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Lessons—Doubling of A’s at Harvard: Grade Inflation or Brains?

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON DECEMBER 5, 2001 ]

Doubling of A’s at Harvard: Grade inflation or brains?

By Richard Rothstein

A Harvard University report last spring complained of grade inflation that makes it easier to get high grades. Now the academic dean, Susan Pedersen, has released data showing that 49 percent of undergraduate grades were A’s in 2001, up considerably from 23 percent in 1986.

Colleges and high schools are often accused of tolerating grade inflation, because teachers have adopted lower standards and hesitate to confront lower-performing students. Critics warn that if grading is too easy, learning will lag.

But grade inflation is harder to detect than it seems.

Inflation means giving a higher value to the same thing that once had a lower one. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks price inflation, but it is not easy. Automobile
prices have gone up, but cars now have air bags and electronic ignitions. Consumers today pay more not only for the same thing but for a better thing. These factors are hard to untangle.

Grade inflation is similarly complicated. More A’s could be a result of smarter students. Ivy League colleges compute an academic index for freshmen based on their College Board SAT and achievement test scores. Harvard’s index numbers have been rising, and few students have numbers that were common at the low end of the class 15 years ago. So if students are more proficient, there should be more A’s, even if grading is just as strict.

At Harvard, Dean Pedersen noted that students might study harder than before, perhaps because graduate schools are more competitive. Classes are now smaller, so better teaching could result in better learning. More A’s would then reflect more achievement, not inflation.

What grades measure can also change. Harvard professors now say they demand more reasoning and less memorization. Whether or not this is desirable, higher grades that follow may not be inflationary. Government price surveyors face similar problems when products change: if consumers who once shopped at Sears now buy the same shirt at Nordstrom, are they paying more for the same thing (inflation) or for a different thing (more service)?

Dr. Pedersen agrees that higher grades may sometimes be given for the same work. But she doubts that inflation is the main cause of the rise in grades. Another dean, Harry R. Lewis, calculated that Harvard grades rose as much from 1930 to 1966 as from 1967 to the present, so the trend is not new. Neither are accusations of inflation: a Harvard report in 1894 also warned that grades of A and B had become too easy.

Grade inflation in high schools is elusive as well. RAND researchers found there was actually some national grade deflation from 1982 to 1992 — students with the same math scores got lower grades at the end of the period than at the start.

But seniors with similar scores on entrance exams (the SAT and ACT) now have slightly higher grades than before. Perhaps this inconsistency results from inflation affecting top students (those likely to take the exams) more than others. Or perhaps grades deflated from 1982 to 1992, but inflated at other times.

Since 1993, the State of Georgia has given free college tuition to students with B averages. Critics say grade inflation resulted because, with B’s worth a lot of money, high school teachers now give borderline students a greater benefit of the doubt.

But if a promise of scholarships led students to work harder, higher grades would not signal inflation. And indeed, one study found that Georgia’s black students with B averages had higher SAT scores than before the program began.

Even if inflation is less than it seems, rising grades pose a problem that rising prices do not. Prices can rise without limit, but grades cannot go above A+. When more students get A’s, grades no longer can show which ones are doing truly superior work. This is called “grade compression” and is probably a more serious problem than inflation.

Students at Harvard who easily get A’s may be smarter, but with so many of them, professors can no longer reward the very best with higher grades. Losing this motivational tool could, paradoxically, cause achievement to fall.

The same is true in high schools. Julian Betts, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, has shown that students learn more when grading standards are tougher. But the effect is uneven. Less able students are more likely to drop out if standards increase.

As schools improve, a broad noninflationary rise in grades should follow. But distracted by the mostly false issue of inflation, educators have rarely considered how effort can still be encouraged when grades get more compressed.

Higher grades at many schools may be more inflationary than at Harvard, with all its talent. As Dr. Pedersen tries to fix compression — the concentration of high grades — perhaps she can show how other places can avoid a similar trap.

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