ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
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Teaching Toolbox

CURBING GRADE INFLATION

Students learn more when the grades they get accurately reflect what they've learned in the course.

In 1966, just over 15 percent of first-year college students carried “A” averages in high school. By 2001, the portion had jumped to 44 percent, according to an annual UCLA survey of college freshmen. Ironically, those high grades require few hours of study. Nearly 85 percent of high school seniors spend 10 hours per week or less on homework. Clearly, there is grade inflation in high schools, and students entering college expect to continue getting high marks.

And they do. High percentages of college students graduate college with honors these days. Even graduating with a 4.0 is no longer unusual. Yet, according to the National Surveys of Student Engagement, another large study, the amount of time that college students spend hitting the books outside of class doesn't coincide with their good grades. Only 21 percent of college seniors spend more than 20 hours per week preparing for class.

We believe that students learn best when grades accurately reflect their achievement. Grade inflation can be controlled by establishing certain procedures, such as a standard grading scale. For example, 90 percent and above is an “A”, 80 to 90 percent is a “B”, 70 to 80 percent is a “C”, and 60 to 70 percent is a “D”. For an “A”, the work should be outstanding, and to receive a “B”, it must be of professional quality. In your syllabus, define your grading scale and refer to it during the semester.

Although there shouldn't be much wiggle room, you do have to be flexible when there is good reason. For example, if a majority of students fare poorly on an exam and complain that it was too difficult—which often means they did not have enough time to complete it—you can adjust all the test scores upwards by revamping the grading scale. For instance, if the highest grade in the class was an 88 (out of a possible 100), you might add 12 points to every score.

If test averages for the year are between 30 to 50 percent or lower, up to three-quarters of the class could flunk. It is obviously best to give exams that are of reasonable length and difficulty, but final grades can be adjusted to reflect the reasonably achievable score in the course. You can determine this score from the second or third highest grade in the course. Thus, if one outstanding student achieves 882 points during the semester (out of a possible 1000), but the next two highest scores are 698 and 690, use 698. (Give the student with 882 points an “A+” and ask him or her to do a research project with you.) Then award grades based on the grading scale you choose, starting with 698 as the highest achievable score, rather than 1000. For example, if you use a 90-80-70-60 A-B-C-D scale, the lowest passing grade becomes 60 percent of 698 or 419 points. A more generous 80-70-60-50 scale (with the lowest passing grade at 349 points) uses the “50 percent “ rule, in which students must earn at least 50 percent of the achievable score to pass the course.

For uniformity and fairness, faculty members should discuss grading and share grade distributions for each course. We know professors who want to give lower grades but don't because they think everyone else is awarding higher grades.

We should also stop punishing students in departments that control grade inflation. Basing university honors and other awards strictly on GPA puts students in those departments at a disadvantage. Graduate and professional schools and companies that hire new engineers must allow for differences in institutional quality and grading standards when making those all-important admissions or hiring decisions.

Grade inflation, like inflation in the economy, can be controlled. Perhaps universities need to follow the lead of the Federal Reserve, whose primary function is to keep inflation in check.

 

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at purdue@asee.org.


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