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Nearly half of college grades are A's, study finds

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 12:39 p.m. MDT

The old bell curve no longer looks like a bell. It's lopsided now.

College grades are so inflated that A's make up 43 percent of all letter grades given at colleges and universities. Only 10 percent are D's and F's, according to a new study published in the Teachers College Record.

Researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy found that the offenders are, for the most part, private colleges and universities. The study looked at more than 135 schools with enrollment of 1.5 million students. An abstract of the report did not provide data on specific schools, but public commuter universities like the University of Utah or Utah Valley University ranked the lowest, at 39 percent, while private, nonprofit universities like BYU averaged 48.2 percent.

Southern institutions in general, were less likely to hand out higher grades, as well as schools that focus on science and engineering.

The study covered 70 years of data and found the trend is not new; the percentage of A's given out has been slowly on the rise since the early 1960's, with a brief drop from about 1975 to 1985. The trend is at its peak right now, the study found.

"America's institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent," they write. "The evolution of grading has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance."

Why the inflation

The study suggests that it is not due to student effort. Students are not studying more or working harder, in general. In fact, students are studying less than students in the past, according to a 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Instead, they are sleeping and drinking more, another study found.

The inflation may be, in part, due to what the researchers call a "consumer-based" approach to teaching, affected by student reviews of instructorsor handed out at the end of each term by many schools. These ratings are then kept in an instructor's portfolio and reviewed for tenure, acting as incentive to give higher grades.

The possible harm

In the Self and Identity journal, Jean Twenge found in her study that 60 percent of college students feel that their intellectual ability is "above average," which the authors credited to grade inflation, not academic or intellectual advancement.

"When college students perceive that the average grade in a class will be an A, they do not try to excel," wrote Roistaczer and Healy. "It is likely that the decline in student study hours, student engagement and literacy are partly the result of diminished academic expectations."

Forbes placed grade inflation on a list of reasons why young Americans are losing jobs.

"Too many Americans have the wrong education and skills for today's job," wrote Forbes' John Mariotti. "The younger ones have irrelevant skills — nurtured by coddling, grade inflation and political correctness which eliminated chances of 'failure' at much of anything. Most of them don't realize that a job requires showing up for work every day, on time, and actually working."

Rojstaczer and Healy are pessimistic that without institutional grading oversight, "meaningful grades will not return to the American academy."

EMAIL: crosenlof@desnews.com

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