Students slack off but still get top grades

By Ben Wildavsky, originally published in U.S.News & World Report magazine, 7 Feb 2000.

When researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles asked America's college freshmen to answer a few questions about their political views, study habits, extracurricular activities, and the like, a curious paradox emerged: More and more students say they're tuning out during high school, yet a record number earn A's. Does this mean America is producing an unusually talented bunch of graduates who don't have to hit the books to make top marks?

Not according to Linda Sax, director of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute's annual freshman survey, now in its 34th year. "We don't think this grade inflation is happening because these students are getting any smarter," she says. "There are no other indicators that would suggest that students' level of achievement has gone up over the past 30 years." Indeed, the College Board reported last year that falling SAT scores were accompanied by rising grades. More than 34 percent of freshmen in this year's UCLA survey reported earning an A average in high school, compared with a low of just 12.5 percent in 1969. Meantime, the humble C has traded places with the once elusive A: Twelve percent of this year's freshmen earned C averages, down from 32.5 percent in 1969. (The responses of 261,217 incoming students at 462 two- and four-year schools were statistically adjusted to represent the 1.6 million first-time, full-time freshmen who started classes last fall.)

The higher grades certainly don't result from laborious study. Just 31.5 percent of students said they spent six or more hours per week doing homework or studying in their final year of high school. That's down from 33 percent last year and 44 percent when the study first posed the question in 1987. Researchers found plenty of other signs of what they termed "academic disengagement" as well. A record 40 percent of freshmen said they frequently felt bored in class. Over 36 percent said they have overslept and missed class or an appointment in the past year–almost twice the 19 percent who said the same in 1968. It's all familiar to Cynthia Rudrud, principal of Cactus High School in Glendale, Ariz. "Among a large group of students there's this perception that senior year should be the easy year: 'You've earned it,' " she says. But the phenomenon isn't new, adds veteran Cactus math teacher Kay Cassidy: "We call that senioritis."

By any measure. So why are good grades so much easier to get? "Teachers are under some pressure to give students the benefit of the doubt," Sax says, especially given the increasing competition to get into college. More freshmen than ever say they applied to four or more colleges–38 percent this year compared with a low of 15 percent in 1969. (One reason the SAT is useful to colleges, says College Board research director Wayne Camara, is that it provides an objective yardstick: "If you've got 100 openings . . . and you've got 300 applicants with a 4.0 average, it's very difficult to use grades as the sole criterion.")

Then there's the matter of self-esteem. "We don't have empirical data, but anecdotally it seems that teachers are feeling some pressure not to give students esteem-damaging low grades," says Sax. Apparently it has worked: Despite their boredom at school, missed classes, and dwindling hours of homework, the nation's freshmen have record levels of academic confidence. Almost 59 percent rated their scholastic abilities as above average or in the top 10 percent. Still, Sax cautions against dismissing today's freshmen as a bunch of egotistical slackers. Many are overextended in their final year of high school, she says, applying to college, working after-school jobs, and volunteering in record numbers. So the all-time-high stress reported by entering college students–especially women–may not be all in their minds.

One thing freshmen apparently don't have to fret about: facing tougher grading standards in college. Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, says his surveys have documented enormous grade inflation on the nation's college campuses: "A grades are going through the sky," says Levine, "and C grades are going through the floor."