A Comparative Analysis of Grading Practices by Discipline within a College of Business

By Barth, Michael M.; Liu, Jun et al. | Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Comparative Analysis of Grading Practices by Discipline within a College of Business


Barth, Michael M., Liu, Jun, Wells, William H., Academy of Educational Leadership Journal


ABSTRACT

This research tests for differences in average grades awarded across six business disciplines in the business college at a southern regional university. Although complaints about college grade inflation have existed for over one hundred years, there has been increasing interest in recent years in grade inflation within the U.S. higher education system. Most published research on grade inflation has focused on systematic inflation at the institutional level, but relatively little has been published relative to cross-disciplinary grade inflation and deflation within a particular institution.

Differences in grading standards between disciplines may reflect better teaching, but they may also reflect lax standards. Lenient grading practices can have unintended negative consequences and are a cause for concern. On the other hand, relatively higher grades for a particular discipline that reflect better teaching should be encouraged and emulated. It is important to identify and evaluate differences in grading practices because unwarranted inconsistencies in grading practices have potential adverse effects upon faculty, students and the institution as a whole.

Using regression analysis and controlling for a number of potential causal factors such as student GPA, withdrawal rates and instructor experience, we compare average grades for nearly 400 classes in six business subdisciplines. We find that the average grades given out in three of the six subdisciplines within this college of business were systematically higher than in the other three, even after controllingfor these other explanatory factors. While not offering any conclusions as to why these particular differences exist, there is a general discussion of factors that can explain higher (or lower) average grades from one discipline to the next. Although this research does not attempt to reach conclusions as to the reason for inconsistencies between disciplines at this university, it does provide a framework that other institutions can use to begin to at least identify systematic differences between grading practices within their own academic programs.

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this study is to determine if systematic grade inflation or compression exists across academic disciplines at this university's college of business administration. Grade inflation is typically defined as a systematic increase in grades and grade point averages (GPA) without a concomitant increase in performance. Grade compression, of course, would be the opposite effect of reduced grades for the same level of academic performance. Expressions of concern about collegiate grade inflation have been around for over 100 years (Gordon, 2006), but there has been a recent surge of interest in this subject. Much of this recent discussion has centered on long-term upward trends in average GPAs across university systems, but there has been relatively little discussion about cross-discipline inflation within the same university.

Cross-disciplinary grade inflation is an issue that affects all areas of a university and requires a collective response if it is to addressed effectively (e.g., Briggs, 2007; Dresner, 2004; Gordon, 2006; Smith & Coombe, 2006). Allocation of scholarship dollars is based to some degree on student performance, and unwarranted inflation in one discipline misallocates resources from one group of students to another. Deans' list and similar academic honors rolls may be distorted by disparate grading practices as well. Grading practices may affect student recruitment or retention, as students may forego a more rigorously graded discipline in favor of a less rigorously graded discipline without realizing the potential long-term costs. For example, if potential employers are not satisfied with the academic results of the less rigorous discipline or program, that can have long-term implications for students in that discipline or program. Students rely on faculty to not only know that those types of issues can arise, but to also act in the best interest of the students by maintaining quality standards that maximize the value of education. …

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