The Williams faculty voiced its concern over grade inflation at the College as it passed several motions of a proposal by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) Subcommittee on Grading, instituting grading targets at the monthly faculty meeting held Feb. 16.
The targets, which range from 3.2 to 3.5 from 100-level to 400-level courses, increasing one tenth of a point per course level, intend to stabilize the mean GPA of the College beginning in Fall 2000 to about 3.3, the mean grade for 1998. The most frequently given grade in 1999 was an A- and the mean grade hovered just above a B+ at 3.34.
“When you take the long view and look from 1960 to 1999, you see overwhelming evidence that grades are moving steadily upward,” Chair of the CEP and James N. Lambert ’39 Professor of Anthropology Michael Brown said.
“The problem is that leaves you no room to move. Grades are so compressed that you start getting into making finer distinctions which are harder and harder to justify at the same time.”
“The so-called ‘Gentleman’s C’ is now the ‘Gentleman’s B+,’” quipped Associate Dean for Student Services and Registrar Charles Toomajian.
Concern over grade inflation is nothing new for the College. Two Williams economics professors issued a report in 1991 indicating that departments that gave out higher grades attracted more students and increased numbers of majors. In 1996 the Steering Committee formed an ad hoc committee chaired by Mark Hopkins Professor of Mathematics and chair of the mathematics department Colin Adams.
“We spent the year going over all the various contributing factors why we thought grade inflation was happening and ultimately came up with a set of motions that we put forward to the faculty to do something about it,” Adams said. “We passed one of the motions which said that we would distribute information to all the faculty at the end of every semester which told them where they were in relation to other departments, whether their GPAs were above or below the other departments.”
“This time we are being more explicit,” he continued. “We are upping the ante a little bit. Now we’re not only going to give you information about where you stand relative to the rest of the College, but we’re actually going to say where you stand relative to these targets and hope that if people are aware of them, they’ll actually try to shoot for these targets.”
Instead of bringing high-grading departments down to the college-wide average, the 1996 proposal caused many of the lower-grading departments to issue higher grades. The majority of average grades of the departments hover around the college average with a few outlying departments and instructors.
Some reasons for grade inflation, according to the members of the CEP Subcommittee on Grading, include the continual growth in the quality of the students that the College accepts, the increased importance and influence of the Student Course Survey (SCS) in determining tenure for faculty, the competitiveness of the job market, the grade revolution of the 1960s and the higher numbers of tutorials.
“In the latter half of this century grades began to matter,” Max Weinstein ’00, a member of the CEP, said. “It used to be that having a degree from a place like Williams was enough to ensure your financial future. It used to be that going to Williams was a rubber stamp to get you into an ‘old boys’ network.’ But now if you want the best job, if you want to get a job right out of college that is going to pay upwards of $60,000 a year, then you need to have a good grade point average. Suddenly, when these things started mattering, somehow or another they became important to students.”
Every year, the College exchanges information with a group of about 20 peer institutions of liberal arts colleges. Recently, Williams ranked second in the list of highest annual GPA. This fact concerns many faculty members.
“If the faculty doesn’t control grade inflation, in 10 to 15 years everyone is going to have a 4.0 or higher and the transcript will be utterly useless,” Brown said. “There will be no distinctions possible because everyone will get the same grade. That is one of the important issues that as grades become compressed, it is more difficult to present the nuances in a picture of a student’s performance at Williams.”
As it stands now, professors feel they have a very limited arsenal of grades to distribute. “Anything lower than an A- becomes problematic to very goal-oriented, very achievement-oriented students,” Brown said.
The debate on grade inflation has also called into question different philosophies of grading.
“Part of the problem is that people don’t agree on what the purpose of grading is,” Adams said. “There is also no agreement on what exactly we’re basing those grades on.”
He continued, “Are we comparing students to other Williams students in the class, to our own historical record of Williams students we’ve dealt with in the past, to students from the broader national college community? There is no wide agreement on that.”
“We have a chaotic process by which faculty hand out whatever grades they like with little or no review and with purposes that reflect a variety of goals, some intentional and some not, some defensible and some not,” professor of political science George Marcus said.
Some members of the faculty want to push the proposal further and roll back the college-wide average GPA once it has been stabilized to a lower level. The targets of the motion of the CEP Subcommittee on Grading, however, are voluntary.
“We have to come together and assert some kind of modest norm as to the kind of grading behavior of the faculty – or at least remind people that there is one,” Brown said. “[But] you are really dependent upon the goodwill of the faculty to respect it.”
Weinstein summed up the student reaction to grade inflation: “I think people will try out a couple of classes in their freshman year, and a professor grades them particularly harshly, they say, ‘I guess I was no good at that,’ and move onto something else.
“I don’t think you have to look at this as grade hungry students asking ‘who loves me more?’ It is a question of simple-self esteem. If a professor gives you a grade that indicates you are really poor at this subject, do you want to stick at it for four years? I don’t think so.”