Grade inflation is not a victimless crime

I often wonder what the public thinks when reading the periodic headlines about grade inflation at Ivy League universities - like last week's Princeton faculty decision to limit the number of A's it gives undergraduates. After all, these elite schools attract the top 1 percent of the general college-bound population - could so many high grades really be that scandalous? Why would these heartless administrators want to punish their students by suggesting they don't deserve their grades?

But something important has happened throughout higher education in the past generation. Students at all academic institutions have come to expect high grades as an entitlement. I even had a student who had received an A- ask what she'd done "wrong."

There are many theories about when and why this jump in grade expectations occurred. Some credit college draft deferments during the Vietnam War.

Faculty felt both pressure and sympathy for students who might get drafted if their grades fell too low. Even now, many corporations withhold tuition reimbursement for employees who receive grades below a specified threshold.

A misguided sense of student consumer power also plays a role in inflating grades: Faculty fear that students will retaliate for low grades on their course evaluations.

The insidious aspect of grade inflation is the perception among faculty and others that this is a victimless crime. After all, no students ever complain that their grades are too high. Grade inflation reduces end-of-semester traffic from those questioning their final grades. Everyone seems to win.

But the truly outstanding and industrious student is wronged. Grading is about fundamental fairness. Not everyone performs exceptionally well and should not be deceived into thinking they have. Nobody's achievements should be cheapened by a leveling of grades.

The public that reviews a graduate's record is also wronged. Grading is about honesty and integrity. Professors are responsible for providing feedback, differentiating performance, and maintaining the credibility of their institution and themselves. Grade inflation distorts the very essence of the evaluative process.

Grade inflation is often symptomatic of deeper problems - laxness, low standards, lack of evaluative tools in a class, and even a lack of familiarity with one's students. High grades might signal poor teaching.

Grade inflation could be a wake up call to revamp a course - to determine why so little data exists to differentiate students. Faculty with chronically high grades should ask themselves the painful questions of why they know so little about their students, whether they are truly challenging them to learn, and perhaps whether they have kept up enough in their fields to teach at a level worthy of their students. Grade inflation might be a signal to reengineer a course from start to finish.

Some faculty rationalize that their students perform exceptionally well because they themselves are exceptionally good teachers. Their high grades validate their self-image. A preponderance of high grades should not be worn as a badge of honor, but an indication of something wrong.

No one wants to be the ogre who grades more harshly. The everyone-does-it myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My antidote is to circulate the grade distributions of all faculty - so those who give a preponderance of A's realize that not everyone does it, and that some of their most revered colleagues aren't easy marks for high marks. But I try to avoid the more mechanistic measures of prescribing or imposing an impersonal grade distribution on all courses.

Despite dozens of empirical studies to the contrary, fear that students will retaliate on their course evaluations is the myth fueling grade inflation that is hardest to debunk. Faculty often are convinced that their popularity and even their jobs are at risk, that somehow they can buy respect with higher grades, and that students are so easily duped by undeserved grades that they will return the favor with higher evaluations.

Grade inflation of student performance, in fact, does not produce grade inflation of course evaluations. Students are capable of separating their personal situation from their view of instructional quality.

The best faculty don't play to their immediate popularity but to students' long-term memory. When I talk with new faculty, I encourage them to strive to be that special person who taught the course that made a lasting difference in the lives of students. Alumni often recall gratefully those faculty who seemed at the time the most demanding and perhaps not the most charismatic, but who inspired them to learn - not only that semester, but for a lifetime.

I've found that when you put together an enthusiastic, confident faculty with discerning, motivated students - engaged in subject matter that is rich, exciting, and current - inflated grades actually deflate. And no one seems to notice.

Jay A. Halfond is Dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.