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Curbing the curve

People riding a roller coaster Photo courtesy of DebMomOf3

Over 40% of all grades awarded in 2012 across 200 colleges and universities were in the A-range. In 1988 and 1960, A-level evaluations accounted for only 21% and 15% of all grades respectively. This is longitudinal evidence of grade inflation, a controversial topic which threatens the reputation of all American institutes of higher learning—whether they actively practice it or not.

There are myriad reasons for the growing phenomenon of grade inflation. At the institutional level, some studies argue that grade inflation is necessary to help students compete in a competitive job market. In the classroom, professors up for tenure may worry that awarding low grades will harm their student evaluation scores. One direct contributor to the inflation issue however, is marking on a forced curve.

In markets, prices face no limit on inflation; however, in academia grades are capped at A or A+. This either results in more students placing in top of grade distribution, or if there is a quota in place, arbitrarily limiting the number of students who may excel. In both instances it discourages studying and creates a classroom culture of cutthroat competition.

On the surface, a competitive environment seems like a good thing for an academic environment. Many argue that the real workplace is a zero-sum game and higher education should reflect this. However, numerous studies demonstrate collaboration—both in academic and the workforce—results in higher levels of achievement.

One of the largest unintended consequences of grade inflation is in making quantitative evaluations more qualitative. The result is grades are becoming less effective at motivating students and more unreliable as evaluation tools for graduate schools and employers. Ending the practice of grading on a forced curve will not end grade inflation, but it will positively impact institutional reputations and student engagement.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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