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ISSUE 121 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/7/2007

Faculty assesses grade inflation

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, December 7, 2007

With final exams in students' imminent future, rumors have been flying about grade inflation, and about the increasing difficulty of getting an A. Grade inflation and all the issues brought along with it are, in fact, part of a national trend.

Nearly half of Harvard grades given in 2001 were A's and A-minuses. The high-grades trend is echoed at many institutions across the country. Grade inflation has been a topic of intense -- and very emotional -- discussion for the past two decades. Grade inflation refers to the increase in the awarding of high grades -- namely A's and B's. Stuart Rojstaczer, a professor at Duke University and researcher of the phenomena, has spent nearly two decades documenting grade inflation.

Rojstaczer found that average grades in private schools have inflated at about .15 of a grade point per decade, raising the average grade point average to about 3.26. St. Olaf isn't immune to this national trend.

Grade inflation can be looked at from a number of angles -- the proportion of A's awarded, the average GPA and the amount of honors given out. Over a 20-year period, St. Olaf has shown inflation in all three numbers. Currently, average GPAs vary between departments, with the average GPA between all majors after first year hovering around 3.2.

There was intense discussion of grade inflation at St. Olaf over the 2005-2006 school year, especially following a report from Lynn Steen, special assistant to the provost.

The report found a rise in average grades over the last several decades. As a result, departments took steps to combat rising grades. "We ended up distributing grading rubrics from other schools," said Mary Steen, chair of the English department. "That did have some effect on grades," she added.

The biology department also decided to focus on the issue. As a department, they discussed the problem and worked with professors on setting appropriate exams and achieving appropriate grade distributions. "We look at the grades constantly," said Anne Walter, chair of the biology department. "We are aware that they are inflated elsewhere."

Fighting grade inflation isn't as simple as setting a limit on the amount of A's that can be given or setting a target GPA and working towards it. "There's a question of whether the grade is absolute or relative," said Charles Umbanhowar, chair of the environmental studies department, referring to whether a grade measures the student's mastery of material or whether it measures a student's performance relative to peers.

The need for grades that accurately represent the abilities of students is also at the forefront of the debate. One concern about grade inflation is that if a majority of students are receiving grades that are undeservedly high, it will become difficult for employers and post-graduate programs to separate truly excellent students from those who are not.

"We are interested in our grades being meaningful," Walter said. "It is also important that graduate schools feel they can trust us." Since a grade represents to employers and post-graduate programs the quality of the student, they have the potential to shift the course of a student's future. Because of the significance attached to grades, they have the potential to provoke strong feelings in students. "We're fighting an interesting emotional battle," Walter said.

This emotional battle is one of which students and alumni are keenly aware. Kristopher Keuseman '01, assistant professor of chemistry, noted a change in the way grade inflation is acknowledged by students and faculty. "I think it's more of an issue," he said, while noting that grading in his department is "pretty much the same" as when he was a student.

Current students say they have felt the effects of grade inflation and the fight against it more strongly. "I've noticed a significant difference in professors' attitudes toward grades in the three years I've been here," said Sarah Hendrickson '09, noting that professors have become more conservative with awarding high grades.

Other students questioned the value of grades based on grade inflation. "If they're able to inflate grades without the work improving, that shows that they're kind of subjective," Lisa Foster '09 said.

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