As Texas college students return to campus this fall, a number of academic researchers are warning that grade inflation constitutes a deep crisis in higher education, both in Texas and nationwide. Over the past half-century, they find, grade inflation has been debasing academic standards and undermining the morale required for genuine learning and workforce competitiveness.
According to professor Stuart Rojstaczer’s landmark study of college grading, in the ’60s, 15 percent of college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, that percentage has nearly tripled — 43 percent of all grades are A’s. In fact, Rojstaczer finds that an A is now the most common grade given in college.
Texas A&M professor Valen Johnson concurs. He writes in his book “Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education,” “Current assessment practices are flawed, and both students and faculty know it. Unregulated grading practices change student enrollment patterns and penalize students who pursue demanding curricula. They permit students to manipulate their GPAs through the judicious choice of their classes rather than through the moderation of their performance in those classes.”
Johnson also demonstrates that students reward easier-grading professors with better teacher evaluations, which are crucial in deciding faculty tenure, promotion and salary. He also finds that students “can (and probably do) manipulate their GPAs” through choosing easier-grading instructors.
As monetary inflation devalues the dollar, grade inflation debases the currency of education: student transcripts. Grade inflation makes it increasingly difficult for employers to distinguish truly excellent students from those who have taken courses and majors with lax standards.
Employers are not the only victims. The true victims are students and society at large. Allison Shrager, former teaching assistant of economics at Columbia University, argues that grade inflation “robs students of an important life skill: We learn the most from failure, which happens even when we try hard, and our ability to overcome it. That kind of resilience will be rewarded more in the increasingly competitive labor market — and is worth a lot more than straight A’s.”
Furman professor Christopher Healy adds that grade inflation is far from uniform across disciplines. He finds that the toughest subject is math. At the opposite extreme is education. Other disciplines enforcing more rigorous grading standards are biology, chemistry, and economics.
The Texas House of Representatives took a major step last year toward making grade inflation more transparent when it passed the Honest Transcript Bill (HB 3498), which would require all public university transcripts to include — next to the individual student’s class grade — the average grade given by the professor for the entire class.
This enhanced transparency would alert students, parents and taxpayers to those schools and majors that have maintained standards and those that haven’t. Last year, UNC-Chapel Hill opted on such a course of action, and UC-Berkeley is considering doing the same.
Although the House passed the Honest Transcript Bill overwhelmingly last year, the bill was not heard in the Senate. But proponents of transcript transparency promise to resume their efforts next session. Should they succeed, what might come to be known as the “Texas Transcript” could become the model for the other 49 states.
Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush.