With the close of the academic year upon us, students aren't the only ones stressed about grades. Some academics worry that too many grades are too high.
Research updated last month by the indomitable Stuart Rojstaczer, former Duke professor, established pretty conclusively that grades at colleges and universities, whether public or private, have climbed sharply over the past three decades. Nowadays, the grade most commonly awarded on campus is A.
Stopping by a local organic food store the other day, I noticed the grade of B from the health department, displayed prominently in the window. Because I was buying packaged goods and not a meal, I went in anyway. Had I wanted to eat, I would likely have gone elsewhere. My instinct would have assured me that there were probably plenty of grade-A eateries nearby.
My instinct would have been right. As a matter of fact, for restaurants, as for college students, the most commonly awarded grade is A. A 2014 analysis by fivethirtyeight.com found that some 80 percent of New York restaurants received grades of A. The distribution for a health district near my Connecticut home is in the same range. Thus A is not only the most common grade but the median grade as well.
Nevertheless, we would be wrong to call these figures evidence of grade inflation. Grading restaurants on a curve would lead to economic disaster - at least if potential diners display a strong preference for A's. Even were the curve set at, say, B-plus, a significant proportion of the eateries subject to review would find themselves on the verge of closure as their former customers went in search of higher-rated eateries. Doing what the inspectors demanded to bring the grade up to A would only drop some other restaurant to below an A.
Restaurant grades tell us that the establishment has achieved a particular standard of cleanliness and care, a standard within the reach of most professional kitchens. In a perfect world, every restaurant would receive an A, and all of us would benefit.
Is the same true of college courses? Would the world be better off if every student were an A student? The answer depends on whether we believe that student grades and restaurant grades serve the same purpose.
Suppose we take the view that a grade represents a particular level of achievement. Each student who reaches that level should get the same grade. When we ask whether a student is doing "A work" in a class, we are implicitly adopting this achievement-based theory.
If this theory is correct, then the rising number of A's on campus could signal not that teachers have grown less demanding but that students have grown smarter. In other words, just as the A's for restaurants give us information about the state of professional kitchens generally, so the A's for student performance give us information about the state of students generally.
Alas, the claim that students are simply smarter is difficult to prove. True, certain standardized test scores are rising, but the ability of the tests to predict grades is unclear. We know, for example, that students with good high school grades and poor test scores do better in college than students with poor high school grades and good test scores. So perhaps what is improving is not net cognitive ability, but net ability to take standardized tests.
A related argument is that grade inflation tells us that a larger proportion of students, for whatever reason, is mastering the material. In other words, the reason that so many students get A's is that so many students do A-level work.
This contention gets to the heart of the distinction between grading restaurants and grading students. The goal of restaurant grading is to establish a minimum level of cleanliness. Displaying an "A" in the window is more attractive than displaying a sign that reads "Establishment has met minimum standards. Some of our utensils may not be properly sanitized and raw food may not be properly washed before being served." (At least that's apparently allowed in A-grade restaurants in New York.) The "A" sign doesn't tell us that the establishment has performed in an exemplary fashion. All it tells us is that no sanitary rules are being seriously violated.
What opponents of grade inflation ask is whether the surfeit of A's on campus reflects roughly the same thing -- performance not exemplary but satisfactory. Viewed this way, course grades cannot distinguish the truly outstanding from the merely very good. Which is fine, as long as we believe either that there are no truly outstanding students or that there is no need to identify them.
On the other hand, trying to ensure that grades incorporate more sensitive information will always necessitate a degree of arbitrariness. Grading on a curve often means that the difference between an A and a B is a tiny fraction of a percentage point. One has to decide whether A's in college courses, unlike grades in restaurant inspections, should be a scarce resource, available only to those who purchase them with particularly impressive performances.
My own approach has been a compromise. I grade large lecture courses on a curve, but in seminars I grade each paper only against itself. I'm not confident that I have found the right answer. On the contrary, after more than three decades of teaching, I continue to find the purpose of grades something of a puzzle. Every now and then, somebody comes along to advocate abolishing them completely. Maybe that's not such a bad idea.