The Problem of Grade Inflation

 Posted by on 7 February 2004 at 11:45 am  Uncategorized
Feb 072004

I’ve long known that grade inflation is a serious problem at American universities, so the hard data on this page was quite interesting. It shows an increase of .15 in 10 years in average student GPA. Frankly, I wonder about the trends over the past 50 years, as I doubt that the early 1990s is a good baseline.

Of course, the problem of grade inflation isn’t the only or largest problem. The real issue is that institutional education is not nearly as demanding, comprehensive, focused, and integrated as it ought to be. Students are put through the motions of education without actually learning as much, as deeply, or as broadly as they ought to. For the dedicated learner, the only solution to the gross inadequacy of institutional education is self-education… but then what’s the point of the institutional education at all? Frankly, I’m ready to start a movement for homeschooling in undergraduate and graduate education.

On the flip side, we might ask: What is a professor (or teacher) to do? Obviously, fighting for a more demanding curriculum and stricter standards throughout the institution could be a worthwhile goal, if it weren’t so likely to be wholly ineffective. In large classes, grading on a curve may well be a good option to prevent grade inflation. (However, that might only increase the incentive to make the classes easier.) And really, how much can any educator (or even institution) do when the students coming to them are so completely undereducated? (A friend of mine teaching introductory philosophy tells me that students often can’t even write vaguely coherent “stream of consciousness” essays. That indicates something quite horrible about the quality of their thinking.) Merely instituting stricter standards might not be all that helpful to students who have suffered from years of bad education. Yet accommodating the ignorance of incoming students (e.g. by accepting them and then placing them in remedial courses) merely perpetuates the problem.

The necessary impetus for change is unlikely to come from universities, as backing up their demands would require a willingness to dramatically decrease enrollment. Change must start with primary and secondary education, then trickle down to the universities. Homeschooling, school choice, vouchers, objective graduation requirements, and so on surely make a difference, but only for a small number of individual students. Until the public school system is junked, substantial change seems beyond reach.

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