Grades at Williams have been rising for nearly half of a century, and grade inflation is a constant concern among faculty.
In the Nov. 18, 1997 issue of the Record the article “Williams GPAs more respected by Berkeley grading system” reported that the University of California at Berkeley Law School rated Williams second only to Swarthmore in the relative value of grade point average.
According to this U.C. Berkeley study, grade inflation at Williams is low. However, according to Registrar Charles Toomajian, “Our grade inflation is right up there with the rest of them.”
Approximately every three years, an Ad Hoc Committee on Grading addresses grades and grade inflation. The committee last met in the 1995-1996 school year and issued a report in February of 1996.
The committee highlighted the issues and recommended some solutions.
“As far back as statistics are available, the College has seen grade inflation,” the committee said. In 1953, the mean for all grades was between a C+ and a B-, a 2.53. By 1995, the mean had risen to nearly a B+, a 3.29. Between 1986 and 1995 alone, the mean climbed from a 3.08 to a 3.29. “It is true that the average grade is going up,” Toomajian said.
With grade inflation came grade compression. “The vast majority of the grades being given now fall in the range between A (not including A+) and B-…. Thus, the vast majority of students are being evaluated with five grades,” the committee reported. In fact, in the 1994-1995 school year, only 11 percent of all grades fell outside of this range. Fourty-four percent of all grades given were B+’s or A-’s. “The spread in grades is getting much narrower,” Toomajian said.
The committee addressed other areas of concern related to grade inflation and compression. For example, academic honors such as the Dean’s List and Latin Honors became less distinctive as more students recieved the honors. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the minimum academic standards lost significance as average grades rose.
There are several possible explanations for grade inflation at Williams.
“Some of them correspond to a specific period in time, for example during the Vietnam War,” the committee said. In other words, professors may intentionally raise grades, as they did during the Vietnam War to prevent students from being drafted.
Better grades could be warranted; the committee noted that “students have improved over the years.” The average SAT score of the entering student rose 71 points between the Classes of 1983 and 1998, for example.
Another possible source of grade inflation stems from greater competition for post-graduate jobs and graduate school acceptance. Since “it is no longer a given that a student from Williams will have his or her pick of jobs,” according to the committee, students are more likely to pressure professors for higher grades. “Pressure from students for higher grades exists in a manner that it did not exist in the past,” the committee reported.
Courses based on one-on-one contact with professors, such as tutorials, theses and independent studies have increased, and the grades in these courses tend to be higher.
The low end of the range has also been limited by the withdrawal policy. Beginning in 1983 for first-years and 1992 for upperclassmen, students have the option of withdrawing from courses where they are doing poorly.
Recent grade inflation was attributed to a 1991 report. Professor of Economics Richard Sabot published the mean grades of all departments. While departments on the low end of the scale raised their means, departments on the high end did not decrease theirs, so the overall average rose.
“There’s also a theory that faculty, especially newer faculty, try to grade more easily, so they’ll get better student evaluations, because that factors into tenure,” Toomajian said. Thus faculty may grade more leniently to receive more positive student evalutations for the Student Course Surveys. “There is a weak positive correlation between the expected grade and the two global evaluation questions on the Student Course Surveys,” the committee noted.
The committee recommended several solutions to grade inflation. Some have already gone into effect.
The honors criteria for academic efforts have changed. The GPA for the Dean’s List has been raised from a 3.3 to a 3.5. Rather than basing Latin Honors on GPA, beginning with the Class of 2000, the cut-offs will be based on the percentage rank in the class. For example, Cum Laude is currently set at a GPA at 3.3, but beginning with the Class of 2000, Cum Laude honors will be granted to the top 35 percent of the graduating class.
The Registrar has also started providing grade reports to each faculty member. “All faculty members receive the mean for the entire College, the mean for each division, the means for all courses at levels…within their division, the faculty members’ departmental mean, the means for each of their individual classes, with the relative rank and percentage for each of their classes as compared to all classes at the same level within the division,” the report said. This provides the faculty with a comprehensive comparison of the grades they give and all other grades given at the College.
Despite these additions, the College does not intend to wage war against grade inflation. “If each faculty member were apprised of how his or her grade averages compared with others in the College, the effect might be to halt the upward drift,” the committee said. This is not the effect they wish to obtain. The College wants to inform the faculty of the trend, but not coerce them into lowering grades. “Grading is a professor’s judgment best made by the instructor in the course,” Toomajian said. “We are very, very clear that the instructor is responsible for grading the student’s work.”
The committee also recognized that grade inflation occurs at other institutions. “Has our grade inflation brought us out of line with the schools to which we are usually compared? Definitely not,” the committee reported. Despite the indications of the Berkeley report, Williams’ grade inflation coincides with the trend at peer schools.
Transfer students from other colleges had mixed perceptions of grade inflation at Williams in comparison to their former schools. Lindsay Renner ’99 transferred from Duke last year, and she said it was difficult to compare the systems because she took introductory-level courses there and upper-level courses here. However, she said, “I feel like here, it depends on what professor you have, but it’s definitely tough to get an A.”
“It’s much more difficult to get an A here than it was at Penn,” Dennis DeBassio ’99, a transfer from the University of Pennsylvania, said. Yet, DeBassio noted the mean here is higher. “The mean was a B. Here the mean is a B+.” Yet he said, “shooting for the mean here is going to get you a higher grade, but, in my opinion, it takes more work to get.”
“In general, I get the sense that Williams students actually work more seriously, so they do well,” Hong Qu ’99, an exchange student from Wesleyan College, said. He also cited similarities between the inflationary tendencies at the two schools. “In either school, teachers won’t give below C’s. In both places, it’s very difficult to get an A in many classes.”
Matt Sly ’99, a transfer from Stanford University, found many parallels between grading at Williams and at Stanford. “I think both places are guilty of grade inflation,” he said. Sly attributed the inflation to the quality of the students at both schools. “It seems that when you h
ave students who are used to getting good grades, like those at Stanford and Williams, they aren’t going to settle for anything below B and the grading system just pans out that way.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science James McAllister said he made it clear to all of his students at the beginning of the semester that it would not pan out that way for them; they could not expect inflated grades. He said he distributed articles on the problem of grade inflation and vowed that he would not participate in the phenomenon.
McAllister commented that his stance against grade inflation was inspired by the grade reports from the Registrar. He saw that he was eleventh out of 44 on a list of classes with the highest mean grades, and began to fear that his classes were crowded because students thought they were easy.
McAllister said he deflated grades by downgrading borderline grades. Last year, he tended to upgrade grades on the border because he was a new professor and uncertain of the standards.
McAllister said he now knows that Williams does not pressure professors to grade high. “Williams is not a grade inflationary school,” he said.