2:05 pm CST - January 03, 2011
Posted under On The Record
By Diane Smith – Star Telegram
“There is a lot of pressure to get a good grade-point average,” said Duarte, a 2009 graduate of Ursuline Academy of Dallas.
“It’s like applying for college all over again.”
Duarte, who says she makes A’s and B’s, is among millions of college students home for the holidays with fingers crossed after spending long hours stressing over semester finals.
More than ever are likely to earn strong grades, according to researchers.
At universities nationwide, including Texas A&M, grade-point averages have been creeping up, leading some critics to conclude that grade inflation is lowering the value of a college transcript.
“The weed-out classes aren’t weeding out like they once did,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who tracks grade-point averages. “We’ve made college easier.”
Rojstaczer, who has been tracking GPAs for years, lists his finding on gradeinflation.com — a website with links to GPA data.
His findings were also presented in a research paper that was published in March.
Rojstaczer said the average GPA nationwide at all schools has gone from 2.93 during the 1991-92 academic year to 3.11 in 2006-07.
At the University of Texas at Austin, he documented GPAs increasing from 2.60 in 1986 to 3.12 in 2007.
At Texas A&M, average GPAs went from 2.70 in 1985 to 2.98 in 2008. While grades at Texas schools are trending up, they remain lower than in other parts of the nation, he said.
Inflated grades are most prevalent in private schools, he said, followed by flagship public universities.
Universities such as Texas A&M and UT tend to have higher grade-point averages than their satellite colleges, while community colleges appear to have the lowest.
Rojstaczer said spikes in GPAs are too high to be explained by a smarter set of students and appear to be caused by students choosing the easiest classes. Picking classes taught by professors known as easy graders is an old practice. Students rely on word-of-mouth and now use the Internet to research instructors.
University officials dispute Rojstaczer’s conclusions, saying higher GPAs are the result of efforts to improve graduation and retention rates, as well as a growing batch of students arriving from high school with stronger academic backgrounds.
Pamela Matthews, associate provost for undergraduate studies at Texas A&M, said universities have a larger pool of students from which to select.
In 2009, the school received about 29,000 applications, nearly double the number received in 1996.
Matthews said average SAT scores have risen from 1183 in 2004 to 1225 in 2009.
The number of National Merit Scholars went up too — from 128 in 2004 to 189 in 2009.
“It’s a pretty selective class of students who get in. They are high achievers,” she said.
Clifford Adelman, a retired senior research analyst for the Education Department and senior associate with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, said grade inflation is a nonissue.
“The more selective the school, the higher the grades. No kidding,” Adelman said.
Adelman said his analysis of transcripts indicates a different problem: that more students are taking more courses pass/fail or repeating courses to sidestep a letter grade that might lower their GPAs.
He said these “performance judgments” appear to serve as a predictor of college success.
“My study showed if more than 20 percent of your grades were nonpenalty withdrawal or repeats, the chances that you would finish the degree are reduced by 50 percent,” Adelman said.
“That is the kind of story that has to be written about grades, not this grade inflation.”
Many university officials acknowledge that GPAs have gone up but say departments and faculties work to ensure that questions are raised if a class yields too many A’s or F’s.
Patrick Miller, registrar and director of enrollment management at Texas Christian University, said discussions about grade inflation are based on the assumption that universities are letting standards decline.
“I think it’s incorrect,” Miller said. “The mission of higher education has altered. I think 25 years ago, or 15 years ago, the mission of higher education was to separate the good and the bad in terms of academic ability.”
Many universities have implemented programs to help professors become better teachers, he said, and moved away from traditional lectures and true-false tests, he said.
One result has been higher grades.
At Sam Houston State University, the overall GPA for undergraduates (at the end of each fall semester) has increased slightly from fall 1998 to fall 2009, said Richard Eglsaer, associate provost.
“Seeing our grade-point average go up one- to two-tenths of a point, that’s not surprising given what else is going on,” he said, explaining that the university has set up programs in the last decade to help students.
Many students say they need to keep GPAs high to stand out in the job market or get into graduate programs.
While communication and leadership skills are often the first strengths employers look for, more have been screening for GPAs, according to the Job Outlook 2010 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Rojstaczer’s concern is that if higher grade-point averages are given to students from private and flagship schools, they will always end up with the social advantages and better jobs.
“They will have the tendency to be the leaders in society,” he said.
“It does impede social mobility.”
Diane Smith firstname.lastname@example.org