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Grade Inflation Revisited

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Our item on rampant grade inflation at Harvard (“A Gentleman’s A+,” The Scrapbook, December 16) caught the eye of reader Robert D. King, who also happens to be founding dean of liberal arts and Rapoport chair of Jewish studies emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor King writes to let us know that the struggle against grade inflation is not in fact hopeless:

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“I first heard the phrase ‘grade inflation’ in the 1970s when Harvard announced that an embarrassingly high percentage of its students were graduating ‘with honors.’ Academics being what they are, face-saving explanations were quick to follow, as they are now. Today’s students are smarter than they used to be (give me a break!). Our admission policies are so much stricter (don’t tell me all ‘legacy entrants’ are geniuses, please). We teach better today (than Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and all those truly great teachers of the postwar years? Oh brother). 

“At the time,” King continues, “I was dean of liberal arts at what we are now pleased to call a ‘major research university,’ and I saw my mission as holding the fortress of the ancient, honorable Academy against the barbarians battering every portcullis. Easy grading was a symptom of this leveling barbarism, so I decided to do something about it. Step One was to measure grade inflation quantitatively. Any fool could see that professors were grading easier, but how much easier exactly?

“My soulmate was Associate Dean Joseph Horn, a distinguished psychologist—a psychologist who made his reputation in twin studies, not in ‘tell-me-how-bad-your-parents-were’ psychology. Joe was a genius with numbers and as conservative and no-nonsense as I was. He devised something we called the Grade Inflation Index.

“First you calculate a Class Grade Point Average (GPA). An A is worth 4.0 points, a B 3.0, etc. Multiply the number of students who received A’s by 4.0, the number of B students by 3.0, and so on down to F (which by then was virtually extinct). Then add up those numbers, divide by the number of students in the class, and you get the Class GPA.

“Suppose you’re Associate Professor Twerk teaching Lesbian Motifs in Jane Austen. Twerk’s an easy grader, you’ll get an A unless you betray a closet conservatism, so the Class GPA for that course would be high, say 3.8 (almost all A’s). Meanwhile, Professor Dismal, who teaches Advanced Macroeconomics, is a famously tough grader. His Class GPA might be down around 2.3 (slightly above a C average).

“Every student will have an overall GPA they come to class with. Take Twerk’s Class GPA (3.8) and divide it by the average GPA her students bring with them to her class (say it’s 2.5), and you get a number we called the Grade Inflation Index of 1.52 (3.8 ÷ 2.5). Suppose Dismal’s students had an Overall GPA of 2.8; his Grade Inflation Index would be 0.82 (2.3 ÷ 2.8). An Index > 1 means you’re an easy grader; an Index < 1 means you’re tough.

“What we didn’t dare do was to publicize these numbers, since students would use them to choose easy-grading profs. What we could do was to use grade inflation as one of the criteria of promotion decisions and salary increases. Naturally the faculty hated the whole concept, the department chairmen threatened to resign en bloc, the school newspaper excoriated me, I was burned in effigy. But my superiors supported me and my noisome ways, whatever they may privately have thought.

“So Joe Horn and I persisted, and guess what: Grade inflation leveled off and actually began to decrease. Yes! It can be done, but you have to want to really do something about grade inflation and not care about your popularity. There are solutions to problems, but the solutions are not easy and will never make you well-liked.”

An inspiring tale, indeed. But given the thick skin, fortitude, and administrative support required, The Scrapbook is not holding its breath waiting for Harvard to do anything about the Gentleman’s A+.

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