FOR many of today's college students, receiving a C in a course
is tantamount to failure. Rampant grade inflation, which began
several decades ago, has caused students to feel entitled to high
grades even with minimal effort.
Despite generally declining standardized-test scores,
grade-point averages continue to escalate. From 1969 to 1983, the
proportion of college students with grade-point averages of A-minus
or higher almost quadrupled, according to a study by the Institute
for Educational Management at Harvard University in Cambridge,
"Students think they are doing better and better, and they
report better and better grades. But they do worse on objective
criteria. So we're giving them better grades for worse work," says
Jackson Toby, a professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick,
N.J., and a grade-inflation critic.
Elevating nearly everyone to the top of the scale undermines the
main purpose of grades, he argues. Students are no longer getting
a fair representation of their individual performances and how they
compare with those of their classmates.
After ignoring the situation, however, some top colleges are
beginning to rethink grading policies. At Stanford University in
Palo Alto, Calif., where 9 out of 10 grades last year were A's or
B's, it is possible to fail a course for the first time in 24
years. The university eliminated D's and F's in 1970. Although the
D was reinstated five years later, a failing grade was brought back
just this year.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has taken the lead among the
Ivy League schools in addressing the issue of grade inflation.
Beginning with this year's freshman class, all Dartmouth grade
reports and transcripts will include additional information
intended to put grades in context.
The overall grade-point average at Dartmouth has increased from
3.06 in 1976-77 to 3.23 last academic year (based on a 4.0 scale).
But the average grades awarded by different academic departments
vary dramatically. For example, the average grade in the humanities
was 3.36, falling to 3.18 in the social sciences and 3.09 in the
sciences. Research shows that this is a common occurrence in higher
"We knew something was amiss," says Gary Johnson, chair of the
college's committee on instruction. "There had to be some way to
try to understand grades in context."
The concern about grade inflation and "differential grading"
led the committee to propose a new grading policy based on a
long-term practice at McGill University in Montreal. The faculty
overwhelmingly approved the policy change last spring. …