When grade inflation matters

How the competition to get into good professional schools got to be like archery.

My general view is that grade inflation is fairly harmless. As a wise colleague once said to me, “There are only five grades in any course: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, and Lousy. Who cares whether they’re called A, B, C, D, and F or A, A-, B+, B, and B-, as long as everyone knows the code?”

It matters some, of course, because if the effective minimum grade is a B-, no one flunks out. Giving D’s and F’s raises the states considerably, with both good and bad consequences. High-stakes grading focuses attention but discourages cooperative learning. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

But there is one big problem with grade inflation: compression at the top. It’s harder to tell the really unusually terrific student from the run-of-the-mill excellent student if both get A’s. Worse, compression can actually raise the grading stakes as the top students compete for spots in the top graduate programs.

For example, the median undergraduate GPA of students at Yale Law School is 3.87. (Unselective Harvard trails at 3.81.) To hit 3.87, a student needs more A’s than A-‘s. In that system, there’s no such thing as a good grade; there are only normal grades and various levels of bad grades. It’s like championship-level marksmanship or archery, in which the contest consists of waiting for one of the competitors to miss the bull’s-eye.

The only way to win that game is to take no course whose content you don’t already know. That course on the history of Japanese art might be fascinating, but if you happened to get a B in it you’d need straight A’s the rest of the year to average out to a 3.87. Definitely not worth the risk. Take another course in whatever it is you already know about, or find a gut.

From the perspective of any institution, or still more of any individual instructor, this is a multi-player prisoner’s dilemma or public-good-contribution game. We can all agree that disinflation and decompression would be nice, but I’m certainly not willing to disadvantage my students to make my minuscule contribution toward those goals. (Even Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., who famously held out against grade inflation at Harvard College &#8212 earning himself the nickname “Harvey C- Mansfield, Jr.” &#8212 finally gave up and began submitting what he calls “ironic grades” to the registrar when he figured out that the conservative students who flocked to his courses because of his political orientation were being frozen out of the best law schools.)

As someone who reads admissions files every year, here’s what I want: for each school (or, better yet, for each course) I’d like to know the median grade and the median SAT score among the students. That would make it possible to renormalize, and thus effectively disinflate in retrospect. But no one publishes those numbers, or at least not yet.

Update This post drew several interesting emails. I’ll mention and respond here, in lieu of the comments section we’re still hoping to re-open once we have a working spam filter.

One reader points out that grade inflation involves an element of fraud, because not everyone &#8212 especially, not everyone outside the academy &#8212 knows the code.

So, for example, an unwitting employer might learn that an applicant had graduated from Harvard “with honors,” without knowing that Harvard awards a quasi-distinction called “Cum Laude in General Studies” which requires a 2.7 GPA: a B-, in the age of the Gentleman’s B+. About 80% of each Harvard class graduates CLGS or better. If that employer were to imagine that hiring an honors graduate of Harvard meant hiring a brighter-than-average Harvard graduate, he would be sadly deceived. (As I recall, IBM used to have a similar “distinction” for its sales force.)

That’s a fair point; even if employers know in general that there’s been grade (and honors) inflation, it’s hard for them to keep track of which institutions have debased their currencies, and by how much.

A related point made by another reader is that grade inflation makes it very hard to compare people who graduated from the same school in different decades. I’m somewhat less concerned about this problem than about the problem of deception, because I’m not sure anyone should be paying much attention to the academic record of someone who’s been out of school for a decade.

One of my correspondents disagrees with my claim that high-stakes grading discourages cooperation among students; that problem is a characteristic, he says, of grading on a curve. Fair enough. However, there is almost always an implicit curve, and if the bottom of the pecking order is getting F’s instead of B-‘s the pecking is going to get more vigorous.

Yet another reader reminds me that the Law School Data Assembly Service used to supply its client law schools with a fudge factor for each undergraduate institution, along the lines of the one I ask for above. By comparing the distribution of LSAT schools from each school with the distribution of GPAs for LSAT-takers from that school, LSDAS could essentially convert a student’s GPA to an LSAT scale, comparable across institutions. Whether such a service still exists for law schools I don’t know; if one exists for grad schools, using the Graduate Record Exam, my department hasn’t heard of it. That would be especially useful for judging candidates from overseas; I have no clue what a 3.4 GPA from, for example, Sun Yat-sen University is worth.

That would fix part of the problem, though not all; there remains the problem of the distribution of grades across departments and individual courses within a given college. Most of us assume that grades in math aren’t as inflated as grades in sociology, and it’s not hard to spot a student who has crammed his senior year with introductory courses for non-majors (known generically as “Particles for Poets”). But such rules of thumb are fallible, and the sort of eyeball renormalization I can do while spending fifteen or twenty minutes reading an admissions file isn’t as good as even a crude numerical conversion device would be.

There’s also the question of whether grade inflation makes students feel better about themselves and the learning process than would otherwise be the case. It shouldn’t be true if people were rational, but maybe it is. The grades I submit to the registrar are on a fairly generous curve, but the component grades for assignments and exams are on an absolute scale: on a ten-point question, an answer that’s half-right gets five points. Even though I carefully explain all this up front, an A student is still likely to panic when he gets back a first midterm with an 81, and explaining that the median was a 66 so an 81 is a very respectable score doesn’t always do as much as it should to calm those fears or salve that wounded pride. But on that point I’m firm: I’m not going to let compression at the top make it hard to tell who actually deserves an A as a final grade.

That points to a larger question. Educational institutions serve two functions: education, and branding/sorting. It’s not clear which is more important, either to the customers or to the wider society. And it’s not clear whether a grading system that gives the most valuable information about students is identical to the grading system that does the most to encourage learning. Probably not.

What’s frustrating is that, both at the institutional level and at the social level, we mostly allow the process to be driven by the opinions and incentives of individual faculty members, rather than having a serious debate about what we want the grading system to accomplish and then designing a system to optimally serve whatever mix of goals is chosen.

This is, I think, an instance of O’Hare’s Law, which states that any institution not subject to strong outside pressure will eventually be run for the comfort of those who get to make the decisions. It’s more comfortable not to argue about grading, so mostly we don’t.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com