The following article appeared in the April 1995 edition of Link Magazine and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes since it is no longer available directly from Link.
When 'A' Stands for Average
How Grade Inflation is Degrading Your Degree
by Jason Puskar
The D is in serious danger. So is the C-minus. So is the F.
It's a national crisis - letter grades once thought to be thriving are slowly but surely slipping away. You thought the spotted owl was endangered? Try finding a live D-minus.
The ugly fact is that while standardized test scores nationwide continue to fall, grade point averages on college campuses are either holding steady or, just as often, climbing up and away.
A 1990 Carnegie Foundation report shows that almost 80 percent of four-year college students study less than 17 hours a week. That's about one hour of studying for each credit hour, which could explain why fewer and fewer undergrads are finishing in four years. All of this while SAT scores dropped from an average of 937 in 1972 to 902 today, and nearly every other indicator of student performance plummeted as well. Except one - grades.
It's a phenomenon with roots in the high schools, According to the College Board, only 28 percent of all high school students taking the SAT in 1972 reported having an A or B average. By 1993 that figure had nearly tripled - 83 percent reported an average of B or above. The situation in many colleges is no better. Stanford University in California, after formally abolishing the F in 1790, has seen grades skyrocket. In 1992 more than half of undergraduate grades given were A-minus or higher, making the average grade slightly higher than a B-plus. While some students may think that's a windfall of good fortune, others see it differently. Sarah Perrier, currently a junior at Ohio University, left Eugene Lang College, a private school in New York with $25,000 tuition, Precisely because the grades were too high. "I was doing all the work and getting an A, and someone else was doing nothing and getting a B," Perrier said. It's a common complaint, particularly in the humanities. Unlike engineering and the hard sciences, which held the line against a rash of grade inflation in the 1970s, many departments of art, social science and education have virtually thrown in the towel. For example, The Ohio State University's College of Arts gave 39 percent A's during winter quarter of 1994. Yet its college of Math and Physical Science gave fewer than 20 percent A's.
Are artists really that much smarter than engineers?
Probably not, and yet they compete for scholarships, jobs and honors based, in large part, on their grades. Unfair? William Cole, a professor of literature at Harvard University and an outspoken critic of grade inflation, thinks it is. Cole says the lack of quantitative standards in the arts and humanities give faculty a ready excuse to cover their tracks. "In physics, either E=MC2 or it doesn't," Cole says. "You can't say, Wow, E=MC3 - what an interesting multicultural perspective!" The result, he claims, are grades that inch steadily upward, a system that rewards mediocrity rather than real achievement, and college degrees that are increasingly meaningless is the eyes of potential employers. Indeed, a recent Census Bureau study indicates that grades are seldom even considered in the employment process, and that today's employers base their hiring decisions instead on attitude, communication skills, work experience and recommendations. Change, however, seems far away.
Faculty are reluctant to risk bad evaluations by implementing tougher standards. Administrators are wary of losing enrollment by increasing academic demands. And too few students are willing to act like Perrier, and demand that schools put meaning back in their marks.