Grade Inflation

Economist.com: Grade expectations: Universities are handing out more first-class degrees than ever. Why?
I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems to me that receiving a grade based on anything other than mastery of the material hurts both the institution and the student. Only the short-sighted would think otherwise. I’ve received grades that I was unhappy with and have still given the professors good reviews because the grades did exactly as intended: exposed weaknesses. Taken this way, grades can be used as a tool to improve your fundamentals before progressing in a program.

Not everyone thinks like me.

There’s a strong trend in this country — apparently it’s spreading to Britain — to inflate grades, even to the point of students suing professors. A friend of mine is a professor and has insurance for just such an occasion and he is very tough on “academic dishonesty” (cheating). He’s even brought it down to a science — trying to find the student who cheats, but just enough to get a ‘B’ and not an ‘A’. He’s become quite skilled at internet searches and even found an instance where a student used a book review at Amazon as part of a paper and had to scroll through dozens of reviews to find the plagiarism. Google only provided the entry page and not the exact location of the words that were lifted.

It’s troubling, to say the least, that grade inflation and plagiarism are as prevalent as they are, particularly as “knowledge jobs” become even more important than in the past.

More likely, though, the drift towards firsts reflects more worrying problems. Marking finals at top universities used to be prestigious, well paid and solidly protected from outside pressure. That ensured hard, careful work by senior dons. Now examining is seen as drudgery, best farmed out to junior staff.

Dons also complain that increasing government scrutiny means they are under pressure not to fail students or give poor grades. That would suggest that they had failed to select and teach students properly. It is wiser to be kind.

Another factor is plagiarism of coursework that counts towards a degree. Universities are finding this an increasing problem. Internet websites offer ready-made essays. Some universities use software to catch cheats. But the trend is away from punishment—meaning that the incentive to plagiarise is growing.

So Britain may be going down the same path as America, where all students, wags say, expect to be above-average. Research by Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke University says that GPA (Grade Point Average) scores have been increasing steadily since the 1960s, with a noticeably higher rate of inflation at private universities, which compete hardest for pupils.

Which leads me to a letter to the editor where a lecturer in Britain, who is criticized in the linked article, provides some honesty that is both chilling and refreshing:

Making up the grade

SIR – My own motives for marking over-generously when a lecturer at an English university were purely ones of self-interest (“Grade expectations”, March 20th). How much better to be warmly regarded by students, who would in turn assess me in “customer satisfaction” surveys. The assessment system being thoroughly debased, I saw no harm in corrupting it further by awarding all students top grades, thus being regarded as an excellent teacher by managers, and safeguarding my job by ensuring that my courses always recruited well.

Philip Magill
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

Refreshing because of the honesty, however compromised his ability as a lecturer might be, and chilling because this is commonplace, meaning we are not pointing out a student’s weaknesses and guiding him to a better education.

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