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Friday, February 19, 2010

Grade Inflation in Universities

Grade inflation in colleges and universities has been occurring at an explosive rate. Today, many well-respected universities have 50% of their senior classes graduating with honors. A cumulative GPA of 3.5 will get the designation cum laude and a 3.8 will get the graduate a summa cum laude. Quite a contrast to my 1966 graduating class from the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Pittsburgh in which the average graduate had a 2.5 GPA, a 3.0 GPA was needed to graduate cum laude, and relatively few us had 3.0 cumulative GPAs. Why have “A”s and “B”s become so cheap? For your consideration and reactions, the next few posts will address my thoughts on some of the reasons.

The Paradigm Shift in the Meaning of University Education

Over the last 40 or so years, there has been a gradual paradigm shift in the meaning of a university education. In the past, universities were viewed as temples of knowledge, with professors being the learned priests. Students generally respected their professors because, within the temple of knowledge, the professor had studied his/her discipline and honed his/her expertise through dedication to mastery of existing knowledge and the pursuit of new knowledge. Many of the professors had written textbooks and published their research in peer reviewed journals. The student took the role of apprentice or neophyte, resepctful of the masters and ready to learn from them.

Today, universities are increasingly viewed as degree or credential shops with a focus on vocational preparation or training. Professors are course designers, and much of what they offer their students can be downloaded from textbook publisher websites. Instructional aids such as textbook chapter summaries, PowerPoint presentations, term paper topics, discussion points, and homework assignments are all available to the part-time or adjunct instructors who represent the majority of many of today's faculties. Many of these instructors lack doctoral degrees, but do have practical experience in their fields. Some have Ph.D.s from on-line universities and other distance learning formats. While they might not be up-to-date on the latest research in their field, they usually have pragmatic know-how and are able to relate interesting anecdotes from their wealth of in-field experience.

Students at today’s degree shops tend to view themselves as customers who are buying credits and degrees. The universities, including the traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions who compete for students and tuition dollars, are also viewing them as customers who need to be satisfied with the product they are purchasing. In fact, today’s students often have a sense of entitlement because once they've paid their tuition, they expect to get excellent customer service, high grades, diplomas, and good jobs. Wanting to have satisfied customers, the universities (both for-profit and traditional bricks-and-mortar) are offering their products in convenient forms such as on-line, intensive weekend, and one-evening-per-week formats. For example, a TV advertisement for the for-profit Keiser University features a young woman who states that she can earn her degree by taking on-line courses without ever getting out of her nightgown.

Another marketing element of today’s for-profit universities is the absence of competitive admissions, with the only criteria being a high school diploma or GED and sufficient credit to borrow the tuition. Inflated grades are also essential to the marketing of these for-profit universities. By admitting anybody who can pay the tuition, it is certain that many of the students lack what are usually considered college-level scholastic skills. Only by giving passing grades to virtually all students, regardless of their deficiencies, can these universities expect to get good word-of-mouth advertising and referrals while avoiding lawsuits from dissatisfied customers. To insure good grades for all, many of these diploma shops allow students to re-take exams if they do not do well on the first attempt, and some permit an unlimited number of re-takes.

To my thinking, it seems as though more and more universities are shifting their implied mission statement from the provision of high quality educational experiences for qualified students to making a profit by selling degrees and diplomas to anyone who will pay the tuition and meet some very minimal standards.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Grade Inflation is Good for America

We all feel good when we receive an “A” and not so good when we get a “C” or lower. I believe that we have found an easy way for more children to get “A”s, thereby raising the national self-esteem quotient. In his article, If You Want Good Grades, Move to Texas, Jay Matthews of the Washington Post (10/30/07) reported that according to the College Board nationwide survey of those in the 2007 senior class who took the SAT, 49% of the seniors in Texas had GPAs in the “A” range and 43% of all seniors who took the SAT in the USA had GPAs in the “A” range. This is quite an achievement when you consider the legends on most report cards that read: “A” = Excellent; “B” = Above Average; “C” = Average; “D” = Below Average; “F” = Failure. I’d personally like to congratulate the educators of the great State of Texas for insuring that their students maintain both high self-esteem and scholastic excellence, thereby approaching the ideal set by Lake Wobegon, where as Garrison Keillor tells us every week, “all the children are above average.”

As an adjunct to grade inflation, we could also institute a feel-good program like No Child Left Behind, first envisioned by the George W. Bush Administration, and now being busily modified by President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Inherent in the choice of words, “No Child Left Behind” is the idea that no matter how many obstacles a child might face (neurological, behavioral, socioeconomic, or motivational), the sky is still the limit! The only roadblocks to this brilliant plan are standardized tests such as the various state achievement tests, and the SAT, ACT, and GRE. Now if we could just discredit these tests by claiming that they are really not correlated with academic performance we’d really have something. We could also claim that they are unfair to the learning disabled, the dyslexic, the poor, and most minorities. Between grade inflation, No Child Left Behind, and the elimination and watering-down of standardized tests, every child would have a good shot at getting into Harvard, Princeton or Yale, just as long as they could afford the tuition. The elite universities could then establish scholarships to give the economically disadvantaged more opportunities. Finally, the universities would have to get on board with the grade inflation ploy to make sure that no student is left behind in his/her endeavor to become a doctor, lawyer, hedge fund manager, or CEO. At this time, it appears that most universities are, in fact, cooperating with the grade inflation program. For example, according to a 2002 American Academy of Arts and Sciences study, in 1966, 22% of all grades received by Harvard undergrads were “A”s. By 1996, this figure had climbed to 46%. One fly in the ointment: to counteract the easy-“A” atmosphere that had evolved, Princeton University has now instituted a grade deflation program which limits “A”s to 35% for each department. Let’s hope other institutions don’t follow suit by elevating their standards!

There would probably be a few signs that the above plan has flaws, but most Americans would never even notice them. We could eliminate newspapers and get only snippets of current events from our web browsers. We could gradually lose sight of the role of journalism as a check-and-balance on government (including the public schools) by focusing on unfaithful celebrities and gossip about American Idol contestants rather than hard news. We could become more isolationist and xenophobic as a country, and explain away others’ anger as jealousy and religious extremism. We could blame the loss of good jobs in the USA on illegal immigration, the financial collapse, and the economic recession. And, with regard to the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results that found that we are ranked 24th in math, 21st in science, and 15th in reading among all the world’s developed countries, many of us would simply tune-out this information because, after all, we are 24th in math and we don’t understand anything numerical.

In future blog entries, I’d like to explore some of the educational corollaries of grade inflation including, but not limited to (1) the standards that exist in university teacher education and education administration programs, (2) the national shift in the concept of fairness from (A) the same standards apply to all to (B) each student must receive special consideration due to his/her unique issues and circumstances, (3) the proliferation of for-profit universities, (4) the accreditation of entirely on-line university programs that offer everything from A.A. degrees to Ph.D.s, and (5) the widespread, practically magical, overnight conversion of 2-year community colleges to 4-year state colleges, thereby rapidly increasing the numbers of teachers and nurses to meet labor market demands.

I’m hoping that there are others out there who share my deeply-felt concerns about what is happening to our education standards, that they will find this blog, and that they will share their experiences and express their views. If enough of us register our views, maybe we can impact the national dialog regarding these concerns. Let’s hear from you!