Across divisions, average grades continue incremental increase

Last academic year, the average course grade awarded at the College was 3.38 on a 4.0 scale, which falls in the B+ range. This represents a small but noteworthy increase from 3.33, the average grade in 2000 when the Committee on Education Policy (CEP) adopted a guideline for suggested maximum mean grades at each class level in an effort to contain grade inflation.

“Since the implementation of the grading guidelines, grade inflation has largely slowed, but then our average grade is so high that you don’t really have anywhere else to go,” said Charles Toomajian, associate dean and registrar. “Academically, a lot of good things are going on at Williams, but these tend to lead towards better grades.” He cited the higher SAT scores of incoming first-years as well as smaller classes, more tutorials and more independent studies, among others.

These maximum mean grade targets, which range from 3.2 for 100-level courses to 3.5 for 400-level courses, with one-tenth-point increments per course level, were instituted in February 2002 by faculty vote. In tandem, faculty also approved a mandate to disseminate statistics on how each individual department fared in comparison to the targets, which reflect the averages that prevailed at the College during the mid-1990s.

Every semester, faculty receive a memo on these guidelines. The memo sent out by the CEP this spring noted that “the most common final grade given in Williams courses is A- (25 percent of all final grades), closely followed by A (23 percent); in contrast, only 21 percent of final grades are B+, and fewer still (16 percent) are Bs.” While emphasizing that grading is discretionary, the memo said: “In light of this steady pattern of grade escalation, we urge you to take note of where your grades fall in relation to the recommended maximum mean grades.”

Nevertheless, this current upward trajectory is far less pronounced than before. When the CEP proposed the grading guidelines, average grades had increased from 3.19 in 1990 to 3.34 in 1999 – three times the 0.05 point increase from 2000 to 2008. “It is impossible to know whether the guidelines adopted by faculty vote in 2000 have had the desired effect, since we don’t have a control group,” said Monique Deveaux, CEP chair and professor of political science. “One can only hope that the guidelines have had some effect, even if only a small one.”

Colin Adams, professor of mathematics and chair of the Faculty Steering Committee’s 1996 ad hoc committee on grading, noted two possible explanations for the slowing growth. “In 1996, we implemented a policy where every faculty member’s average grades are reported back to them together with the College averages, and then when someone is way out of line with the rest of the College, at least they know it,” he said. “The other explanation is there isn’t much room left at the top. There is an ultimate ceiling [at 4.0, ignoring the A+].”

Faculty perspectives of the maximum grade guidelines differ. “I think the CEP’s guidelines have helped – I expect the grade inflation would have been worse without them,” said Bill Wootters, professor of physics. “I and my colleagues certainly do pay attention to the guidelines, but it depends on the students too. Sometimes you will have, say, a small class that performs exceptionally well – in such cases I have graded above the specified maximum.”

Michael Brown, professor of anthropology and chair of CEP in 2000, believes that informing faculty about grading norms is beneficial. “It helps each faculty member to calibrate his or her grades with reference to institution-wide standards,” he said. Brown also noted that grade compression may be more of a problem than grade inflation. “I would support efforts to decompress grade distributions by gradually reestablishing the grade C to mean ‘fair,’ as the Williams College Bulletin defines it,” he said. In 1960, the average grade at the College was 2.67, or B-, still well above the 2.0 allocated to a C.

Despite differences of opinion on the desirability of grade deflation, there appears to be consensus on its difficulty. “The inertia in the grading system is immense; it takes a sustained, coordinated effort to change its direction,” said Karen Kwitter, chair and professor of astronomy. “I remember a time when C was a real grade, but accept that things have changed since I was a student.” Kwitter added that grade compression is unfortunate “because it means that there is no way to acknowledge truly exceptional students.”

Mechanisms for regulating grade inflation also vary. Anand Swamy, professor of economics, suggests a revision of the CEP guidelines, which recommend maximum averages. “Though they are quite explicit that grades should typically be lower than the suggested maximum, the number sticks in one’s head, and becomes a benchmark,” he said. Swamy proposed experimenting with providing the “target” average grade, instead of the maximum. “Maybe grades will then gravitate towards this lower benchmark.”
At the College, discussions on grade inflation center on average course grade as administrators cannot legally disclose the average student’s grade point average due to confidentiality issues. If, however, the average grade in each course conformed to the CEP’s recommended maximum mean, the average overall grade at the College, weighted by enrollment at each course level, would be 3.29 – nearly one-tenth of a point lower than the actual.

Another significant deviation is the historical divergence between average grades of different academic divisions. In 2007-08, the average of the 4680 final grades in Div. I (languages and the arts) was 3.44; in Div. II (social studies) the average of the 6674 grades awarded was 3.37; in Div. III (science and mathematics) the average of the 4217 grades awarded was 3.33.

Toomajian attributed the variation to individual personalities. “The issue isn’t broad differences by division so much as the different ways in which courses are presented and tested,” he said. “For any given student, one particular class might be perfect, but for others, it’s just horrible.”

Adams underscored the different modes of assessment between divisions. “Typically, it has been true that Div. III grades lower on average than Div. I and II, but Div. III faculty can differentiate more finely between students using exam and homework scores and very particular templates for apportioning points,” he said. “So Div. III gives many lower grades, but also some of the highest grades.” He added that the valedictorian is almost always from Div. III.

In addition, contrary to popular belief, “Grades at Williams are apparently in the top quarter or so with respect to our peer institutions, perhaps slightly higher,” Deveaux said. Toomajian concurred. “Even though Williams is more conservative than many peer institutions as far as policies such as course withdrawal and pass/fail grading go, we’re still high up on the list for average grades.”

This information upsets popular belief that graduate schools weight grades from the College with particular favor. One source of this perception is the school ranking tables used in admission decisions of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. These tables, which ranked Williams GPAs second only to those of Swarthmore, were abolished in 1997 as they were considered a hindrance to encouraging minorities to apply to Boalt.

Unlike the late 1990s or the early 2000s – when Princeton and Dartmouth, among others, enacted new grading policies amidst national debate on the function of grades and grade inflation – grading is not currently a hot-button issue. “Grading policy is not something the CEP has thought about this year,” said Sam Weinreich ’09, CEP member. “In general, I don’t get the sense that students are particularly dissatisfied with the status quo.”