Committee takes on grade inflation at Dartmouth

I wrote here about the problem of rampant grade inflation at Dartmouth. Last month, the College’s ad hoc committee on grading practices and grade inflation documented the extent of the problem and issued a proposal for addressing it.

The committee’s proposal is thoughtful and worth reading. I want to focus here, though, on the problem of grade inflation.

According to the report, the median grade at Dartmouth in academic year 2013–2014 was A–. 58.7 percent of all grades given to Dartmouth undergraduates were A (34 percent) or A–.

In the early 1970s, when John, Scott, and I were at the College, the average of all grades at Dartmouth was slightly above 3.0 Today, it is just under 3.5. When graphed by year, the increase forms essentially a straight line. Grades have risen by just about .01 per year and just about .1 per decade.

The report finds that grade inflation prevails in nearly every department. Indeed, “A” was the most frequent grade given in 44 of the 46 academic departments and programs in 2013–14.

It’s true, as some readers pointed out the last time I wrote about this issue, that grades are considerably higher in humanities than in social sciences and, especially, sciences. But the rates of change — that is, the inflation — are approximately the same in all three division.

The committee considered whether rising SAT scores explain the grade inflation. It found that they do not. In any event, as the committee observed:

If grades rise while students become more capable, then our courses are failing to sufficiently challenge our students. If students are more prepared than in the past. . .then we owe it to our students to increase the rigor of our courses.

Why be concerned about grade inflation? The committee explains that “grade inflation lowers student scholastic effort and deprives them of the realistic academic assessment they need to best further their learning.” I expanded on this theme in the post cited above, arguing that grade inflation has caused many Dartmouth students to blow off assigned reading and to skip class.

The committee’s report has generated dissent from from the student newspaper. Joe Asch linked to the two articles in question here. The chairman of the ad hoc committee, Professor Mark McPeek, responded to the newspaper’s arguments here.

One argument against doing anything about grade inflation, which several parents of Dartmouth students have made to me and which the student newspaper presses, is that students need stellar transcripts to advance after college. If Dartmouth stops giving them out, students will want to attend college elsewhere.

In its strong form, this argument overlooks the fact that employers and graduate schools know what a grade means at a particular institution. When I was on the hiring committee of my law firm, a relatively small operation by the standard of corporate America, we evaluated law school transcripts not based on the absolute value of the grades, but on how they compared to the grading scale at the institution in question.

Graduate schools, I assume, know at least as well as law firms how to evaluate the grades doled out by their fellow academics. Thus, there is no legitimate fear that, absent grade inflation, “B” students will be viewed by graduate schools and employers as wash-outs.

Admittedly, grade inflation can confer a slight advantage on mediocre students. The more that grades converge around “A-“, the less they clearly differentiate students. So mediocrity can be masked to some degree.

But by the same token, grade inflation confers a slight disadvantage on excellent students. Their transcripts fail to differentiate them to the extent they deserve.

Dartmouth should try to appeal to students who want superior academic performance to be reflected in grades that differentiate them from their peers, not to students who want to mask the mediocrity of their performance.

The other major argument raised against the committee’s report is that tougher grading would detract from the energetic pursuit of extracurricular activities which, it is said, “defines the character of the Dartmouth student — and, by extension, Dartmouth College.”

The argument is implausible, unless one defines “extracurricular activity” very broadly. Dartmouth students had no difficulty energetically pursuing outside-the-classroom activities back when the average grade on campus was around 3.0. For example, the college produced three national championship debate teams in the 1960s, and Dartmouth debaters did well enough academically to obtain admission to top law schools and other post-graduate programs.

As Professor McPeek points out, the extra curricular activities that the student newspaper seems concerned about are those that fall under the rubric of “Camp Dartmouth.” These are activities that don’t contribute in any direct way to the education of the student.

It may well be that Dartmouth students value the “Camp Dartmouth” experience more than they value what occurs in Dartmouth’s classrooms. I can understand why many 18-22 year-olds might feel that way.

What’s much more difficult to understand is why Dartmouth’s professors (and professors elsewhere) have, in effect, ratified this preference through their grading practices. Professor McPeek and his committee are to be commended for their effort to reverse this practice.

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