FOR many of today's college students, receiving a C in a course is tantamount to failure. Rampant grade inflation, which began several decades ago, has caused students to feel entitled to high grades even with minimal effort.
Despite generally declining standardized-test scores, grade-point averages continue to escalate. From 1969 to 1983, the proportion of college students with grade-point averages of A-minus or higher almost quadrupled, according to a study by the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
``Students think they are doing better and better, and they report better and better grades. But they do worse on objective criteria. So we're giving them better grades for worse work,'' says Jackson Toby, a professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a grade-inflation critic.
Elevating nearly everyone to the top of the scale undermines the main purpose of grades, he argues. Students are no longer getting a fair representation of their individual performances and how they compare with those of their classmates.
After ignoring the situation, however, some top colleges are beginning to rethink grading policies. At Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where 9 out of 10 grades last year were A's or B's, it is possible to fail a course for the first time in 24 years. The university eliminated D's and F's in 1970. Although the D was reinstated five years later, a failing grade was brought back just this year.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has taken the lead among the Ivy League schools in addressing the issue of grade inflation. Beginning with this year's freshman class, all Dartmouth grade reports and transcripts will include additional information intended to put grades in context.
The overall grade-point average at Dartmouth has increased from 3.06 in 1976-77 to 3.23 last academic year (based on a 4.0 scale). But the average grades awarded by different academic departments vary dramatically. For example, the average grade in the humanities was 3.36, falling to 3.18 in the social sciences and 3.09 in the sciences. Research shows that this is a common occurrence in higher education.
``We knew something was amiss,'' says Gary Johnson, chair of the college's committee on instruction. ``There had to be some way to try to understand grades in context.''
The concern about grade inflation and ``differential grading'' led the committee to propose a new grading policy based on a long-term practice at McGill University in Montreal. The faculty overwhelmingly approved the policy change last spring.
Beginning with December grades for freshman, grade reports and transcripts will show the median course grade and the number of students in the class along with a student's individual grade in a course.
HIS way, if a B-plus is below the class average, at least it will show,'' says Thomas Bickel, Dartmouth's registrar. ``At the present time, that distinction is not on the transcript.'' At the same time, Professor Johnson adds, ``a B-plus does not look like an onerous grade if that is the median.''
Whether this will help curb grade inflation is still being debated at Dartmouth. But the move is getting the attention of other top-tier schools. ``Dartmouth's changes are a step in the right direction,'' Professor Toby says. ``But I don't expect things to change radically.''
Although the overwhelming majority of Dartmouth faculty voted for the grading change, there are a few vocal opponents. ``I'm very angry about it, and I resent it,'' says Delo Mook, a professor of physics at Dartmouth. ``I consider it an infringement on my academic freedom to teach my course the way that I want to teach it.''
The change feeds a competitive spirit among classmates that is destructive to the learning process, Professor Mook argues. ``There's too much competition [among students] as it is,'' he says. To truly do something about grade inflation, Mook argues, would require ``instilling a greater sense of responsibility in the faculty. After all, they are the ones giving the grades.''
Student debate about the issue has been muted. But some students share Mook's resentment. ``They perceive this as a problem with the professors, yet it's the students who will be affected and are being made to pay,'' says Yvonne Chiu, editor in chief of Dartmouth's student newspaper.
``Just because Dartmouth is doing this doesn't mean that the other Ivy League schools are,'' Ms. Chiu says. ``Harvard could still be giving all of their students A's, and those students will be competing with our students after graduation.''
Johnson acknowledges that the policy change ``could be viewed as a passive way of going after grade inflation.''
``It would be better if we could find a way that more directly addressed the problem,'' Mr. Bickel says. ``But there isn't any way to really control how professors give grades. It's something that faculty members feel strongly is part of their freedom to run their courses.''
``All of us dislike the anxiety surrounding grades,'' Johnson says. ``But in fairness to students who work hard, they deserve some recognition.''