Campus News

Institutional Research studies UGA records for grade inflation

Is grade inflation a problem at UGA?

Some faculty members think so, and a University Council committee has decided it’s a question that should be investigated.

The council’s Educational Affairs Committee has asked the Institutional Research office to look at grade distribution over an extended period of time to determine if student grade point averages have risen and, if so, to what extent.

Committee members decided to undertake the study after noticing a consistent rise over the past five years in the percentage of undergraduates qualifying as a Presidential Scholar, which requires a student to earn a 4.0 grade point average for a semester.

For spring semester of 1999, 8.3 percent of undergraduates qualified as Presidential Scholars. By spring semester of 2002, 10.8 percent qualified, and for spring semester 2004 the percentage was up to 13.2.

“The committee felt that ­becoming a Presidential Scholar is an honor and something students need to work for,” says EAC chair Karen Shetterley. “We were curious about why more students were qualifying. Are students smarter and more capable? Or does it have to do with rigor of curriculum and quality of instruction? We thought it was something we should ­examine.”

Registrar Rebecca Macon gave the committee another piece of evidence: rising numbers of graduating seniors are First Honor Graduates, which requires maintaining a 4.0 GPA for all undergraduate academic work. In 1995, 15 seniors were First Honor Graduates; this spring, 50 students have earned the honor.

Coincidentally, Karen Bauer, director of Institutional Research, had also been looking at GPA data nationally and found a general trend toward rising grades around the country-a finding reinforced by studies on grade inflation at several other universities. She was interested in studying the issue further and readily agreed when the EAC contacted her about conducting an in-depth study at UGA.

Grade inflation is a tricky issue, caution Bauer and EAC members. One problem is that there’s no universally agreed-on definition of grade inflation. Scholars have defined it as “a rise in grade point average without evidence it was earned,” or “an increase in grade point average without a concomitant increase in achievement.”

But the harder question is, why is it occurring? Researchers offer several possibilities: students may be brighter and more capable; faculty may have lowered their grading standards; faculty may be under increased pressure to award better grades so students don’t lose merit scholarships, or drop out, or transfer to another school; students may bring a consumer mentality to the classroom, expecting to be rewarded for their “purchase” of education with a good grade and willing to confront professors if they don’t get it.

“The dynamics that cause grade inflation are very difficult to disentangle,” says EAC member E.M. Beck, a professor of sociology. “But it permeates every university and it’s been going on for a long time.”

Beck and another EAC member, mathematics professor Malcolm Adams, agree that grade inflation is a reality at UGA and should be addressed. Part of the problem, they say, is that grading standards vary widely among departments, schools and colleges.

“There are two issues-grade inflation and general academic standards,” says Adams. “Are we just giving A’s to everybody so they feel good? It’s important for faculty to look at their own standards and think about whether they’re grading on an appropriate scale.”

And if it turns out that students today actually are better, he notes, then faculty may need to raise their standards.

“We owe it to the students to challenge them in the classroom and then to make a fair assessment of their relative abilities,” he says. “I don’t believe we can govern grade standards, and I don’t think we can enforce quotas. Our best hope is to appeal to the professional standards of faculty, and look at what’s happening and make corrections.”

Beck says the percentage of students earning A’s has increased markedly over the 30 years he’s taught in the sociology department.

“Instruction is better than it was 30 years ago, but how much of [the rise in grades] is due to better teaching, or to better students, or to more lenient grading, or to requiring less work of students?” he asks.

He does discount the notion that faculty may feel pressure to help students keep the HOPE scholarship.

“This is a national problem, and it precedes HOPE,” he says. “Other issues are involved.”

Bauer says the Institutional Research study will chart average GPAs at UGA for the period of about 1974-2004. In addition to raw numbers, the study will also look at how such variables as SAT scores, gender and race may affect GPAs.

A report with some preliminary data should be ready by the EAC’s next meeting on March 22, Bauer says.

Shetterley says the committee will have to decide what to do with the study results. She expects the data will be reported to University Council, and she thinks the results will also be of interest to the Task Force on Student Learning and General Education that is looking at ways to strengthen undergraduate education.

Shetterley says the committee welcomes input from anyone who wishes to offer views and ideas about the topic of grade inflation.