Administrators Take Steps To Deal With Grade Inflation At BC
Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013
Updated: Thursday, May 2, 2013 01:05
Starting during the Vietnam War, average grades at universities nationwide began to climb steadily, a trend that has not stopped since. At the time, professors were unwilling to give students low grades, as a poor GPA could jeopardize their military exemption status and result in their being sent to fight and possibly die overseas.
In 1930, the average GPA of undergraduate students at U.S. colleges was 2.40, according to a 2009 report released by the University Council on Teaching. In 1960, it was around 2.48, a modest increase of .08 over 30 years. In 2009, the last year the data was reported, the average GPA was roughly 3.25.
In 2004, 90.6 percent of Harvard University’s graduating class received Latin honors (cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude), an occurrence that sparked controversy and led to serious conversation on the topic of grade inflation among top-ranked universities nationwide.
The trend has been apparent across the country at both private and public universities, and Boston College is no exception. Donald Hafner, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, noted that grade inflation was a trend that had gained momentum and was difficult to stop once it began. In the College of Arts and Sciences as a whole, the percentage of As and A-minuses was 38 percent in 2000, according to the report. In 2008, As and A-minuses made up 45 percent of the grades.
David Quigley, dean of A&S, partially attributed this trend to the increasing quality of the average BC student.
Quigley pointed out that average GPAs have been increasing at close to an equal rate to incoming SAT scores and high school GPAs of students, but admitted that there have been problems recently.
“[Grade inflation] has clearly been one of the big issues of the last 10 years on all highly selective college campuses—certainly Boston College is no exception,” Quigley said. “I think in the last decade or so there are some areas where the grading curve, at the high end, the outliers have really drifted far away from a reasonable median, depending on department and discipline.”
Hafner didn’t necessarily agree that the upward trend in grades could be explained by an increasingly talented student body. “There has also been an argument that the average BC student is better academically prepared—I don’t find that persuasive,” he said. “If they arrived here better prepared, I would expect them to go farther.”
Either way, the compression of grades into mostly the range of As and Bs has made distinction between good work, very good work, and truly excellent work nearly impossible in some cases, both Quigley and Hafner said.
As a result of the steady increase in average GPAs, the 2009 report by the University Council on Teaching gave several recommendations for ways to combat grade inflation, which the University has begun to phase in over the past few years.
The Office of the Provost now provides department heads with an annual report, delivered at the end of the academic year, that summarizes grades by faculty member, by department, and by college, giving faculty members and department chairs the opportunity to compare their grading policies with those of the University as a whole.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve been using the departmental data reports, which are very useful materials, putting that out to chairs and encouraging [them] to share that information with their faculty, so that faculty can see not just how they’re grading, but how their grades correlate with the department, in the College of Arts and Sciences, and even across the University,” Quigley said.
Most grading policies are determined by individual departments, in consultation with the Dean’s Office and the Office of the Provost.
The biology, chemistry, and accounting departments all have standard target grades for their introductory level courses, which are often taught by several different professors simultaneously. According to Kathleen Dunn, assistant chair of the biology department, instructors for introductory biology classes aim for a B-minus average score. Similarly, Lynne O’Connell, director of the undergraduate chemistry labs in the chemistry department, said that the faculty who teach General Chemistry I and II aim for a B-minus average. Billy Soo, who has been chair of the accounting department for seven years, said that his department’s target average grade for introductory and major required classes is a B.
The standard target grade changes, however, in the case of more advanced classes and electives. Dunn pointed out that in some cases, a higher average grade in a class makes sense.
“We do get messages from the dean regularly reminding us to pay attention to grades, and that courses that have all As are suspect,” Dunn said. “In some cases it’s warranted—there are certain small classes, small discussion classes, certainly small lab classes, where it’s not unusual for the grades to be mostly As and A-minuses.”
Dunn said, however, that there was no overarching structure for the way grading works in higher-level biology classes. O’Connell said that the chemistry department works in a similar fashion, leaving grades in upper level classes mostly up to individual faculty members.