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The Disease of Grade Inflation

It is no secret that American higher education has been driven lower and lower over the past 50 years. The most obvious symptom of this decline is grade inflation to the point that the grade of A has become a placeholder, a participation trophy where excellence is no longer a factor. In the meantime course content has deflated to half its pre-inflation level. Likewise workloads have withered to a scant fraction. The most direct agent for that inflation and deflation has been the use of student evaluations for retention and promotion of faculty – or rather the misuse of these evaluations.

Student evaluations came along circa the 1980, due to student protests asserting a say in their education. But grade inflation was already underway, a consequence of the Vietnam War.

When this writer began college in the late 1960s the flunk out rate for college freshmen was as high as 40%. A high failure rate then indicated a rigorous and therefore quality education. Those 40% lost their college deferment to become subject for drafting into the war. Schools opened at the time – such as Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa – where the flunk out rate was a disreputable 20%. Despite its high tuition Parsons had a waiting list of 14,000 applicants who had flunked out of more prestigious universities.

Many schools enforced this 40% attrition by requiring instructors of high enrollment freshman courses to grade on a strict bell curve that peaked at a C grade. This meant that only 4% of students earned an A grade and that 40% received a C- or lower grade – grounds for dismissal from the university. This flunk out duty often fell to the graduate students who taught many of the introductory courses. As a graduate assistant this writer engaged in long conversations with despondent teaching assistants in English who feared for their financial aid if they did not adhere to this grading protocol. Their angst was due to learning of students who they had flunked out and who had died in Vietnam.

This awareness led mercifully to the easing of such grading protocols bringing the expected rise in grades. This rise accelerated when pushed along by the onset of student evaluations. At first these evaluations went to the teacher and were actually useful as feedback for developing instructional methods. The formal assessment of teaching quality was conducted by the instructors’ peers and consisted of classroom observation and a review of course materials. Soon, however, administrators added a third component to assessing faculty teaching: student evaluations.

Overtly, this was a nod to student empowerment; covertly, this was a tool for administrative empowerment. As Nancy Bunge in her essay “Students Evaluating Teachers Doesn’t Just Hurt Teachers. It Hurts Students.” Appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 27, 2018) tells of a colleague who once remarked, “When we agitated for student evaluations in the ’60s, we never guessed we were handing the administration a club.”

Curatorial snacks – Pablo Helguera

It is a flawed tool. Consider this conversation overheard in an elevator:

First student, “Who are you taking for three-dimensional modeling?”

Second student, “Professor X.”

First student, “You should take Professor Z. She’s a lot easier.”

Second student, “Yeah, but I want to learn something.”

Clearly the second student would give a more reasoned and accurate evaluation, but the first, doltish student’s response would carry the same weight in a data base. The same goes for students with axes to grind. Unfortunately the secret to high evaluations is to teach to the dolts.

Eventually student evaluations became the prime tool to assess instructors. After all, it is easier to summarize a data base of evaluation scores than it is to observe a class session and to examine syllabi, texts and assignments. It is even easier to cut to the chase and look at the bottom line – the average of all of the evaluations. A single number summarizing a flawed data base has become a basis for annual raises.

If this appears to be administrative laziness, that‘s because it is. This is especially troubling given that since 1975 student enrollment in higher learning has increased by 50% as administrative staff ballooned by 250%. How did administrative duties justify this increase?

David Graeber, an economic anthropologist, offers an explanation in his recent book Bullshit Jobs. Administrators, he opines, by their nature need underlings, the more important the underlings the better. Thus deans beget associate deans. To be important associate deans also need underlings, such as office managers who in turn supervise student assistants. All this with little increase in required work. Tasks that deal most directly with faculty issues are often farmed out to faculty who receive a reduction in their teaching for such administrative service.

Graeber defines bullshit jobs as those which require workers to knowingly accomplish nothing or to create unnecessary work or to actually inflict damage. As a consequence workers become despondent and even depressed. If, however, workers believe their work is useful these are not, by his definition, bullshit jobs. This is the case for most university administrators. They are not in general cynical people – most are dedicated – they simply are too distant from the nuts and bolts of learning.

And now let’s say hello to Ralph – Pablo Helguera

Faculty receive tenure based on achievements in three areas: teaching, service and scholarship. At most universities strength in teaching plus strength service or scholarship along with minimal accomplishment in a third will earn tenure. Since the ablest and most creative scholars possess a passion for their field that typically leaves them disinterested in administration, faculty who become deans and program directors are tenured on the basis of their teaching and their service to the university.

To pull off an excellent rating in teaching faculty soon learn that higher grades correspond to higher evaluations, especially in consort with easing course standards. A typical course today offers approximately half the content of those taught in 1975. Also diminished is the rigor and sophistication of the subject matter. Higher level intellectual performance, such as the ability to productively engage in civil critical discourse by using logic and rhetoric, has weakened. Furthermore, course workloads are now approximately 15% of the 1975 average. Where in the mid-70s the standard was six to nine hours of outside work for a class that met for three hours each week, today’s assignments average less than two hours per week for that same course. Easier for the student also means easier for the teacher.

Administrators operate on the notion that the customer knows best. Similarly, many faculty support student evaluations on the basis that a happy student is a better learner. They also believe that questioning their grading standards as irresponsible interferes with their academic freedom. Research shows no correlation with learning and evaluation scores, although it does reveal a correlation between high evaluations and high grades. Nevertheless, administrators do not take these correlations into account. Also, since grades are intended to rate student performance and not course content, challenging an instructors grading standards has nothing to do with academic freedom

Grade inflation has continued to be compelled by social forces, like the aforementioned effect of the Vietnam War and student protest. Grades began rising further as a result of cuts in student aid under the Reagan/Bush administrations. Private universities began allotting funds from tuition monies to help subsidize poorer and minority students. This necessitated raising tuition and increasing the number of paying students by increasing retention. Lowering attrition rates replaced the concept of a flunk out rates. Many universities panic when attrition surpasses 10%.

Grade inflation supports a culture that has come to misunderstand and therefore devalue learning. Consider this professor’s comments:

I typically teach twice the amount of material in a course as do teachers of other sections of that course. This means nothing to my dean when compared to the student evaluations. I always told myself that if a student’s parents realized this they would appreciate it. But not so, grades matter more to them as well.

It turns out that these parents themselves learned under grade inflation. Worse is the fact that new faculty hires also learned under grade inflation along with the concomitant waning of educational standards. The culture continues stronger than ever.

For this writer much of the pleasure of university teaching was the opportunity to engage with other faculty on a level of discourse that permitted civil argumentation, in which one could expect critical sophistication and where facts could be rationally appreciated. Such intellectual skills could be expected of all faculty and thus many of these discussions were amongst faculty in both the arts and sciences, making for enjoyable lunches in the faculty dining room.

These opportunities have dwindled along with the faculty still present who had been educated to the appropriate standards of thought. Now has been a good time to retire.

Stephen Luecking

Stephen Luecking is an emeritus professor of Depaul University. He previously taught at Miami University (OH) and Purdue University. He has also served as visiting faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at Columbia College.

Volume 33 no 4 March / April 2019

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Jane Alexander

Hi Stephen, Your article gives a very real and sad picture of the academic environment in universities today in the US, but could also focus on the evolution of how children have been raised over the past decades. Children once freely played outside in their backyards, at parks and playgrounds; parents once read with their children. This no longer is important to most parents, since there are easier ways of parenting today – video games. Reading abilities and attention spans have diminished over the decades, as video games gradually entered the lives of children starting in the 70s with Asteroids,… Read more »

Matthew Benchley

What a pessimist you are Jane! Instead, look at how many artists are employed in creating computer art for video games around the world. It means these artists haven’t had to hold second jobs to support themselves.

Walter Spencer

Hey, Matthew,
You think drawing pictures for a video game company is art? It sounds like your brain has been taken too, along with all the other game addicts out there. What is art in your opinion? I hope you have the courage to answer.