Grade inflation…here?

Universities are civilized places — meant to air those great debates often unspoken in less tolerant arenas. Yet nationwide, rumbling below the surface, lies a pent-up frustration ready to erupt with the mention of the question, “Do you think we have grade inflation?”

Though most did not want to admit talking about the status of this problem at WSU, the question elicited an array of answers, none of them under 30 minutes, and always thoughtfully weighed with qualification and analysis.

First, the good news. According to the website, produced by Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer, WSU lies near the bottom in a survey of nearly 80 U.S. colleges and universities experiencing grade inflation over the past 35 years. Rojstaczer reports that nationwide, during that time, GPAs have increased roughly 0.15 per decade. His chart shows WSU coming in below that level with about a 0.10 per decade increase.

For the bad news, take a look at the website and compare a few of the class grade spreads illustrated under “professors.” It doesn’t take long to see that some WSU classes -— and departments —- give a majority of A’s with only one or two B’s, while others still show the classic bell-curve grading pattern.

Shift toward “consumer” attitude
Two courageous WSU faculty, who also happen to be husband and wife, agreed to discuss some aspects of the situation. Paul Verrell, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, and Norah McCabe, instructor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, both were educated in Europe, where “winning” a place at the university was highly competitive and not something seen as a birthright.

“We’ve shed most of our “historical baggage” and adapted to life here,” said Verrell. “Nevertheless, we are concerned about a number of problems we have watched quietly grow during our past 11 years at WSU.”

They concur that, although they have some top-notch students, there are many others who are academically ill-prepared, not only in their basic knowledge base but also in study skills and habits necessary to survive in a higher education setting. They also see a lack of motivation and have difficulty engaging students.

“There is an attitude,” said Verrell. “It’s like, ‘I’m here, I’m paying. I want my money’s worth. You’re the teacher. If I fail, it’s your fault.’”

“This consumer driven attitude toward education has been slowly seeping into the system,” said McCabe. “I envision that in higher education, you will be teaching to a class who wants to learn — that it will be a cooperative effort between instructor and student. But it seems the balance has completely shifted, and instructors are expected to give appreciably more,” she said.

“Easy” profs made public
This is compounded by the fact that numerous websites, for example, Pick-A-Prof at, have sprung up detailing not only a professor’s grading style, but also commenting on personalities, class demands, etc. Students know, even better than faculty, which teachers give the highest grades and demand the least work. According to a story in the Daily Utah Chronicle, Pick-A-Prof “provides comprehensive information about professors and courses, so you can find classes you will succeed in” — which usually means getting an A.

“It has almost become a type of entertainment,” said McCabe. “When you put your notes on the Web so students don’t have to come to class; give practice exams so students don’t have to study; give exams which have questions drawn from the practice tests — and they get A’s — is this not grade inflation?

“This then fuels student expectations for every class. And many wind up in a 300-level course and have no clue how to handle it,” she said.

Still remaining is the question of instructor evaluations. Untenured faculty often worry about third-year performance reviews that include course evaluations as part of the process.

“How do you ensure getting adequate evaluations?” asked Verrell. “If students do well in your class, they will often give good evaluations. Is that to say people are dishonest? No, but there is a potential for grade inflation consciously or not.”

Pedagogy and practices
Faculty Senate Chair Chuck Pezeshki believes grade inflation is minimal at WSU compared to other schools. “We need to worry less about grade inflation and more about learning pedagogy and best teaching practices, which help equip students for the real-world workforce,” he said.

“But,” he added, “we are looking at some things related to this in the Faculty Senate. For example, temporary faculty teach many of the large lower-level courses, and their quality, stability and morale are going to relate to the classroom performance. We hope to improve conditions for temporary faculty by including them in the course catalogs, having them represented in the Faculty Senate, looking at their ability to participate in departmental voting and graduate committee appointments, as well as considering their pay situation and contract stability.”

History and statistics
The matter of grade inflation is nothing new. In the “Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard” prepared for Harvard University in 1894, the members complained, “Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily … Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.”

In his article, “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alfie Kohn (who speaks and writes widely on education and human behavior) discusses the pros and cons of the question but says “the bottom line is no one has ever demonstrated that students today get A’s for the same work that used to receive B’s or C’s. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim.” Cathy Fulkerson, assistant director of Institutional Research at WSU, agrees. “No one has run an analysis on this for the entire university. We can’t even get at this question — we don’t have the data,” she said.

But she was able to pull out some numbers for the past 10 years showing cumulative GPAs for Pullman undergraduates. Fulkerson, together with Al Jamison, associate vice president of educational development, compared the GPAs for all Pullman undergraduates with undergraduates in the College of Sciences and certified majors (undergraduates) in the College of Sciences. What they saw, on all three levels, was a statistically significant increase in grades from 1995 to 2004 (using an independent samples t-test with a two-tailed observed significance level of 0.01 or less). The mean undergraduate GPA in 1995 was 2.85 compared to a mean of 2.98 in 2004.

“Statistically, though we do have grade inflation in the Pullman undergraduate GPAs — a 0.13 increase — the rate appears to be much lower than many parts of the nation,” said Jamison. “We can see something is going on but it could be related to a number of things,” he said.

“Over the past few years, we have increased our selection of high-caliber students,” he said. “We are also paying more attention to freshman-level courses and working to improve our teaching methods. For example, the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) was created in 1995 with that specific goal in mind. Currently, the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Teaching Academy are also investigating these issues.”

The mean cumulative GPA for undergraduates in the College of Sciences showed a slightly higher increase of 0.21 (mean GPA of 2.89 in 1995 versus 3.10 in 2004), and for certified majors in the College of Sciences, the increase was 0.24 (mean GPA of 2.93 in 1995 versus 3.17 in 2004).

“In general, it is expected that students taking classes in the 500-600 level will get higher grades while those in the 100-200 level should show more of a bell curve,” said Tom Martin, director of Administrative Services in the College of Sciences.

Benchmarking and publicizing
Martin is involved in developing benchmarking for the College of Sciences, which often involves mining the Student Data Warehouse for information. “We do look at grade distribution reports,” he said. “The first time we did that, we saw certain classes with obvious grade inflation.”

The list, which doesn’t include names of instructors, was sent to the department chairs and dean, triggering a number of phone calls and concerns. “By the second semester, the grades were all more even and back to normal,” said Martin. “Just the fact of making the information public helped level the field.”

Martin is an advocate of publishing instructor names on the grade distribution list — thinking it would serve as a good method of checks and balance.

“It’s a published report,” he said, “free to the public, and everyone can see if you give 80 percent A’s in your class. It also would help counter some of the student pressure to give good grades.”

One problem in accessing the grade distribution list, Martin said, is that the software required to use the Student Data Warehouse is difficult and expensive.

“Our goal is to get better at what we do as a university,” he said. “The only way to do that is to talk about it and try to get the facts.”

Next Story

Recent News

Center for Entrepreneurship hires new executive director

Paul Warner, an experienced business owner, digital marketer, and consultant, has been appointed executive director of the WSU Center for Entrepreneurship in the Carson College of Business.

Jeffrey Vervoort elected 2024 Geochemistry Fellow

The WSU geology professor received the honor in recognition of his research from the Geochemical Society and European Association of Geochemistry.