May 1, 2007

Median Grades on the Rise

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This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue as “Rising Grades Worry C.U. Administrators.”

Cornell is said to be the easiest Ivy to get into and the hardest to stay in. With the admissions rate reaching an all-time low this year and the number of As on the rise, Cornell’s long-standing reputation may not hold true much longer.
According to Sun archives, 17.5 percent of grades distributed to students in 1965 were As; by 2000, that number had risen to 40 percent.
Furthermore, 17 courses last semester had a median of an A+, while only 13 had a median of a B-, according to the Fall 2006 Median Grade Report. No classes had a median below a B-.
“I was struck by the number of As,” said Dean of Faculty Charles Walcott ’59. “I am concerned when I look at a course of 400 students and see a median grade of an A. It doesn’t show a fair distribution.”
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences defines grade inflation as the “upward shift in the grade point average (GPA) of students over an extended period of time without a corresponding increase in student achievement.”
Cornell has certainly become more selective over the last 40 years, but is the caliber of the students enough to justify the huge change in the number of As?
“We haven’t done any studies about grade inflation. It’s a little difficult to say whether it exists because our enrollment, including the number of courses and students, has changed dramatically,” said David Yeh, assistant vice president of student and academic services.
In an academic setting where As are increasingly commonplace, GPAs are not necessarily indicative of individual academic achievement. To help both students and transcript readers better gauge academic performance, the Faculty Senate voted to publish class enrollment and median grades on transcripts in 1996.
Due to technical issues, 11 years later they still have yet to be added to transcripts. According to Yeh, transcripts will include medians starting in Spring 2008.
Median grade reports are published online, however.
The online publication of these reports may actually have an adverse affect on grade inflation, according to a paper by Profs. Talia Bar, economics, Vrinda Kadiyali, Johnson School, and Asaf Zussman, economics, entitled “Information, Course Selection and Grade Inflation”.
“Publishing the information online seems to have been counterproductive,” Bar said. “It has increased enrollment into courses that in the past have had higher median grades.”
As more students enroll in these classes, the number of students receiving these high grades grows as well, further inflating grades.
According to the study, a majority of students are aware of the website and use it when picking out classes. The number of hits on the website peaks around pre-registration and add/drop periods, confirming that students do consider grades, at least in part, when choosing courses.
Some students say they feel pressure to take more leniently graded classes in which they think they will do better.
“Cornell is a really competitive environment, and I feel the need to keep up with that. I am more confident taking a class I know I can do well in,” said Lauren Engelmyer ’10.
As a result, students are less likely to choose classes based solely on their interests.
“I feel sorry for people who choose classes on the basis of grades and not interests,” said Prof. James Maas, psychology. “It is irresponsible to pick classes based on medians and can lead to an unsatisfactory learning experience.”
Publishing median grades on transcripts may help counteract this trend. According to the Faculty Senate resolution, “A grade of B- in a course of substantial enrollment in which the median was C+ will often indicate a stronger performance than, e.g., a B+ in a large course in which the median is A. More accurate recognition of performance may encourage students to take courses in which the median grade is relatively low.”
Although GPAs may appear more impressive than in the past, grade inflation has an adverse affect for students looking to find jobs in competitive areas and applying to selective graduate programs.
“As grades are compressed into a narrower range, it becomes difficult to differentiate between the very good and the not so good,” Zussman said. “It is the market outcome simply to go to other ways to assess them.”
The loss of the information content of grades increases both the importance placed on standardized tests and the pressure to perform well on them, putting students who do not typically do well at a disadvantage.
Students have had mixed reactions to adding median grades to transcripts.
“If I got a B in a class where the median was a B-, I’d want the median grade published on my transcript. But, if I got an A in a class where the median was an A, I wouldn’t,” said Zoe Grunebaum ’10.
Cornell is not the only Ivy to have been hit by grade inflation. According to USA Today, three years ago, As accounted for 47 percent of grades at Princeton and 46 percent of all grades at Harvard in 1996.
Taking the lead, Princeton adopted a grade deflation policy three years ago, limiting As to an average of 35 percent across departments.
In just two years, the policy already showed promise and the percentage of As dropped to 41 percent. In the same time period, student employment and graduate school placement also improved, USA Today reported.
Cornell currently has no plan to set a quota on the percentage of As, according to Walcott. Instead, he said, the issue should not be dealt with through an administrative policy but from the bottom up.
“I think grade inflation is an issue that needs to be addressed, but it needs to be addressed at the department level,” he said. “Each faculty member needs to be encouraged to think about it. I don’t see that a pronouncement from the president or the provost is going to help at all, but a discussion about it, and by students, would be helpful.”