring in English, Biology and Chemistry.
  • The percentage of students receiving an “A” increased overall from 16% in 1974 to 21% in 1994, while the percentage receiving “F”s declined from 9.5% to 6.7% during the same time. This trend was true in 11 of the 12 courses of study, with Sociology being the only exception. English, Biology, Music and French have the greatest increases at the upper end of the distribution. In Biology courses, for example, the percentage of students getting “A”s increased from 12.8 to 22.6%, while the percentage receiving “F”s declined from 9.1 to 5.7%.
  • The variance, or distribution of marks, within courses declined or stayed the same in all courses. In other words, the “bandwidth” between high and low achievement tended to diminish.

 

This phenomenon does not appear to unique to Ontario. In Studies in Higher Education (2017, 42:8;1580) Dr. Ray Buchan of the University of Brighton reports on the proportion of “good” or Honour degrees awarded by 100 universities in the United Kingdom. He reports an increase from 47.3% in 1994/95 to 61.4% in 2011/12, which in absolute terms represents an increase of 113%. Perhaps more significantly, the proportion of “first-class” degrees awarded more than doubled over the same time, increasing from 7 to 15.8%. In his article he quotes the Universities Minister David Willets who states: “the whole system of degree classification does need reform”.

There has been considerable study of this issue in American universities. Dr. Stuart Rojstaczer reported on 29 schools, showing and increase of 0.15 points on the 4 point GPA scale since the 1960s, with greater rates on increase in private versus public schools (Grade Inflation at American colleges and universities. Available at www.gradeinflation.com).

The University of Arkansas was concerned enough about grade inflation that it commissioned a Task Force on Grades in 2004 to examine the phenomenon. The results, reported by Mulvenon and Ferritor (International Journal of Learning 2005/2006;12(6):55) confirm steadily increasing undergraduate GPAs, increasing from 2.76 to 2.95 between 1992-93 and 2003-04.

 

What’s the cause?

So, it seems, this is a real phenomenon, but what’s the cause? One could conjecture three possible mechanisms:

 

Possibility 1: The students are better prepared.

Over the years, young people have had greater access to early education and have been exposed to more advanced educational methodologies. They have also had the benefit of rapidly expanding technology that not only enhances their educational experience but also enables them to access information and learning much more continuously and easily. In fact, young people are literally immersed in learning opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom. They have also had opportunities to engage more intellectually stimulating extra-curricular learning opportunities, both through the educational system and their private lives. Perhaps all this has resulted in young people who begin their post-secondary education with considerable advantages relative to their predecessors.

 

Possibility 2: Universities and colleges are doing a better job of educating.

There has certainly been an increased emphasis on teaching at most colleges and universities. Faculty are expected to have real teaching skills and qualifications, which are sought after and recognized. They have also benefited greatly from advances in educational methodologies and technologic advances.

All sounds good so far, but then there’s…

 

Possibility 3: It’s just easier for everyone involved to give good marks.

Good marks = happy students = fewer challenges for faculty = better faculty evaluations = happy faculty

We therefore have a “virtuous cycle” which would, on the surface, appear to be a “win-win” for all involved. The course, program and institution also benefit in an environment where pass rates are seen as a key marker of success (eg. Macleans magazine rankings) and students are drawn to places where they are more likely to achieve high grades that will make them more competitive for graduate studies and eventual employment.

Unfortunately, there’s been much less investigation into the causes of grade inflation. However, there have been some interesting analyses.

In an intriguing article entitled “Whose fault is it?” R.T. Jewell and colleagues attempt to determine whether higher grades are related to improved academic aptitude of students or changing practices among university teachers (Applied Economics 2013; 45: 1185). Using data from 1683 separate courses taught in 28 different departments by 3176 instructors at a large public university over a 20 year period they develop a series of complex mathematical models that leads them to conclude that “the average GPA in our sample…increased by 0.1459 grade points due solely to unobservable instructor characteristics.” They go on to identify instructor-specific issues as the main determinants of grade inflation. Their analysis did not allow them to be more specific about the nature of those characteristics.

In the Arkansas Task Force reported cited above, the authors speculate on a number of potential causes, including higher entrance ACT scores, but conclude “ a definitive case can be made that increasing entrance scored, academic expectations and better secondary institutions are contributing increased composite grade point averages. However, given this is true, it still does not explain all of the grade inflation”

 

And so, it would appear that the third cause where students, faculty and universities all benefit from a more liberal distribution of grades is at least a contributor.

 

Does it matter?

In one respect, it might be tempting to shrug this off as a “win-win-win” situation, in which students benefit, teaching faculty avoid the inherently difficult and stressful task of comparing and quantitating differences in the accomplishment of their learners, and institutions can develop flattering metrics that keep them competitive.

However, we recognize there’s no free lunch, and there are clearly costs to all this that merit consideration. A few that come to mind:

  1. Devaluation of degrees and diplomas. Just as our dollars lose value in the context of economic inflation, grade inflation threatens to diminish the value of our degrees and diplomas
  2. Fairness. The truly outstanding and highly committed students get lost amid all the high marks. Some of those A’s really are A’s, but can’t be distinguished from those that perhaps shouldn’t be.
  3. Misconceptions among students. Grade inflation may be giving students misinformation regarding their strengths and weaknesses, and therefore leading them to inappropriate career decisions.
  4. Confusion on the part of downstream programs and potential employers. Providing misleading academic profiles can lead to poor selections, which, ultimately, are unfortunate and potentially very damaging for all involved. What may seem like a charitable act can therefore turn out to be quite the opposite.

 

In case I’ve left anyone with the impression that this is an entirely modern phenomenon, let me end by quoting a report from the Committee on Raising the Standard, commissioned by Harvard University officials in 1894:

 

“Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily – Grade A for work of not very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity”

 

If that group stemmed the tide, it would appear from recent studies that the issue has re-emerged.

Getting back to the question I initially posed at the beginning of this article, all this may provide some solace to my classmates, but as an institution that prides itself on high standards and academic excellence, should we be concerned?

 

Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)

Associate Dean,

Undergraduate Medical Education

 

Many thanks to Sarah Wickett, Health Informatics Librarian, Bracken Library, for her valuable assistance in the compilation of information for this article.

 

 

One Response to Grade Inflation – the “dirty little secret” of academia

  1. Eleni Katsoulas says:

    This phenomenon can pose a threat to the validity of grades (and tests), in that we then question the inferences being drawn from these results. Higher grades might be the result of something other than improved learning (such as teaching to the test). This is a difficult balancing act, cause not preparing students also increases this threat (Stobart, 2008). Although, grade inflation exists for high-stakes assessments, this phenomenon is not matched by the evidence from low-stakes assessments; these have only improved modestly in America over the last 50 years (Statistics Commission Report No. 23, February 2005). Frankly, I would be more concerned with the latter. I leave you with two quotes that came from a chapter titled “Reasons to be cheerful” (Assessment for Learning) from Stobart’s book “The Testing Times”:
    If teaching was simple as telling we’d all be a lot smarter than we are (Mark Twain)
    The student knows more than the teacher about what he has learned—even though he knows less about what was taught (Peter Elbow).

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