Is grade inflation real or imagined?

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse asks whether grades are improving because of inflation — or because of other reasons: The most frequently referred to site is Stuart Rojstaczer?s gradeinflation.com, which surveys a small number of institutions and finds increases in the mean grade in all of them over both a ten year and a ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse asks whether grades are improving because of inflation -- or because of other reasons:

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse asks whether grades are improving because of inflation — or because of other reasons:

The most frequently referred to site is Stuart Rojstaczer?s gradeinflation.com, which surveys a small number of institutions and finds increases in the mean grade in all of them over both a ten year and a 30 year period (much bigger in the private than in the public institutions). This is what people take to be firm evidence of grade inflation. But it isn?t, and I?m surprised that anyone thinks it is. Here?s why; within the institutions surveyed the students might have been gaining in achievement. Grade inflation consists in higher grades being given for similar quality work, not just higher grades being given. And no-one seems to have any data on the quality of the work being produced now or in the past. Am I saying that students might have gotten smarter over the period? Well, they might, but that?s not what I?m saying. They might be better prepared for college than before, or, rather, enough of them might be better prepared to outweigh the fact that some of them are less well prepared…. Students might be working harder, or working smarter, because they care more about getting good grades believing (falsely, according to lots of commentators) that better grades yield higher incomes and better job prospects. Instructors might have improved: many of the institutions have seen a decline in the teaching load for instructors over that period, allowing instructors more time to devote to preparation etc. Instructors might be more talented: certainly, the early period of grade inflation coincides with increased use of competitive and open hiring practices, and with the increased admission of women into the faculty.

A lot of Harry’s alternative explanatuons would suggest — perish the thought — there have been productivity gains in education. Much as I’d like this to be true, I’m probably more skeptical than Brighouse of this possibility — click here for one reason why the distribution of grades suggests other factors at work besides improving student and instructor quality.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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