First it was Harvard. Then it was Dartmouth and Princeton. Now, recently released figures reveal that Cornell can also assume the guilt of the grade inflation phenomenon that is being uncovered within universities across the country. Grading pattern statistics spanning the past 35 years indicate that Cornell now joins many other prestigious American universities in its practice of grade inflation.
Grade inflation, as defined by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) report titled “Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing?” defined grade inflation as “an upward shift in the grade point average (GPA) of students over an extended period of time without a corresponding increase in student achievement.”
Data cataloguing grade distribution between 1965 and 2000 reveals that the number of A’s awarded to Cornell students has more than doubled in percentage while the percentage of grades in the B, C, D and F ranges has consequently dropped.
In 1965, 17.5 percent of grades distributed to students were A’s, while in 2000, A’s constituted over 40 percent of the grades received by Cornell undergraduates. This dramatic data strongly suggests that the University is experiencing the phenomenon of grade inflation.
While no one can definitively dismiss the unlikelihood that student capability has increased in the past 35 years, “[The statistics] are very hard to argue [with],” said Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education.
“Most faculty would be hard pressed to argue that today’s Cornell students are demonstrably better than Cornell students in the past.”
Assuming that current student bodies are no more academically capable than student bodies in the past, members of the academic community have tried to pinpoint causes of grade inflation. The AAAS offered a number of explanations for grade inflation.
Many cite the beginning of grade inflation with the Vietnam War when professors were encouraged to give their students higher grades, rendering them ineligible for the draft.
The AAAS also argued that diversification efforts may have contributed to lenient grading procedures. To retain an ethnically and racially diversified student body and to encourage minority enrollment, universities have, they said, lowered their grading standards.
New grading policies can also be seen as contributors to grade inflation. Recently, distribution requirements have become more lenient and students are, consequently, limiting their curricula to academic areas in which they perform strongly. Also, students can avoid lowering their GPA by taking courses on the pass/fail system, and they can drop a class relatively late in the semester if they are not pleased with their progress.
Professors’ grading habits may also reflect their concerns regarding student evaluations. Because professors are aware of the influence that their student evaluations can have on the future of their careers, they satisfy their students with high grades to receive complimentary evaluations.
The AAAS also acknowledged a university’s interest in the future of their graduates. Universities want a high percentage of their graduates to enroll in graduate degree programs and may grade leniently to ensure their acceptance they argue.
Untenured members of university faculty are among the most likely to succumb to pressures brought on by their students the AAAS argues. Only loosely affiliated with the school through part-time teaching positions, many untenured professors may, as a result, consistently issue highly inflated grades.
Some courses may simply be less challenging than before or demand less of students. As a result, more students are able to fulfill the requirements meriting an A.
Finally, because grade inflation has become systematic within institutions of higher learning, students have come to expect higher grades. Professors respond to the pressures brought on by their students.
Other Ivy League schools with recently-exposed grade inflation habits include Harvard College, Dartmouth College and Princeton University. In 1996, 82 percent of Harvard graduates graduated with honors, and this staggering percentage has since risen. In 1997, only 11.6 percent of Princeton’s grades fell below the B range.
In addressing grade inflation, Cornell is faced with task of identifying the issues specifically influencing the University’s grading policies.
“I don’t think there are any Cornell-specific explanations or any factors that are unique to the University,” said Kramnick. “It is a system-wide phenomenon.”
Nick Salvatore, director of undergraduate studies for the American studies department, emphasized that, while the trend of grade inflation is occurring on a University-wide scale, the ability to correct the phenomenon lies in the hands of professors.
“At Cornell, it is the individual faculty member that has sole control over the classroom,” he said.
The faculty senate has discussed various responses with regards to grade inflation; however, no new grading policy has passed. One option discussed would award students with two marks indicative of their academic performance: the grade they receive personally and the class’s median grade.
Salvatore’s solution to student concern surrounding his lack of grade inflation involves following up any grade with a letter of recommendation upon the student’s request.
“I don’t work on an inflated grade system,” he said. “I try to adjust my non-inflative system by writing a superlative letter of recommendation [for the respective student].”
Before amending with the grading system, however, administrators will have to attempt to pinpoint the causes of Cornell’s grade inflation, decide exactly how they want the system to change, and predict how students should be affected by the academic amendments.
Referring to difficulties in attacking grade inflation and identifying its causes, Kramnick said, “There is no smoking gun that explains everything.”
Archived article by Ellen Miller