Rethinking Grade Inflation

This past Friday, the University held a faculty council discussion on the issue of grade inflation. The Daily Tar Heel ran a front-page article showing grading trends which they argue show that good grades are becoming too easy to get.

The statistics show that UNC is giving more high grades than it used to. In 1966, the average GPA was 2.992. Last year, it was 3.213. Last year, 45% of all grades given out were A’s.

Some faculty and the DTH editorial page sounded the alarm, arguing that this reflects a devaluing of a UNC degree. They argue that the trends show that students are getting better grades than in the past for the same work. Therefore, something should be done to correct this.

But is this what is happening? The DTH published an interesting graph on grade inequality, showing gaps between departments. Honors classes award the most A’s, and education and English classes also score highly. Math and Chemistry award far lower grades.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it also shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Some subjects are just harder than other subjects. Some subjects are also more subjective than others, and are therefore harder to grade fairly. It’s harder to grade art than it is to grade a math test. Art is subjective, math is not. In math, you either have a right answer or you don’t. In art, there are no right answers.

But it’s the honors class grades that are the most telling. Does the high number of A’s in honors classes mean that they are easier? Or are honors classes filled with the best students, who are more likely to get good grades? I’m guessing the latter is just as likely.

Since 1960, the University of North Carolina has become much more selective. As a selective school, the students that are admitted are of a greater quality than before. At the same time, North Carolina’s population has expanded, meaning that the pool of available applicants is greater (and therefore, the pool has more individuals of great academic talent). As a result, one would expect a better class of students to get better grades than the class that came before them.

Also, during this time the University has attracted better and better faculty. A good professor will bring out the best in his students. If his students are learning the material and getting good grades because they know the material, this could mean that the professor is good at teaching, not that he assigns easy work.

In short, high grades are quite possibly a good thing. They indicate that the university is attracting top students and top faculty. They indicate that students are mastering the material in their courses, and that they are meeting the high standards expected of them.

After all, doesn’t this University want students to make good grades?

2 comments

  1. "This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it also shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Some subjects are just harder than other subjects."

    As an English and Linguistics major (both considered humanities at this university), this irks me. Sure, I don't have to turn in problem sets, but I get well over 400 pages of reading a week. Novels that I need to be able to talk about intelligently, and connect with others I've read and their historical context, and scholarly papers, in which I need to find flaws in arguments and experimental procedure, suggestions for further research, implications for other theories, and so on. And then there are papers and final projects, for which I am expected to do original research.

    My calc 2 class was difficult. But I've spent just as much banging my head against the wall trying to finish a phonological problem set, or thinking of an original thing to say about Chaucer, as did trying to figure out the area of a 3d object.

    Now, don't get me wrong. Grade inflation is problem because yes, it will devalue my diploma- "Another 3.5+ student from Carolina? Means nothing, they grade easy there". But the disparages between the department are due to differences in grading policies, not difficulty of subject.

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