Grade Inflation Becomes an Educational Fact of College Life

Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures William M. Todd III, who will become dean of undergraduate education next month, says he believes that students today have opportunities to produce higher quality coursework.

"Forgive me for thinking that [grade inflation] isn't necessarily a bad thing," Todd says. "What's different between now and 30 years ago is that we work much better with students now, and we give assignments on which it is possible to do better work."

Todd says that many assignments in today's curriculum give students the opportunity to revise their work. He cites the growing transition from formal final exams to "take-home" exams, greater opportunities to review paper topics and drafts with instructors and improvements in technology as examples.

"Being able to whip up all those drafts [with word-processing technology] makes a big difference," he says (See story, page B-9).

Whether or not the increasing quality of the student body is responsible for the College's grade inflation is one of the most controversial questions that Faculty members and administrators have tried to answer in recent years.


"There's institutional research to support the premise that much, perhaps 30 to 40 percent, of grade inflation can be ascribed to the stronger credentials of our incoming students," Buell says. "It's not the same corral of thoroughbreds we're dealing with."

Pilbeam downplays that argument.

"There's no conceivable way that the amount of grade inflation is explained by a change in the quality of the student body--it's a small piece of the argument," he says.

Proposals for Action

Apart from sporadic discussions of the issue over the past 20 years in bodies such as the Faculty Council and the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), the Faculty has been reluctant to take action to curb grade inflation.

Part of the problem, Faculty administrators say, is that grade inflation simply is not a major priority.

"It should not be regarded as a top priority issue in education," Buell says.

Adds Pilbeam, "I haven't spent many hours this year worrying about it."

Faculty members also say that it is difficult to guarantee that any proposal short of a mandate will create uniform grades.

"It's hard to figure out what to do about [grade inflation]," Wolcowitz says.