Is grade inflation a real problem?

Mar 4 JDN 2458182

You can’t spend much time teaching at the university level and not hear someone complain about “grade inflation”. Almost every professor seems to believe in it, and yet they must all be participating in it, if it’s really such a widespread problem.

This could be explained as a collective action problem, a Tragedy of the Commons: If the incentives are always to have the students with the highest grades—perhaps because of administrative pressure, or in order to get better reviews from students—then even if all professors would prefer a harsher grading scheme, no individual professor can afford to deviate from the prevailing norms.

But in fact I think there is a much simpler explanation: Grade inflation doesn’t exist.

In economic growth theory, economists make a sharp distinction between inflation—increase in prices without change in underlying fundamentals—and growth—increase in the real value of output. I contend that there is no such thing as grade inflation—what we are in fact observing is grade growth.
Am I saying that students are actually smarter now than they were 30 years ago?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

But don’t take it from me. Take it from the decades of research on the Flynn Effect: IQ scores have been rising worldwide at a rate of about 0.3 IQ points per year for as long as we’ve been keeping good records. Students today are about 10 IQ points smarter than students 30 years ago—a 2018 IQ score of 95 is equivalent to a 1988 score of 105, which is equivalent to a 1958 score of 115. There is reason to think this trend won’t continue indefinitely, since the effect is mainly concentrated at the bottom end of the distribution; but it has continued for quite some time already.

This by itself would probably be enough to explain the observed increase in grades, but there’s more: College students are also a self-selected sample, admitted precisely because they were believed to be the smartest individuals in the application pool. Rising grades at top institutions are easily explained by rising selectivity at top schools: Harvard now accepts 5.6% of applicants. In 1942, Harvard accepted 92% of applicants. The odds of getting in have fallen from 9:1 in favor to 19:1 against. Today, you need a 4.0 GPA, a 36 ACT in every category, glowing letters of recommendation, and hundreds of hours of extracurricular activities (or a family member who donated millions of dollars, of course) to get into Harvard. In the 1940s, you needed a high school diploma and a B average.

In fact, when educational researchers have tried to quantitatively study the phenomenon of “grade inflation”, they usually come back with the result that they simply can’t find it. The US department of education conducted a study in 1995 showing that average university grades had declined since 1965. Given that the Flynn effect raised IQ by almost 10 points during that time, maybe we should be panicking about grade deflation.

It really wouldn’t be hard to make that case: “Back in my day, you could get an A just by knowing basic algebra! Now they want these kids to take partial derivatives?” “We used to just memorize facts to ace the exam; but now teachers keep asking for reasoning and critical thinking?”

More recently, a study in 2013 found that grades rose at the high school level, but fell at the college level, and showed no evidence of losing any informativeness as a signaling mechanism. The only recent study I could find showing genuinely compelling evidence for grade inflation was a 2017 study of UK students estimating that grades are growing about twice as fast as the Flynn effect alone would predict. Most studies don’t even consider the possibility that students are smarter than they used to be—they just take it for granted that any increase in average grades constitutes grade inflation. Many of them don’t even control for the increase in selectivity—here’s one using the fact that Harvard’s average rose from 2.7 to 3.4 from 1960 to 2000 as evidence of “grade inflation” when Harvard’s acceptance rate fell from almost 30% to only 10% during that period.

Indeed, the real mystery is why so many professors believe in grade inflation, when the evidence for it is so astonishingly weak.

I think it’s availability heuristic. Who are professors? They are the cream of the crop. They aced their way through high school, college, and graduate school, then got hired and earned tenure—they were one of a handful of individuals who won a fierce competition with hundreds of competitors at each stage. There are over 320 million people in the US, and only 1.3 million college faculty. This means that college professors represent about the top 0.4% of high-scoring students.

Combine that with the fact that human beings assort positively (we like to spend time with people who are similar to us) and use availability heuristic (we judge how likely something is based on how many times we have seen it).

Thus, when a professor compares to her own experience of college, she is remembering her fellow top-scoring students at elite educational institutions. She is recalling the extreme intellectual demands she had to meet to get where she is today, and erroneously assuming that these are representative of most the population of her generation. She probably went to school at one of a handful of elite institutions, even if she now teaches at a mid-level community college: three quarters of college faculty come from the top one quarter of graduate schools.

And now she compares to the students she has to teach, most of whom would not be able to meet such demands—but of course most people in her generation couldn’t either. She frets for the future of humanity only because not everyone is a genius like her.

Throw in the Curse of Knowledge: The professor doesn’t remember how hard it was to learn what she has learned so far, and so the fact that it seems easy now makes her think it was easy all along. “How can they not know how to take partial derivatives!?” Well, let’s see… were you born knowing how to take partial derivatives?

Giving a student an A for work far inferior to what you’d have done in their place isn’t unfair. Indeed, it would clearly be unfair to do anything less. You have years if not decades of additional education ahead of them, and you are from self-selected elite sample of highly intelligent individuals. Expecting everyone to perform as well as you would is simply setting up most of the population for failure.

There are potential incentives for grade inflation that do concern me: In particular, a lot of international student visas and scholarship programs insist upon maintaining a B or even A- average to continue. Professors are understandably loathe to condemn a student to having to drop out or return to their home country just because they scored 81% instead of 84% on the final exam. If we really intend to make C the average score, then students shouldn’t lose funding or visas just for scoring a B-. Indeed, I have trouble defending any threshold above outright failing—which is to say, a minimum score of D-. If you pass your classes, that should be good enough to keep your funding.

Yet apparently even this isn’t creating too much upward bias, as students who are 10 IQ points smarter are still getting about the same scores as their forebears. We should be celebrating that our population is getting smarter, but instead we’re panicking over “easy grading”.

But kids these days, am I right?

2 thoughts on “Is grade inflation a real problem?

  1. In recent years, grade scales have been nudged upward in several ways:
    (1) At many schools, A-plus (with honor point exceeding 4.0) is used to recognize outstanding performance.
    (2) Taking some courses pass/fail is a common way to preserve one’s GPA.
    (3) Permission to drop a course in which one is not doing well is now more easily obtained.

    also, the Harvard admission statistics for 1942 were influenced by the advent of WW2.

    Like

  2. Yes, I think in some schools and in some areas, it is a problem, although I agree with the author that we have been getting smarter. But why? We have changed our expectations. We have changed how we assess the “average” student. We have altered our ideas as to what constitutes an educated individual. Average today is not average 20 or 30 years ago or even farther back. We have changed the requirements for high school graduation. And, we have changed the requirements for getting and maintaining a job — not a career, just a job. I know of several students in the small community college where I teach who would have never needed to go to college years ago, now they do just to get a mediocre position that pays a living wage. And, here is a thought. If we need at least an associate’s degree to be a viable contributor to society, college degrees of any type lose their exclusivity because more people need a degree, more people get a degree, and hence the value of a degree plummets. Higher grades equals more degrees and less valuable degrees.

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