Event Recap: Grade Inflation Agora

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The debate surrounding grade inflation is one particularly relevant to college students around the country. Are Kenyon students, as well as college students as a whole, getting smarter? If not, what else is contributing to this drastic increase in GPA over the past 30 years?

This past Wednesday, the Observer hosted a roundtable in Peirce Pub to discuss these very questions. In attendance were multiple Kenyon students, as well as Professor Ken Smail, who retired from Kenyon’s Anthropology department in June 2004. The snowy day outside kept some stuck indoors, but the Pub provided a perfect location for our discussion.

To begin, those in attendance were asked to consider the multiple factors potentially responsible for grade inflation. These included whether Kenyon’s increased status as an academically challenging institution meant that Kenyon students were, in fact, getting smarter, or if the issue was more nuanced. As discussed earlier this week, the Collegian recently reported that Kenyon’s average GPA has increased by about half a point since the 1980s. But, as students brought up throughout the debate, grade inflation is certainly not exclusive to Kenyon. Whether at high schools or other institutions of higher learning, students and faculty all expressed some experience with grade inflation.

At my own private high school, grade inflation has recently become rampant. This is due, in part, to extreme pressure from parents and administrators who want students to have a transcript worthy of admission to a top college or university. It seems that giving students A’s is a harmless way to make everyone happy. When more students have better transcripts, they will, as a whole, get into better universities; this, in turn, makes the high school look more competitive. But students at this week’s Agora who went to public school had a different take on the situation. Public schools are not, generally, in the business of competition over college admissions, and instead strive to educate the children in their community. Yet academic inflation of a sort still very much exists.

GPAs, traditionally measured on a 4.0 scale, have always been a quick and easy way for admissions officers to rate a student’s academic capability. Students are given a number that corresponds to their letter grade in the class, with a 4.0 representing an A, a 3.0 a B, et cetera. Previously, this number did not take into account the difficulty of a student’s course load, including taking regular classes versus Advanced Placement. This was problematic to many students who chose to take harder classes, because admissions officers were passing over them in favor of students who had chosen to stay in the “regular” easier classes, simply because of their higher GPA.

In recent years, however, the introduction of “weighted” GPAs has pushed the top end of the scale to 4.5, 5.0 or even 6.0. This allows students in AP classes to get extra points for the same letter grade, making, for example, an A grade in a regular class, normally a 4.0, into a 4.5 for an AP class. Students whose high schools took this approach were overwhelmingly pleased with it, because it allowed them to get credit for the work they were doing, even if that was only reflected in a single number.

The existence of weighted GPAs at the high school level was considered by some to be a form of grade inflation. Once you’ve passed the 4.0 mark, it appears that the sky is the limit for how far grades can go up. While it is clear that there should be some distinction made between students’ varying course loads, measuring grades in an arbitrary numerical unit seems outdated, and promotes an admissions process where people are reduced to numbers. My high school did not calculate students’ GPAs, or send a calculated number to colleges, but obviously the number of students who apply to college requires most high schools to provide admissions officers with a quick way to “weed-out” the weaker applicants.

Most Kenyon students pay close attention to their own college GPA, making it evident that even if I do not wish to be treated as a number, the world still very much relies on a somewhat generalizable standard of academic success. During the Agora, students spent some time discussing admissions into graduate schools, and how grade inflation has aided or impaired admissions results. It was brought up that most (if not all) medical schools in the United States now require a 3.5 GPA for an application to even be considered by the admissions committee. This does not come with stipulations about different weight given to harder course loads, participation in extra curricular activities, or what an A means at Kenyon versus, say, the University of Phoenix. For a pre-med student looking to get into medical school, grade inflation seems like an extremely welcome practice. For example, when someone who is pre-med looks at which classes he should take next semester, he must be conscious not only of how well the professor teaches, or how interesting the subject matter is, but whether or not he can get an A without too much effort. GPA requirements at graduate schools also mean that if the student knows he will get a C in Organic Chemistry, he must load up on classes that he knows he can get an A in, simply to balance out his GPA, even if the classes are not relevant to the pre-med course of study.

Professors, meanwhile, also benefit from giving out better grades. A professor’s success at a college is often highly dependent on student evaluations, given each semester by students in that professor’s classes. It has been found, overwhelmingly, that students who get better grades give better evaluations. This is obviously problematic. A professor looking for tenure has great incentive to give students A’s, if only to boost their student-reported satisfaction rating. I do not believe that most professors, especially at Kenyon, would be so unscrupulous. However, many students at Agora experienced the same phenomenon: the rampant use of the B+/A- grade, a form of grade “compression” as opposed to out and out “inflation.” As one student explained, “it’s the grade a professor will give you if you deserve the B+ but they don’t have the heart to not give you the A-.” Even if the professor ultimately gives you a B+ on your transcript, the good feelings you received from your /A- will hopefully lead you to giving them a better review at the end of the semester.

Grade inflation may not be evil as much as a product of a changing academic environment. As one student mentioned in regards to a comment a Kenyon professor made, grades can be equated to money, gradually inflating over time. But there must be acknowledgment throughout the academic community of this change. The best way to accomplish this is simply through better communication. Professor Smail, at Agora, mentioned that not only do accrediting agencies not ask colleges to justify their grading practices, there is little-to-no communication about grading practices among educators as a whole. Faculty should be required to discuss their grading practices at internal department meetings and at school-wide functions. Obviously there is a major difference in the way an English professor and a Physics professor might grade work, but talking about what sort of effort or skill denotes an A should be a college-wide concern. Most important, however, is the communication between institutions. One college cannot decide to decrease their students’ grades without seeming significantly less competitive, whether measured by average GPA, graduate school placement, or student employment after graduation. Every school, from high school through to graduate school, should have a certain accepted set of standards for what signifies an A or a B on a test, paper, lab report, or presentation.

Grade inflation has led to a better GPA being the norm for students across the country. At Harvard, for example, the average GPA is a 3.6. So, if many Harvard graduates leave the university with somewhere above an A- average, how should graduate schools or employers decide on which candidates are the best for the job? Before grades became a product of teacher evaluations, a lack of communication, and an evolving academic world, they were a major equalizer in leveling the playing field among students from every sort of background. Not so long ago, working hard in school to achieve a perfect transcript was a near guarantee of future success. Nowadays, however, participation in extra curricular activities and internships are considered standard measures of a student’s ability. Many consider this unfair, as it often requires a certain socioeconomic background to be able to have, for example, an unpaid summer internship. Unfortunately, with grades often being absurdly inflated, employers and admissions officers have no choice.

On a scale this large, the options for what to do to solve the problem of grade inflation are limited. However, discussing it in the open is a great first step to make everyone aware of the complexities of the situation. This Agora provided an excellent forum for Kenyon students and professors, and opened the door to what is sure to be many more discussions in the future.

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