Grade Inflation in University?

I came across an article by Walter E. Williams, an economics professor from George Mason University, discussing how grades in American Universities have been going up, causing “grade inflation”. For example, a “C” grade, he says, should be taken to mean an “F”.

Though I do have an intuitive belief that grades are going up (seems like everyone’s claiming scores close to a perfect 4.0 GPA on forums nowadays (due to some hieuristic bias no doubt), I found the arguments presented by Williams weak and based on spurious correlations.

“From 1991 to 2007,” Professor Walter quotes Professor Thomas C. Reeves, “in public institutions, the average grade point average (GPA) rose, on a four-point scale, from 2.93 to 3.11 […] in the 1930s, the average GPA was 2.35 (about a C-plus); whereby now it’s a B-plus.” But this rise in GPA is not, according to Professor Walter, backed up by any evidence of increased intelligence.

The premise of the article was interesting: American Universities are showing higher grades, but students are not getting any more intelligent. There must be grade inflation going on. Or is there?

The problem with the article lies in how Professor Walter measures intelligence. He uses SAT scores, remedial course enrolment, ratio of drinking to study hours, grade expectations, a national survey’s results on student’s knowledge on their national “history and institutions”, and their ability on a questionable set of “basic skills”. Though some of these made sense, many did not.

He cites falling SAT scores, fair enough, but does not mention if they are national SAT scores or only for those Universities in question. The change of SAT format in recent years (from a multiple-choice-only format to one that included essay writing) may also have had an effect on scores. And though I may be wrong, with respect to Ivy League Universities, do they not have the ability to be much more picky about students given the great demand for their (very) limited admission places? If SAT scores were that important, I am pretty sure most of these Universities could enrol only those with the highest SAT scores if it were so great a determinant of University performance.

Then there’s the argument on the ratio of drinking to study hours. For one, I would question the validity of such a survey. Drinking hours, like penis length, is prone to overstatement in surveys like this; and besides, drinking tends to happen during all sorts of events like parties, watching TV, or socialising at a bar. It’s easy to clock up the hours of “drinking” when you can do this doing practically anything else. Studying, on the other hand, is a much more concentrated effort. The correlation between the ratio of drinking to study hours and grades is questionable.

One of the other things mentioned in the article was the result of a national survey done to assess the student’s knowledge on their national history and institutions. One of the first questions that ran through my mind was, “What has that got to do with intelligence?” If I was to be asked similar questions (perhaps in a Singaporean context,) I doubt I’d get more than half the questions right. How does this prove that I’m any less intelligent than a person who does have the answers to these questions? If I was required to know these things, I’d make the effort to find out, but probably forget it soon afterwards unless it was necessary or worthwhile for me to remember them. Why bother memorising something of dubious value if it can be found out within minutes (or even seconds) by doing some simple research?

The final issue discussed in the article was that of basic skills being the outcome of a university program. Though I place high importance to the development of certain basic skills (I believe they are necessary to achieve a certain quality standard of living), I do not expect a student to automatically learn these skills directly as a result of his or her having attended university. The onus of these skills is not so much on the university, but perhaps on the parents and the students themselves. If the university is to take responsibility, then the other educational institutions the student joins should be held responsible too.

Has there been grade inflation? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not with the reasoning presented Professor Walter’s article. Maybe students are getting smarter — maybe not in terms of raw intelligence, but certainly in terms of study skills and exam smarts. Who’s to say they’re not?

(If the link to the article doesn’t work, you can download a PDF of the file here.)

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