Back in December, the Dean of Undergraduate Education at Harvard was quoted from a meeting of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences saying, “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.” This statistic was highly shocking to the general public (or at least the general media). Yale itself moved last year to address the problem when it turned out that 62% of grades given to undergraduates in a two-year period were A-minuses. Just a few weeks ago, the Teaching Center at Yale hosted a day-long seminar entitled, “Are All Yale Students ‘A’ Students? A Forum on Grading.” Most recently, Rebecca Schuman published a piece on grading at Slate entitled, “Confessions of a Grade Inflator.” However, rather than only seeing what has happened as the inflation of individual students’ grades, we should also see it—from the instructor’s perspective—as a compressing of the grading scale itself. Doing so reveals multiple repercussions for both students and faculty that the individualized, student-centered notion of “grade inflation” misses. We need to keep in mind that grade inflation or compression does not just benefit unworthy students; it actually has negative effects on both students and faculty, which should be the real causes for wanting to address the problem.
Aside from the general outrage people feel for undeserving students receiving “high” grades, the practical effect of the grading problem has been to compress the grading scale. The traditional grading scale had 12 degrees (not counting “A+”) including three each at the B, C, and D levels. Generally speaking, the most common understanding was that an average or merely sufficient performance earned a “C,” while the B-level was reserved for those who performed better than average. And, of course, the A-level was reserved for those who performed exceptionally.
Now, however, we have a situation (seemingly in many schools) where 50-60% of grades fall within only the top two degrees and almost all of the rest fall within the next two degrees. This means that the grading scale has been compressed by at least two-thirds for many faculty (see graphic below for one take on the relationship between traditional and compressed grade scales). The traditional scale allowed faculty to make subtle distinctions in their evaluations of student performance, making grades more meaningful in what they represent and also making the process of final evaluation or grading more meaningful for faculty.
This grading problem has significantly changed the relationship between grades and both students’ performance and the faculty’s process of evaluation. Of course it has had a distorting effect on students’ ability to subtly self-evaluate their own work, but I imagine the final evaluation process of a course seems not to be a very important aspect of teaching a course. I am not arguing that the evaluation process should be central to what faculty want to get out of teaching a course. However, because the new grading scale is so compressed, faculty have lost the opportunity to meaningfully evaluate students, which, even if not central, is still a relatively important part of teaching a course. For many, I suspect, grade compression has also alienated faculty from the evaluation process.
But the loss of subtlety to the evaluation process has not only fundamentally changed the way faculty approach an important part of teaching, it also has negatively affected two certain groups of students more than others, i.e., those at the upper and lower echelons of the grading scale. In her article, Schuman wrote, “Of my current 33 students, 20 are getting either A’s or A-minuses.” For those at the lower end of the scale, their “B+” doesn’t seem all that far off from the “A” that the best student in the class received. Hence, it can make it impossible for a student to get a genuine sense of their own progress (or lack thereof).
This process also works in reverse. When half of students are getting a straight “A,” the value and worth of that “A” can vary widely, so, for those at the very top, the top grade of “A” is failing to deliver the distinction that their performance deserved. It makes it harder for those looking at comparisons “on paper” to figure out which students performed exceptionally as opposed to those who performed well enough to get better than the A-minus the majority were getting. So the effects of grade compression on students overall has been to weaken the ability for students to have documented proof of exceptional performance and to make valuable self-evaluation harder for students at the bottom of the grading scale (i.e, the B to B-minus range).
Talking about the grading problem in terms of “grade inflation” foregrounds the end-result of higher grades for undeserving students. However, if we frame the problem in terms of “grade compression,” we can begin to think about its effects on faculty and the non-majority of students at the top and the bottom who are affected the most.