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ISSUE 119 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/2/2005

Grade inflation balloons

By Jean Mullins
News Editor

Friday, December 2, 2005

Grade inflation is sweeping the nation, and St. Olaf is no exception.

"My investigation clearly documented a significant rise in St. Olaf grades over the last several decades," said Lynn Steen, special assistant to the provost.

Grade inflation is defined as a pattern of increasing grades over a sustained period of time, but many refer to it as a "compression" since there is a ceiling (the 4.0).

Currently, the average grade point average (GPA) among St. Olaf students is a 3.3, or B+ average. Since a student graduating with a 3.3 GPA qualifies for honors, St. Olaf has seen a significant increase in the number of students graduating with honors, over 50 percent in 2004 and 2005.

This begs the question of true honors: If over 50 percent of the class graduates with honors, what do honors really mean?

"I am disappointed that we have made the B+ the average," said Charles Wilson, associate dean for the humanities. "It cheapens the St. Olaf degree."

This sentiment is the overall concern with grade inflation.

"When half of all students receive As, even if all do A work, then the college and its students lose the capacity to recognize truly distinctive work," Steen said.

There are many factors that contribute to grade inflation at St. Olaf, including small class sizes, Interim and fractional credit courses, in which students tend to receive higher grades.

Steen is analyzing the average grade awarded to students within individual departments. While that information was not made available to the Manitou Messenger, Steen said that there is no clear distinction between departments in the natural sciences and mathematics, the social sciences and the humanities.

Steve Soderlind, associate dean for the social and applied sciences, said that if he felt a professor was giving too many As, he would intervene and encourage "backbone," but if a professor gave a greater than average number of C grades, he would not intervene. "I think most of my collegues are very good at discerning mastery," Soderlind said, referring to the criteria he believes an A grade must meet.

Dave Van Wylen, associate dean for the natural sciences and mathematics, said he feels that professors are aware of grade inflation, but he has not made any division-wide statement about the issue.

Other corrections to curb grade inflation are still in the hypothetical stages.

"The first step is to identify the problem," Steen said.

Steen said that one possibility is only awarding grades for full credit classes, and doing away with "gentlemen’s A's," which are for classes that grade primarily on participation. These courses would then be made pass/fail courses.

Other suggestions have been to reword the criteria in the St. Olaf handbook that specify what kinds of work qualify for specific grades. This way, professors have very specific criteria to look at when grading students.

"I expect that everyone will be ‘tightening up’ a bit, but few [departments] would dare to crack down too hard for [that reason]," Steen said.

Soderlind agreed. "The first mover takes a huge risk," he said of a college that would be at the forefront of a national trend to crack down on grade inflation. "We would probably move with the national trend."

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