Average grade rises 0.12 points in 16 years

The average grade at the College has continued to increase since the last committee that exclusively examined grade inflation met according to the  most recent data on grade inflation from the registrar.

Last academic year, the average grade students at the College received was 3.45 on a 4.0 scale. The average grade given in Division I courses last year was 3.55, the average grade awarded in Division II courses was 3.44 and the average grade in Division III was 3.37. In the 1999-2000 academic year, the average grade awarded at the College was 3.33, while the average grade in Div. I courses was 3.39 and the average grades in Div. II and III were 3.30. Both the increase in the College-wide average grade and difference in average grades across divisions suggest that grade inflation is prevalent at the College.

Grade inflation has long been a concern of students and professors at the College. During the 1990-91 academic year, Richard Sabot and John Wakeman-Linn, professors of economics, released a report about grade inflation. Their findings revealed the difference in mean grades amongst departments, prompting departments with lower average grade point averages (GPAs) — many of them in Div. III — to increase the grades they gave. If Div. III continued to award grades significantly lower than those in Div. I and II, professors feared that students avoid taking Div. III courses.

In the 1995–96 academic year, Colin Adams, professor of math, chaired the Faculty Steering Committee’s ad hoc committee on grading. The committee’s final proposal included establishing a system of reporting average grades to faculty members in an attempt to curb grade inflation.

“After every semester, each faculty member receives information about what the average GPAs are in their own department, the College average, the averages by course levels and the averages by division,” Adams said. “We also see how our own course GPA compares to other courses at the same level.”

In the 2000–01 academic year, the faculty established another grading committee, chaired by Michael Brown, professor of anthropology and Latin American studies. The committee recommended that the College set benchmarks for each course level: 3.2 for 100-level courses, 3.3 for 200-level, 3.4 for 300-level and 3.5 for 400-level. Faculty members were asked to abide by those average grades as upper limits for GPAs in all of their courses.

Since then, faculty members have received email reminders of these average grade goals, along with data detailing actual average semester GPAs, at the beginning of each semester. Average semester grade values were often higher than the prescribed benchmarks. This academic year, the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA) decided to discontinue the emails; at the start of this semester, professors did not receive average grade benchmark reminders.

Despite the grading committees’ efforts to check grade inflation, both the average grade at the College and average divisional grades have increased.

“Average grades at Williams have increased over time,” Marlene Sandstrom, dean of the College said. “This shift reflects a national trend among highly selective colleges and universities across the country. And in fact, our data showing somewhat lower grades in Div. III than Div. I and II is also consistent with national trends.”

National phenomenon or not, grade inflation can affect students’ careers and employment after graduation.

“Grade inflation makes it hard for graduate programs or potential employers to potential candidates based on grades,” Sandstrom said. “As a result, graduate programs and potential employers who have traditionally relied on grades when making decisions have had to rely more heavily on other means for discriminating among the large numbers of candidates with top grades.”

Stefanie Solum, professor of art history and studio art, echoed Sandstrom’s reference to grade inflation in national history. She also worried that the data on average grades could “devalue the humanities and social sciences.” The average grades during the last academic year in Div. I and Div. II courses were 0.18 and 0.07 points higher, respectively, than the average Div. III grade.

“It’s especially important to acknowledge that the upward creep of grades in the United States is a good half-century old,” Solum said. “Also critical: the disparity between grades in the sciences and the humanities reaches back in time at least as far. So these trends in grading are historical and in other words not properly or uniquely our story. At the same time, much of the current student body has come up in a culture that privileges STEM fields, often at the expense of the humanities, with unprecedented ubiquity. If we ignore the history … of grade inflation, we run the risk of assuming that fields with higher grades are somehow less challenging or, even worse, less valid intellectual pursuits.”

Many professors across divisions agreed that stark differences in average divisional grades are problematic.

“Differences in grading policies amongst departments/divisions can be very harmful to students,” Adams said. “If Department One has a grading average of 3.8 and Department Two has a grading average of 3.0, then a student may take a class in Department One and get an A- and a class in Department Two and get a B, and that student thinks they are better at Subject One and worse at Subject Two. They choose their major accordingly, when in fact the grades are simply an artifact of the different grading scales.”

Adams and David Edwards, faculty chair of the CEA and professor of anthropology, cautioned against jumping to conclusions purely based on the difference amongst average grades across divisions. Adams explained that, when professors grade  in subjective fields in Div. I and II, it is fairly easy to rely on a small subset of grades: namely, As and Bs. Since Div. III professors tend to use all grades in the spectrum from A+ to E, it brings the average Div. III grade down. Accordingly, in quantitative fields, grades may naturally spread out along a wider scale than they do in humanities.

Karen Merrill, professor of history, offered a different possible explanation for the divergent grades across divisions.

“With so much emphasis put on writing pedagogy in Div. I and II, for instance — and we know that for students really to learn how to write, they have to be given the opportunity to plan large writing assignments in advance and revise what they’ve written — it’s possible that we’re teaching in a way that allows the student more opportunities to earn better grades.”

Although Professors agree that differences in average grades across divisions are troubling, not all are concerned with grade inflation itself. To many, it seems inevitable.

“Grade inflation has proven to be an extremely tough nut to crack,” Sandstrom said. “Colleges and universities across the country have tried various methods to combat it, without much luck.”

According to Jim Mahon, professor of political science, one of the main problems of grade inflation is that it leads to grade compression above the mean. Although the College grades on a scale from A+ to E, professors often end up assigning more grades in the upper part of that spectrum.

“When the College mean is above 3.33 (B+), there are really fewer than three [grades above the mean],” Mahon said. “Yet many of us feel that we can judge more distinctions in student work than this. So, during the semester, we’ll often hand back papers with slash grades (A-/B+, et cetera), but of course we cannot use these as final grades. Some might object that we really cannot make such fine distinctions. I disagree. And back when the College mean was C+ we must have believed we could.”

Sandstrom also expressed concern for grade inflation’s tendency to lead to grade compression and the devaluing of grades.

“When a large percentage of students receive some version of an A, the grading scale becomes less useful as a method of capturing differences among stellar versus excellent versus very good course performance,” Sandstrom said. “In addition, grade compression at the high end reduces the impact of grades as a source of meaningful corrective feedback to students about how they are performing.”

Solum and Adams noted the added difficulty that untenured professors face in combatting grade inflation. Because the faculty is evaluated by students, junior faculty may tend to award students higher grades, hoping to receive positive evaluations.

“One of the really tricky things about how things work at the College, especially for junior faculty, is that they’re being evaluated by the students,” Adams said. “There is some subconscious or conscious pressure to please the student and make sure they’re happy in the course. I think that does sometimes translate into higher grades … I think that’s helped to cause grade inflation and push up grades.”

“It can be a real challenge (and sometimes especially so for untenured faculty) to utilize a full range of grades in the face of students’ expectations, and even anxiety, about their performance,” Solum said. “We need to communicate our high expectations for our students, create the conditions for them to do exciting, ambitious and original work and reward excellence appropriately.”

There was no consensus among the faculty with whom the Record spoke as to whether the phenomenon is negative or positive.

“I’m not terribly concerned about these differences among divisions and I’m not too terribly concerned about the trending upward, though I do pay attention to what’s going on,” Merrill said. “The one thing I am most concerned about is the increasing prevalence of the ‘A+’ — I’m just not sure what that actually means once it starts to get in relatively common currency.”

“If you think that grades should provide clear markers that signal who has produced the best work in a given class, then grade inflation is a bad thing, because it muddies those distinctions, while also obscuring the accomplishments of students who did the best work in the class,” Edwards said. “At the same time, if you think grades should signal improvement and not just accomplishment, that adds an additional factor that needs to be taken into consideration, but also a factor that muddies the whole basis on which we award grades.”

“If there is only one grade and everyone gets an A, then we cannot differentiate between the students,” Adams said. “We’ll have 550 students tied for valedictorian.”

  • Tom Foolery

    Unfortunately, unless other schools tackle this issue as well, Williams graduates would suffer in the eyes of employers who just look at GPA. Even if there is an emphasis on class rank I suspect most employers and grad schools would not take that into full consideration as they want to talk about their high GPA recruits. Many of the highest paying employers (and often time medical/dental schools) have an absolute cutoff for minimum GPA. So, as long as Brown, Dartmouth and Yale are willing to graduate everyone with a 3.7 a “Williams-only” solution will not work well.

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