Dartmouth College Professor: Curb Grade Inflation

Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Hanover — If the current trend in student assessment continues unchecked, the Dartmouth College class of 2064 will graduate with about 1,200 valedictorians.

Though he cast it as an unlikely scenario, such was the picture biology professor Mark McPeek, who heads a committee on grade inflation, painted for his colleagues at an all-faculty meeting Monday afternoon.

At Dartmouth, as at any of its peer institutions, grades are following a linear progression over time, and its direction is up: Among all marks, the proportion of As and A-minuses received by Dartmouth students is set to pass 60 percent this year. McPeek said that if one carried his analysis to its extreme, half a century from now, all grades will be As.

“I’ve been a practicing scientist for 30 years and I’ve never seen data like this,” McPeek said, adding later, “It’s not the grading system that’s the problem — it’s the graders.”

As part of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” initiative, designed to curb risky student behavior and strengthen the college’s academics, President Phil Hanlon announced in January that he planned to address grade inflation. On Monday, McPeek presented to the faculty his committee’s recommendations, which include establishing oversight of faculty grade assignment and abolishing the non-recording option, which allows students to set a minimum mark they may receive in a course, below which their assessment is simply “pass” or “fail.”

In a report delivered with Monday’s presentation, the committee predicted that some of its suggestions could be implemented as soon as next fall.

During his presentation, McPeek used statistical analysis to dispel some “myths,” as he called them, surrounding grade inflation.

One myth, McPeek said, was that the sciences see less grade inflation than other subjects.

Not true, he said: “This is not the sciences screaming at the humanities.”

The rate is the same everywhere, he said, and the gap in median grades between the qualitative and quantitative subjects has remained the same since 1974.

The next “excuse” McPeek said he often heard was that “our students are getting better over time.”

At those words, a titter rose from among the 200 faculty seated in front of him.

SAT scores among incoming Dartmouth students are increasing slightly, McPeek said, noting that the national trend is level. Yet in 1993, the admissions department decided to boost SAT scores by 88 points among the incoming freshman class — a rise equal to the combined growth during the other 41 years for which McPeek had data. There was no corresponding jump in students’ grades.

Professors have also told McPeek they fear that no one will enroll in their classes if the median grades are too low.

Not so, he said: Enrollments are driven by national economic and social interests, “and there’s almost nothing a department or program here can do about it.”

Computer science programs, for example, “essentially follow the tech industry, up and down.”

Dartmouth has only one department whose enrollment pattern does not follow the national trend: economics, whose number of majors rises steadily at the 

McPeek contended that grades were only a small part of admittance to professional schools. Among Dartmouth graduates accepted to medical school, for example, grade-point averages range from 2.5 to 4.0 every year. Last year, a student with a 2.4 GPA received two offers, he said.

The biology professor also addressed faculty concerns related to student reviews and the need to answer grade-related complaints from undergraduates. McPeek argued that the college shouldn’t judge its professors based on how much students like them, but rather on their academic rigor.

As for poorly performing students, “What will motivate them to work harder at their studies?” he asked.

He pointed to national research indicating that students are spending less time studying outside of class, and yet expect to receive higher grades. In fact, the fewer hours a student works, the higher the grade he or she anticipates, research suggests. Dartmouth students are consistent with this trend, he said.

“The solution,” McPeek and his committee wrote in the report, “is simply to give high-performing students high grades, intermediate-performing students intermediate grades, and low-performing students low grades.”

In the fall of 1973, Dartmouth instituted a “scholarship rating” system that allows for 10 possible grades in a course, ranging from A to a failing E. Ideally, professors would assign grades according to the descriptions therein, but both administrators and instructors lack the incentive to do so, McPeek said.

He proposed that college officials publish his full statistical analysis, allocate resources to departments and professors solely based on academic merit and, each semester, require each department to deliver to a dean an assessment of its academic rigor, including grade standards, grade distributions and time spent by faculty members on courses.

As for holding individual faculty accountable, the grade inflation committee recommended requiring instructors to report their grading standards in relation to the scholarship rating categories and to discuss those assessments with 

The committee also suggested that the college reduce the minimum undergraduate course size to two students and link tenure and promotion to professors’ standards for evaluating student performance.

During a question-and-answer session, many faculty members spoke up with concerns.

Robyn Millan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, said that, thanks to new teaching techniques, she expected students in her larger courses to perform better than they would have 20 years ago.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of choosing where I draw the line based on what the median grade’s going to be,” she said.

McPeek said he agreed that grade distribution was less important than setting clear standards and applying them fairly: If all students deserve As, they should receive them, he said. His median grade, he said in an interview after the meeting, is a B.

McPeek had sharp exchanges with a number of faculty, including veteran English professor Donald Pease, who predicted that the grading system would discourage students from branching out into unfamiliar subjects and hinder their attainment of a liberal arts education.

Pease said in an interview afterward, “I didn’t see a discussion of the philosophy of education. I saw a discussion of percentages.”

Monika Otter, an associate professor of English, compared grade inflation to monetary inflation, saying it may be beyond colleges’ ability to reverse the upward 

“We call it inflation for a reason, because it’s not in the hands of one individual person but in the hands of the unit of change,” Otter said, explaining that she will never again be able to buy a donut for 50 cents, as she might have done decades ago, but she doesn’t complain about 

“I totally agree with everything you’re saying, but I’m a little skeptical about the possibility of turning things around by being tougher,” Otter told McPeek.

Otter said it was also important to address students’ perceptions of grades. Where a B was once considered a respectable grade, “If I give a student a B-plus now, they think they’ve done something wrong.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.