Academic Standards and Grade Inflation: Easily Forgotten Structural Aspects of the Equation

By Ballard, James David | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Academic Standards and Grade Inflation: Easily Forgotten Structural Aspects of the Equation


Ballard, James David, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


In recent decades, higher education has undergone significant organizational transformations that affect grades, perhaps as profoundly as does the individual teacher who most often gets the blame for inflating them and for presumably lowering academic standards. Some call these historical trends the corporate cooptation of the university; others refer to this transformation as the business model invading higher education; and still others suggest that this change is a much-needed adjustment in the social role of the university. What has transpired is that students have been given a primacy in the relationship with the university, and increasingly they have become the educational equivalent of consumers. These consumers have needs that have become a priority of the university as an institution, and the institution has changed registration and grading policies to meet their needs. This transformation may have made education more available to the masses and/or more responsive to students, but it also has a price, one that is not factored into the typical discussion of grade inflation and lower academic standards.

Let us examine some of these trends and how they effect grades. While it is difficult to argue that the result of changing drop/add and registration policies is not more student friendly and thus desirable, this change is not without unintended consequences for the institution and the education process. Altering university regulations that allow later and later with-drawals by students who wish to avoid the stigma of a poor grade, the haphazard acceptance by almost everyone at the university of wholesale teacher-shopping by students wishing to avoid the "hard" graders and/or more difficult classes, and other structural features of the registration and grading process contribute to the inflation of grades and perceptions of lower standards.

To illustrate this problem, consider three scenarios. All three scenarios are based on a class in which forty-three students were initially enrolled, thirty-nine actually attended and received at least one graded assignment, and thirty-two completed the course. In the first scenario, any and every student who wishes to opt out of a class is allowed to for any variety of reasons; only the class averages of those who finish the course (thirty-two students) are used as the basis of calculating class average scores, resulting in a class average of 84.5. Because only the "better" students typically would finish the course, the class grade distribution would be skewed in such a manner to suggest inflated grades to the observer who does not look at the structural implications behind the distribution of grades. …

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