Committee takes on grade inflation at Dartmouth, Part Two

My post on grade inflation at Dartmouth prompted responses from two correspondents who are familiar with the situation at institutions comparable to the College. At one institution, grade inflation apparently is rampant, to the point that a student with a GPA in excess of 3.9 fell short of summa cum laude. I wonder what the cutoff GPA at Dartmouth is.

My correspondent points to several factors that fuel the inflation at his institution:

[Professors] in the studies programs, languages, and other minimally enrolled fields, give A’s to retain students. I have seen quite mediocre students, not bad, just indifferent, double major in a language and boost their GPA significantly.

There is also the problem of collusion. . . .[Y]ounger faculty feel terribly pressured to excel in the classroom and also publish. If they fail to get tenure, their lives are ruined as they are unlikely to get another teaching post, even at a worse school. The pressure is enormous, and comes at a time when many are also thinking about starting families.

One way to reduce their anxiety is to give high grades. This usually boosts their evaluations (the dirty little secret is that untenured faculty have more to lose from bad evaluations than students do from low grades).

It also means that students are not lining up for office hours demanding to know how they can improve their performance. More time for research, or whatever. A win-win.

Then there are the senior faculty, who have seen this all before, multiple times, and take the path of least resistance. It is difficult to swim against the tide, though there are always a few excellent professors who do.

Finally there is the changing culture of college. Classes are only a part, and not even a large part in many cases, of what students are doing in these four years.

My other correspondent writes about an elite small college that, at least during the period his son attended (2002-06), stood against the tide of grade inflation. There, he says, the grading of every exam and every course was curved to ensure a fairly traditional distribution of grades.

Accordingly, students carried significantly lower GPAs than their counterparts at places like Dartmouth. But this didn’t hurt their employment prospects:

When [my son] was applying for business strategy consulting positions coming out of the college, his GPA in Economics (ranked one of the school’s toughest majors) was lower than other applicants from top-tier peer institutions. But hiring groups for consulting firms knew that grades [at my son’s school] mean something different than (inflated) grades from other top schools.

Of course, they did.

This correspondent is also quite familiar with Dartmouth. He agrees that pressure on the faculty, especially the pressure to publish in “peer-reviewed academic journals,” helps explain grade inflation.

The report of Dartmouth’s ad hoc committee on grading practices and grade inflation addresses the “low enrollment” concern noted by my first correspondent. In interviews with faculty members, the committee “heard stories from many faculty in all divisions about how the fear of low or falling enrollments motivates individuals and entire departments to decrease the rigor of their courses.” It concluded:

If the faculty were certain that the Dartmouth administration would not revoke or withhold resources from departments with low or falling enrollments, then instructors would stop reducing the academic rigor of their courses and actually increase the rigor. Grades would then take care of themselves.

Along the same lines, the committee recommends the abolition of a strict minimum number of students required for an undergraduate course.

The committee is also aware of the incentive for faculty to give high grades to obtain positive evaluations from students. It recommends that when considering student evaluations, focus should be placed exclusively on student comments about the effectiveness of teaching, the rigor and academic challenges presented to students by the coursework, the workloads expected of students, and the standards to which students were held.

At least as importantly, it recommends that tenure and promotion dossiers contain the grade distributions for all courses taught by the candidate. By looking at that information plus student comments on effectiveness, rigor, and workloads, the decisionmakers can figure out the extent to which they should discount glowing student evaluations.

The ad hoc committee seems to be on the right track. As Joe Asch says, the battle is on.