Grade Inflation Becoming a Growing Problem at UW-Madison

Grade inflation has been a growing concern among universities across the country, including UW-Madison’s School of Education. Traditionally, the average grade at the college level was a C, but more recently A grades have become increasingly common. Statisticians and educators have split sentiments over whether or not the higher grades correlate with higher achievement.

For example, the UW-Madison School of Education has the second-highest grade point average in the university, after the School of Nursing. Compared to the composite GPA of all UW schools, 3.33, the School of Education claims 3.69 as their average. Despite the implied excellence of the school, we must wonder if the apparent high achievement is a realistic representation of how much the teachers-in-training actually learned.

The UW School of Education boasts an air of confidence, having a Curriculum and Instruction department that gives 96 percent of enrolled students mostly A’s and ranks #1 in the nation, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction department, Prof. Gloria Ladson-Billings explained that the school is very selective during admissions in the applicants’ junior year. She claimed, “These students have already proved themselves and established a certain grade point. It’s a competitive process, and it pushes the low performers away.” Students usually show great interest in teaching, and thus are usually motivated to do well in their courses, she argues.

While students agree about their passion for teaching, graduate student Doug Larkin claimed that the School of Education is not as focused on grades as the high GPAs might suggest. “It’s our philosophy. Education is not a sieve. We don’t exist to sort students into grade categories. We work with them until they get it,” said Larkin.

Such philosophies can be explained by the different viewpoints on grading in the first place. The traditional use of grades is to show overall how much a student retained ideas and information and then performed on assessments. Another perspective is that grades are useless and take focus away from learning in favor of simply becoming a good test-taker. The third common opinion, and possibly that of the School of Education, is that the reward of higher grades acts as an incentive for students in the long run.

The assumption is that most students at the UW School of Education meet the university’s expectations, and work hard due to their love of what they are studying. However, it is just as likely that many students take advantage of the school’s trusting philosophy as a way to get out of work. On one hand, the school offers many exceptional opportunities such as immersion in K-12 classes and a cohort of students working through the program together. On the other, the students also recognize the leniency in grading. “...I don’t think we’re necessarily held accountable to the school’s high standards as much as we should be. And I do think there are people who slide by, who may not go to class. I’m in a group that does not have a whole lot of that, but I can’t imagine it doesn’t happen,” said Caitlyn O’Mara, a fifth-year senior in the School of Education. “I know I’ve turned in papers that weren’t maybe as good as the person next to me’s, but I’ve gotten an A.”

As far as trouble with grade inflation goes, UW-Madison is not the only university experiencing this phenomenon. And in some cases, the trouble does not always concern slacking students. At Harvard University, professors are dealing with the issue of all students doing too well. “Surely, a teacher wants to mark the few best students with a grade that distinguished them from all the rest in the top quarter, but at Harvard, that’s not possible,” claimed professor of government, Harvey Mansfield. He said that higher grade averages make “it difficult to discriminate the best from the very good, the very good from the good, and the good from the mediocre.” With such a high achieving student body as Harvard’s, everyone works hard to earn the best grade. The national increase in GPA does not help in differentiating the already sky-high grades at such schools.

A national database created by Stuart Rojstaczer shows that between 1991 and 2007, the average GPA nationwide increased by 0.18 points; it changed from 2.93 to 3.11. However, the high achievement reflected by the grades awarded in one discipline or department does not hold the same weight as the same grade in a different discipline or department. Each field has different expectations and levels of strictness in grading. Math, science, and economics usually have the hardest grading, while the humanities, and by extension education, have the easiest grades. The impact of grade inflation is also reflected by students’ ACT scores; the average ACT score of students in the School of Education was lower than the composite average for the entire university, yet it has second-highest GPA at the university.

Even so, the humanities are not the only departments dealing with the inflation of grades. Every department is faced with this phenomenon. However, fixing grade inflation is not a priority for most universities. “The faculty doesn’t want to assign lower grades because they’ll get more complaints, and their course evaluations will go lower, and fewer students will enroll in their classes,” stated Valen Johnson, author of Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education. The students do not want their grades to go down either, “because it hurts their chances of landing a good job or getting into graduate schools,” according to Johnson.

At the moment there is no impetus to prevent or reverse grade inflation; there is no rush since grades have risen almost as high as they can. Besides, the goal is not to have students fail their classes or receive lower grades. Ideally, the goal of universities is arguably to create an equitable learning environment for everyone, whether that be for a student of math or a student in the School of Education.