Report on Grade Inflation
To the JMU Faculty Senate
Presented by the Academic Policies Committee

April 24, 2003

 

At the end of the 2001-2002 academic year, the Academic Policies Committee of the Faculty Senate was asked to look at the issue of grade inflation at James Madison University.    This was not the first time the issue had come up locally (see Grade Inflation Task Force, 1999-2000) or nationally (consider articles and editorials in The New York Times and the Chronicle as examples). 

Conversations among current APC members began this academic year and reveal much of what we already know:  not everyone agrees on the purpose of grades (e.g., are they used as a way of discriminating among students? Are they a reflection of improved performance over the course of a semester?).  Nor is there agreement that higher grades are actually a "problem" at all.  For some, higher grades are a reflection of better students enrolled at JMU. For others, the trend toward higher grades reflects high quality teaching by JMU faculty.

Others imply that whether grade inflation is a problem is itself irrelevant.  They contend that high grades at JMU are a necessary evil as long as JMU students are compared to and compete for jobs, graduate and law school admissions, etc. with students from other universities where grade inflation is a reality.  Similarly, some suggest that higher grades may be the inevitable consequence of JMU’s chronic lack of instructional resources.  As more and more students are taught by fewer and fewer faculty, the need for faculty to be expedient in their grading may mean that their assessment of individual student performance (both in absolute terms and relative to other students) is not as deliberate as it should be.  Furthermore, there are sometimes multiple sources of pressure on faculty to grade more leniently -- from peers, department heads, and students.

On the other side, there are those who see grade inflation as real and problematic for a number of reasons.  There is concern that the university is engaged in "false advertising" when grade distributions do not reflect catalog copy about the meaning of an "A," a "B," a "C," etc.  Furthermore, higher grades suggest lower academic standards.  Finally, there is concern that grading practices of instructors unduly influence student evaluations and that faculty might be tempted to curry students’ favor, since JMU’s merit-pay system is tied so closely to evidence of teaching “effectiveness.”

With these conflicting opinions in mind, the APC decided the following course of action:  to obtain data that reveal what the grade distribution at JMU actually looks like, to come up with specific recommendations for the Senate, and to distribute both the data and the recommendations to the Senate by year's end. 

Joy McBride in the registrar's office provided the APC with distributions for all courses taught at JMU in every department, both upper and lower division.  After reviewing this data the committee considered the following:  a) it is plausible to conclude that students in upper division major courses will perform at higher levels than students in lower division courses, b) the data we reviewed was overwhelming -- while one could get a sense of what was going on in particular courses, it was more difficult to read the larger landscape at JMU, and c) it might be useful to consider structural explanations for grade distributions and ask that they be calculated into the equation (e.g., number of drops, number of repeat/forgives).

The second set of data we requested included a cover sheet that lists the average grade per college for the past two academic years, as well as the average for the university.    That cover sheet is attached to this report.  The rest of the data document includes the average grade, the number of drops and the number of repeats for every department/program, upper and lower division courses.  The entire document is being made available on the web for your perusal. 

The APC is very concerned with issues of academic freedom.  To that end, after reviewing this data, we are not making any recommendations with regard to how faculty members are evaluated with regard to their grade distributions.  We are also not suggesting that faculty members change their grading policies.  However, we are suggesting some middle ground that respects both those who see grade inflation existing and being problematic and those who do not.

We propose the following:  in addition to the "real GPA" as presently calculated on the student's transcript a "relative" or "weighted" GPA be added.  The weighted GPA would take into consideration the relative value of a grade in a class based upon overall grade distribution in that class.  In courses where few As are given, those As would be more heavily weighted than in those classes where many As are given.  Moreover, the transcript would contain the distribution—in raw numbers—of grades in every course.  That is, next to a student’s grade in a class, the transcript would list the number of As, Bs, and so forth in that same class.  If the listing of the entire grade distribution would crowd the transcript too much, the mean grade for each class could be listed next to the student’s grade and the weighted or “relative” grade.  The transcript would also contain the unqualified and relative (overall) GPA.

We also propose that the withdrawal period be moved up from approximately 8 weeks to 6 weeks for those in at least their second year at JMU (i.e., freshmen would still have the extended drop period).  Students with low grades who normally drop the course late in the term would be forced to complete the course for a grade.  This would result in a more accurate reflection of the class distribution at semester's end.  We further propose that students be limited to 4 non-medical withdrawals over the course of their college career.

Finally, we propose that faculty be routinely informed about grade distributions in their own departments/programs to aid in normalizing the grading process.

Summary of Action:  In response to concern about grade inflation, we recommend adding a "weighted" or "relative" GPA to the transcript, moving up the withdrawal date, reducing the number of non-medical withdrawals a student is permitted, and routinely informing faculty of grade distributions in their departments/programs.