Faculty Ironies on Grade Inflation

By McSpirit, Stephanie; Chapman, Ann et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Faculty Ironies on Grade Inflation


McSpirit, Stephanie, Chapman, Ann, Kopacz, Paula, Jones, Kirk, Journal of Instructional Psychology


This article presents our analysis of faculty open-ended written comments (n=156) on the topic of grade inflation. Our review of faculty comments reveals stark disagreement among the faculty on grade inflation. Further qualitative analyses reveal that faculty repeatedly point to three themes in their statements on grade inflation: university mission, mastery learning, and administrative policy. Interestingly, faculty use these themes both ways. That is, no matter the position that faculty take, faculty use these themes to explain and validate their own positions on grade inflation. We conclude that this reflects post modern society.

"Was this survey ... necessary? You are attempting to prove there is grade inflation--why? Whom would you have control grades if not the individual instructor?" As this comment suggests, the subject of college grades and grade inflation is a sensitive topic among faculty. This very sensitivity, sometimes defensive and sometimes bordering on aggression, can explain why many are reluctant to study grade inflation (Levine, 1987; Mitchell, 1998). Though not a popular topic, we decided to study grade inflation at our University, a public open-admissions university, by surveying faculty. The majority of the faculty (53%, n=329) responded to our survey. The high response rate allowed us to examine faculty position on grade inflation on any number closed-ended dimensions. These survey results we report elsewhere (McSpirit, Kopacz, Jones and Chapman, 2000).

What we report here, is what we believe to be our most interesting analyses, the results from our analyses of open-ended comments of faculty on grade inflation. In the space provided on our survey, nearly half (n=156) of surveyed faculty provided lengthy and varied statements on their own views on grade inflation. Some faculty wrote of their own grading philosophies. Others expressed their own feelings on whether rising grades posed a threat to institutional integrity and academic standards. Some others went on to identify what they perceived to be the cause of the problem and what should be done about it. Still others wrote that very little could be done about it because it was endemic to society: "It is a national problem. ...," and one that they tied to social and moral decline: "Lack of a work ethic, pride of achievement, [and] `do as little as I can to get by' attitude ..." But, not all faculty who expressed their views, expressed the view that grade inflation is a social or academic malignancy.

Yet, both those who did and those who did not went on to explain the basis for their belief. Strangely enough, faculty often started from the same explanation to argue their distinct positions on grade inflation. In the following sections, we describe two common explanations which faculty, on both sides, use to argue their position on grade inflation. Specifically, we describe that the faculty target both the University mission statement and mastery learning approaches to justify why grade inflation is a problem or not a problem. Other than these two themes, we find that faculty are also reluctant to identify themselves as the cause for grade inflation. Many faculty are more likely to blame the administration or university policy for why grades might be unreasonably high rather than indict themselves.

University Mission Statement

The mission of the university provided one of the most interesting justifications for both those who believed in the existence of grade inflation and those for who did not. At the institution where we conducted the survey, a major part of the institutional mission is to provide a college opportunity for students from a rural, poor area of Appalachia. We must note that in spite of this mission and the validity of the following faculty statements, the university has a nationally recognized Honors program and many other academic and professional programs with national reputation. The University enrolls many well-prepared students, both in and out of the Honors program, who are willing and able to devote much time and effort to their academic studies. …

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