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The toughest fight on campus might be against grade inflation

Students were so intent on easier grading, significant numbers changed their fields of study

A years-long effort at Wellesley College to turn back the tide of grade inflation shows how tough it is. An article in the latest issue of the alumnae magazine shows that as much as everyone knows those straight-A grades don’t mean nearly what they used to, students’ reactions are understandably fearful and sometimes inappropriately hostile.

The all-women’s college outside Boston (full disclosure — it’s my alma mater) began the push a decade ago to make grades more meaningful by requiring teachers in many of the social sciences and humanities, largely in lower-level classes, to push the bell curve a little to the left. The average grade would be no higher than a B+. Grade inflation was seen as less of a problem in math and science.

A report this year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that the new policy was effective at changing the grades conferred on a student. It also reduced the proportion of students graduating magna cum laude. It also comes as no surprise that they didn’t switch from humanities to science; an artist isn’t about to become an astronomer over a few grades.

But grades mattered so much to the students that they did drop many of the courses to which the stricter rule applied. And within the social sciences, researchers found “notable movement” of students from lower-grading fields of study to higher-grading ones. That sounds like practically an addiction to an A.

Perhaps worse, students graded their instructors more harshly in the courses with more rigorous grading standards. Student reviews of professors are problematic to start with—many college instructors, especially those without tenure, are afraid to give a deserved grade lest it result in a harsh rating. And this confirms that the quality of the instruction isn’t the only factor students have in mind.

Student transcripts noted the tougher grading standards at Wellesley, and students were admitted to graduate schools at about the same rate—though it’s unknown whether they were as able to gain admission to the graduate schools of their choice. There still are calls to eliminate the policy.

Still, the Wellesley pushback against grade inflation this last decade wasn't exactly draconian--it was just to move the average to a B+. If we’re going to tackle the crazy overabundance of A grades in college—a student at Stanford University recently told me that a B-minus is a “Stanford F”—it’s going to take a coordinated effort by the nation’s top-ranked colleges, which are frequently then emulated by other schools. It would be a useful way to help differentiate students who do fabulous work from those who simply do work—and would train them better for a career, where supervisors aren’t handing out an A+ just for showing up.

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