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
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. However, faculty members often perceive that there are disincentives towards rigorous academic programs. For example, there often is a perception that rigorous academic standards lower student evaluations of teaching (SET), which in turn has a direct impact on promotion, tenure and merit pay. Although the research linking grading leniency with SET scores is mixed (Gump, 2007), it nonetheless continues to be an article of faith with some faculty members that higher grades lead to higher SET scores. Whether or not this link exists, the perception of a link between grade inflation and SET scores provides an incentive towards grade inflation.
The process of examining grading practices by academic unit is a journey, not a destination. Our research uses regression analysis to test for differences in average grades across disciplines while controlling for a variety of faculty effects, student effects, and discipline-specific effects that might explain systematic increases or decreases in the average class GPA. While this research attempts to explain some of the observed differences in average GPAs, it cannot explain all observed differences. It can identify certain predictors of student achievement, but it cannot identify all predictors of student achievement, nor is it meant to identify or establish grading norms. It was intended to reduce some of the murkiness surrounding observed differences in grading practices as well as to spur intracollegial debate about standards and practices among faculty across the disciplines.
The scope of this research is limited to testing for discipline-specific inflation or compression, although eventually it may be possible to generalize the model into a more generic model that could provide benchmarks for normative grading practices. It is important to stress that this model cannot be used to measure teaching effectiveness. There is no measure of student learning, only student grading, included in the model that we present. …