Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Grade Inflation Update Part 5: Preliminary Composite Analysis
I'm about halfway done with analyzing bulk data on grades. So far, I've collected historical and current data from the following schools: Alabama, Alfred, Auburn, Boston University, Brown, Carleton, Central Michigan, Clarion, Colorado, Colorado State, Cornell, CSU-SB, CSU-Sacramento, Dartmouth, Florida, George Washington, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Grinnell, Hampden-Sydney, Harvard, Harvey Mudd, Illinois, Iowa State, Kenyon, Lehigh, Middlebury, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, Pomona, Princeton, South Florida, Southeastern LA, Texas, UC-Berkeley, UC-Santa Barbara, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington, University of Houston, Utah, Western Washington, Wheaton (IL), William and Mary, Winthrop, Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin-LaCrosse, and Wyoming. I haven't looked at all the data that I've collected, have more promised and am finding more data on the web every day. The data go back to the 1920s. It's actually a much better data set than I had during my first go round six years ago (it has surprised the hell out of me that it is better), good enough that I'm going to try to publish this as a research paper once I'm done.
Six years ago, I noted that grades had been rising for fifteen to twenty years. The first graph (for greater detail just click on the graph) consists of recent data for schools where I have good quality recent data (the preponderance of schools noted above). The student as consumer age is still with us. Grades continue to rise nationwide (with some exceptions). The average grade at private schools for which I have data is now a B+. The average grade for public schools is now a B.
The averages mask a lot of interesting information at the individual level. The next figure probably looks like spaghetti to a lot of you, but to me it shows some patterns worth noting. Virtually everyone's grades are rising over the fifteen year interval shown, but there seem to be subcultures that have established themselves. At the upper end there is the Brown and Pomona (and some other private schools no doubt that I might talk about later) subculture where grades have crossed into the A- range. Harvard would likely be in this subculture had not its previous president made an issue of grade inflation; grades dropped temporarily as a result. Below this group are grades more typical of private schools, in the B+ range. Then there are public schools in the 3.1 to 3.2 GPA range followed by public schools in the 2.9 to 3.0 range. Finally there are schools in the South that seem to ignore the rest of academe in terms of grading.
These subcultures more or less stayed in tact over the fifteen year interval shown, rising in parallel. The average GPA change from 1991-2006 was about 0.20, essentially the same as the long term trend I noted six years ago. There are exceptions to this trend. Florida and Texas had such rapid increases in GPA that they crossed from one subculture into another over the time interval shown. Princeton, with its well documented efforts at capping A grades, moved from the private school subculture into the upper public school subculture in terms of grading. Smaller drops in GPAs over the last few years have been seen at Wheaton, CSU-San Bernadino, Central Michigan, and Colorado. At the latter two schools, grades have dropped in response to jawboning of faculty on the part of leadership.
A composite can be made of all of the data that's analogous to a consumer price index. This graph will likely change a bit as I add more data (both from schools from which I already have data and schools with data to come), but the overall trend will almost certainly stay the same.
The composite curve (which is longer in length on both ends than the original of six years ago), shows that grades were steady until the Vietnam era when they steeply rose; they then were steady for about ten years before taking off again. The C+ of yesteryear is turning into a B+, but we aren't quite there yet. There are some who maintain that this upward national trend represents better students nationwide. You have got to be kidding. SAT scores show no indication that students are better. Reading comprehension tests indicate that students are getting worse. In my own field, textbooks continue to get easier with simpler language and less information. Students are studying about 10 hours a week less than they did in the 1960s. One of the reasons I left academe was that I could not teach at the same level that I was taught as an undergraduate. It's worth noting that I was teaching at one of the best schools in the country; as bad as it was, I knew it would be worse most everywhere else. The "students are smarter" theory is one that has no basis in fact.
Optimists might zero in on the flattening of the composite curve in 2004 and 2005 as well as the slight lessening of the rate of increase over the last five years shown in the first figure and proclaim that GPAs will steady soon. I am all for optimism - for instance, I'm optimistic about our new president - but I will not make such a prediction. Both of the features noted could well be noise or temporary. I have personally witnessed time and time again the amazing inability of academe - both its professors and college presidents - to behave anywhere close to responsibly.* So I will instead focus on the long term trend in grading over the last twenty years and the long term trend in required work load over the last forty.
What is essentially happening every year is that on average in every college class of 100 in America, one to two students who used to get a B get an A and three to four minutes of outside work associated with the class are being shaved off. In an average class today of 100, about 35 students are getting As and about 50 are getting Bs. Students are studying about 14 hours a week total if they are taking a full time load. If current trends continue, in 40 years the average student in an American college or university will have a solid A- GPA. If he or she attends a private school, he or she will have a solid A GPA. That student in public or private school will be studying about four hours a week outside of class. We will have completely trivialized college education for everyone. It is my opinion that we already have trivialized college education for the majority of enrolled students today.
*Perhaps when the boomers retire from academe we can - like we are witnessing with our new non-boomer president - have adults in charge again. Here's to hoping at any rate.