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Friday, February 12, 2010
Inflating Carolina: The root of the problem

CAROLINA, AND ABOUT EVERY OTHER COLLEGE in America, has a problem with continually inflating grades, having become an institution where all the students are above average -- almost literally.  As the Daily Tar Heel said last fall regarding grade inflation: "The numbers are striking.  So striking that many people don’t believe them."

Between the late 1960s and now, the overall grade point average at the University of North Carolina has risen almost a point.  In 1967, the average GPA was a 2.49.  Last fall, it was a 3.21. This trend has made grades nearly useless, or worse, for distinguishing among students’ abilities. The most common grade given out at UNC is an A, and 82 percent of all grades are either A’s or B’s.  Once upon a time C meant average.

In a UNC report on grading, Donna Gilleskie notes that, in addition to grade inflation, UNC is experiencing grade compression, which means the best students cannot be distinguished from each other.  UNC is also experiencing grade inequality as different departments and different instructors assign different grades for similar performance.

Grade inequality makes grade comparisons between students in departments not just difficult but completely misleading.  For example, the average GPA, using a scale where an F is 0.0 and an A is 4.0, in the UNC math department for the fall of 2008 was a 2.62, while the average in the School of Education was a 3.72.  (I worked on university campuses, including UNC, for a couple of decades, and, just for the record, students taking education courses are not smarter than those taking mathematics.)

This is not a random inequality; this is a perverse, inverted distribution of grades where the highest grades are given in the most vacuous courses, which leads students searching for better GPAs to take easy classes from easy graders.  This does not lead to the optimal educational experience for them, needless to say.

And it is now easy to find easy. Googling "Pick-A-Prof" gets this description of their service: "View official school records to see how many A's professors give before you register."  Students have long found crip courses from pushover profs -- albeit with poorer, hearsay data.  I have often counseled students that they can get a great education simply by taking classes from the professors everyone else is avoiding "because they're too tough."   In my experience, they are generally among the best teachers on campus.  But for many this would be GPA suicide.

While the Vietnam War and the draft once drove grade inflation, the main driver now is the relationship between easy grading and student evaluations -- combined with the omnipresent desire of students to get high GPAs.  Having students evaluate teachers is a good thing, in my view, but there is one major problem: these evaluations are used in tenure and other hiring decisions, and students give higher evaluations to courses (and professors who teach them) in which they think that they are getting higher grades.

And in return, whether consciously or not, faculty give high grades because students' perception of what grade they are going to get in a class is the primary factor in their course evaluations.  In 2000, UNC's Educational Policy Committee found that instructors who awarded an average grade of 2.7 suffered, holding all else constant, a 32-percentile-point disadvantage in student approval compared to those who awarded a 3.6 average grade.  It just happens the second bout of grade inflation began in the late 1980s, at the time that the UNC mandated student course evaluations for all faculty.

As a consequence, for a faculty member, giving higher grades thus means a higher chance of getting tenure or getting promoted.  Since higher grades cost teachers nothing, there is an incessant pressure on faculty to increase grades (and thus their evaluations).

So, is it inevitable that UNC remain LWSU -- Lake Wobegone State University?   You’ll see when you come back next week to find out what UNC can do about spiraling grades.

Gary D. Gaddy graduated from Furman University in 1975 mit fast ein drei punkt fünf auf Deutsch.

A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday February 12, 2010.

Copyright  2010  Gary D. Gaddy


Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 8:00 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, February 11, 2010 9:25 PM EST
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