[author image=”https://www.thelantern.com/files/2018/11/IMG_9713-2120cyo.jpg” ]Jerrod Mogan produced this story in his role as John R. Oller Special Projects Editor.[/author]
Five years ago, an Ohio State student took a beginner’s guitar course and, unfortunately, received the lowest grade in the class.
That grade was an A-minus.
That was the last time any of the nearly 400 students who have taken the class since 2013 would earn a grade as low.
In that same span, 355 future biomedical engineers took a one-credit, 4000-level course in professional development. Every one of them received an A.
The 780 students who took a 1000-level Somali language course from 2013 to 2018 also did well with more than 99 percent of students earning at least an A-minus.
Grading records show Ohio State students are mastering more than just basic guitar and Somali — they’re scoring better in nearly everything. And the odds of success keep getting better.
In fact, average grades for 75 percent of subjects were higher in 2018 than they were in 2013.
The effects of long-term grade inflation — or grade increase — can be seen throughout Ohio State’s undergraduate programs. A Lantern analysis found the university experienced a five-year period of accelerated inflation in GPA that was four times faster than the national average of four-year universities. The school showed no inflation in the five-year period prior to the increase.
Since 2016, the median grade awarded at Ohio State has been an A-minus, higher than the school’s median for at least eight years prior which is a B-plus.
The five-year rapid inflation is a schoolwide occurrence, though how much grades increased by varies between the 14 analyzed Ohio State colleges, schools and academic programs. Last academic year, the median grade in nine colleges, schools and programs was an A.
Ohio State officials said the rise in grades is not a problem, and reflects an increase in smarter, more prepared students, accompanied by a multitude of support efforts aimed at helping them succeed.
“It’s to be expected, and I think we should be proud,” Beth Hume, vice provost of enrollment services, said. “It’s really showing the academic preparedness and effectiveness of many of the programs that we have put in place.”
However, two of the nation’s leading experts on grade inflation said more lenient grading is partially responsible for the trend.
“There are courses that students will not take or they’ll steer away from because they know that the instructor really grades harder.” —Valen Johnson, interim dean of science at Texas A&M and author of “Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education.”
The issue of grade inflation has been occurring nationally for decades. In many cases, inflated grades reflect looser academic standards, which decreases the amount of learning within an institution.
Because an A is the highest-possible grade awarded, the talented student who aces rigorous courses could have a transcript similar to the student who skates through easy classes.
“On average, a college student learns less and works less hard than they did 30 or 40 years ago,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke professor in geophysics and manager of gradeinflation.com, a site that tracks grade increases nationally.
“You have a less educated student body, which means you have a less educated citizenry, and the nation suffers when college students learn less,” he said.
Significant differences in the way various instructors and university departments grade student performance have a similar effect, according to Valen Johnson, interim dean of science at Texas A&M and author of “Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education.”
“That impacts student enrollment decisions,” he said. “There are courses that students will not take or they’ll steer away from because they know that the instructor really grades harder.”
Regardless of the cause, the result is that grades are becoming an increasingly meaningless tool to distinguish students, and the experts agreed. Rojstaczer said it was nearly impossible to distinguish students based on grades because of the narrow variance between their grades.
By the numbers
At Ohio State, the average GPA for undergraduates hit an all-time high of 3.3 last school year, increasing from 3.1 during the 2013-14 school year.
The average rate of inflation nationally is much different. It’s one-tenth of a grade point every 10 years.
A’s have been the most commonly awarded grade at Ohio State since at least 2009, according to an Ohio State-provided grade distribution database. But they’ve increased rapidly since 2013.
The percentage of A’s awarded climbed to more than 40 percent for the first time in 2018, up more than 9 percent in just five years. This was nearly four times faster than the national average of 5 to 6 percent each decade.
All but three of Ohio State’s colleges, schools and programs offering undergraduate courses have shown significant inflation in the past five years.
Two colleges — the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and College of Medicine — have shown the greatest amount of inflation.
At the College of Medicine, the percentage of A’s awarded has increased by 18 percent. At Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, A’s increased by 15 percent.
The College of Arts and Sciences and Fisher College of Business, which awarded two-thirds of all the grades in the database, inflated at four times the national average. The Office of Academic Affairs — which includes the honors program and Department of Military Science — also increased at that rate.
Six colleges — the College of Education and Human Ecology, College of Engineering, College of Pharmacy, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, College of Nursing and College of Public Health — have increased at twice the national average.
Bucking the trend, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, College of Dentistry and College of Social Work showed no grade inflation. However, this group accounted for only 3 percent of grades in 2018.
University officials said they were not aware that the average course grade awarded had increased because any reviews would occur at the department level, but were not surprised by the findings.
They said enrolling higher achieving students is the main cause of the increase, but additional resources aimed at helping students succeed once they enter college programs is also a big factor.
“We’re taking strong students that we expect to succeed and then making sure they succeed,” Jack Miner, university registrar, said.
The academic profile of enrolling students, measured by ACT test scores and high school class rank, has steadily improved since 1987, Linda Katunich, interim director of analytics and reporting, said.
Over the past 10 years, those increases have been even more dramatic, Miner said.
Average ACT scores for first-year Ohio State students did go up during the inflation period from 28.1 in 2013 to 29.2 last school year. However, they went up nearly the same amount in the five-year period before the inflation, when grades remained the same.
Officials said switching from quarters to semesters in 2013 and hiring President Michael Drake in 2014 might have helped spark the quick increase.
Maximizing student achievement has always been important, but under Drake, “the clarity of direction and then the underlying support to be able to reach those goals has been different,” Amy Treboni, senior director of advising, said.
Treboni said one example of a successful program is in the Center for Life Sciences, which introduced new components specifically to address low grades in biology.
“Students are taking another component, which is not graded, which is going to go over difficult course content,” she said. “They go over that content with a student that’s already taken the course who had mastered the content well.”
Similar programs have been introduced by different departments and throughout the university, she said. Those include the Spring Forward and First Year Experience programs, which are designed to help students who might struggle in their first year of college.
Other factors like expanding grade forgiveness in 2015 may have also played a role, Miner said.
What’s driving it
Rojstaczer and Texas A&M’s Johnson agree that a greater number of higher-achieving students would lead to higher grades, but disagree on how much that would contribute.
When asked if Ohio State enrolling better students or any other improvement in teaching or student assistance could explain most of the grade increase, Rojstaczer emphatically said, “No.”
“Those are dramatic increases,” he said.
“The students, of course, don’t mind when faculty assign high grades. So, there’s not downward pressure being applied to grades.” —Valen Johnson
In general, enrolling better students can explain, “about 20 or 30 percent of grade rises at a few schools,” he said. “The rest is due to something else, and what’s it due to? Professors are grading easier than ever before.”
To Valen Johnson, much of the increase could be explained by better students and programs to aid learning, but because D’s and E’s have dropped by only 2 percent, it can’t explain all of it.
“It sounds to me like there’s been some grade inflation,” he said, but he defines inflation as only increases in grades that result from lower academic standards.
Rojstaczer defines grade inflation as any increase in grades.
The experts agreed that grade inflation — by either definition — occurs because instructors receive less complaints from students and more career benefits for grading higher.
“In general, there really aren’t any incentives for faculty to assign students low grades because it tends to hurt their course evaluations,” Valen Johnson said. “The students, of course, don’t mind when faculty assign high grades. So, there’s not downward pressure being applied to grades.”
Ohio State’s rapid inflation, Rojstaczer said, happened because it had been grading tougher than similar institutions in the Big Ten.
“Ohio State, relative to other flagship Big Ten colleges, historically, was grading on the low side,” he said. “What typically happens is, it’s only a matter of time before they try to catch up.”
It’s a phenomenon he’s seen at other schools and is a large part of what’s recently been driving grade inflation nationally, he said.
“A significant amount of [national grade inflation] is influenced by schools that historically were tough-grading schools abandoning that culture,” he said. “Purdue used to be a tough-grading school relative to its selectivity. It has abandoned that culture. Georgia Tech used to be a tough-grading school relative to its selectivity. It has abandoned that culture. Southern schools used to, in general, grade lower. They’ve caught up.”
However, Rojstaczer said instructors are not told by department heads to soften their grading practices. Rather, a school will collectively adjust its practices by simply being aware that similar schools have higher grades.
“There’s just something in the air that makes them catch up,” he said. “Once it happens, it happens in a hurry.”
In 2013 Ohio State’s average GPA was 3.1. The University of Michigan’s was 3.3.
Valen Johnson said grade inflation is less of an issue than it was in the 1990s. To him, grade disparity — different instructors, departments or colleges assigning different grades for the same level of student achievement — is the larger issue.
“The fact that humanities — just their norms for grading — are higher than they are in the social sciences and the social sciences tend to assign more lenient grades than the natural sciences and mathematics,” he said. “[It] leads students to take fewer courses in science and mathematics, particularly as electives.”
“Professors tend to be smart, but they don’t have to be Einstein to realize that in order to keep their enrollments up — which keeps their chair happy — they need to grade easier.” —Stuart Rojstaczer, former Duke professor in geophysics and manager of gradeinflation.com
At Ohio State, that disparity can be seen within the College of Arts and Sciences, where the highest subjects had a GPA of 4.0 and the lowest had a GPA of 2.7 in 2018. There were eight subjects with a GPA below a 3.0 — all of which were science and math subjects. There were 19 above a 3.5 — all humanities and arts subjects.
The highest grading schools — College of Nursing and College of Dentistry — had 3.8 and 3.7 average GPAs, respectively, and a median grade of A.
The lowest grading schools — College of Arts and Sciences and Fisher College of Business — had 3.2 and 3.3 average GPAs and a B-plus median.
Officials at Ohio State do not view grade disparity as a problem and said they suspect students are more likely to select the toughest courses than avoid them.
“With the change in our student demographic, one of the things that we’ve seen is that our students want to be challenged,” Miner said.
When students select courses or majors to maximize their GPA, they’re ultimately harming their future careers, Valen Johnson said.
“I don’t think it’s good if they’re really reducing their marketability when they leave school and reducing the skill set that they have to offer to the job market just because of differences in how different disciplines grade,” he said.
To Rojstaczer, grade disparity is a key contributor to grade inflation. When students flock to higher-grading instructors, other instructors are forced to adapt, he said.
“Professors tend to be smart, but they don’t have to be Einstein to realize that in order to keep their enrollments up — which keeps their chair happy — they need to grade easier,” he said.
What’s in a grade?
Gerald Rankin, a 1961 Ohio State graduate and owner of an actuary business near Philadelphia before retiring in 2008, remembers an entirely different grading system than what the school currently uses.
“The English department had a guideline that the GPA should be 1.96 for each class,” Rankin, who wrote a July Wall Street Journal op-ed critical of grade inflation at Ohio State, said. “If a teacher gave a B, he or she would have to give a D to somebody.”
That was the norm, Rojstaczer said, and the way the A-to-F, or A-to-E, grading system was designed to work.
“The idea was, they were going to use statistical distributions and a curve to distinguish those who were outstanding from those who weren’t,” Rojstaczer said.
C’s, which originally represented the average performance of a student at the school they were attending, were reinterpreted to mean the average performance of a student nationally, and now isn’t tied to any meaning at all, he said.
“Actually, a C-student for the nation would be a god-awful student right now,” he said.
The change really took hold in the 1980s, Rojstaczer said, when colleges began to view students as consumers.
“When a student is a consumer, instead of an acolyte in search of knowledge, you want to make sure that consumer has advantages when it comes to getting admitted into graduate school and professional school and getting a good job,” he said. “One way to do that is to jack up their grades a bit.”
But that desire might have backfired. Instead of students looking better on job applications, they all look pretty much the same, he said.
Unlike currency inflation, grade inflation has a ceiling — 4.0.
“Some schools are getting very close to hitting (the ceiling),” Rojstaczer said, “and other schools will in about 50 years.”
As a result of grades trending only in an upward direction, a new problem has emerged — grade compression. When grades become so disproportionately distributed into a single category, they become less useful as a tool for evaluation and motivation.
Ohio State does not consider grade compression to be an issue, Miner said, and would be glad to see an even higher percentage of students earning A’s.
“I think that’s not just a great thing,” he said. “I think that’s what we’ve spent all of our energy and resources to build towards.”
Rankin said college transcripts would occasionally fail to provide an accurate picture of candidates.
“We hired a lot of college graduates,” he said. “There were some surprises. Some people had very good grades and they weren’t that smart.”
Hume said having numerous candidates with high GPAs is a benefit to employers.
“It’s a terrific problem to have,” she said.
When high grades are too easily attainable, they fail to motivate students to perform at their best, Rojstaczer said.
“When somebody goes into a classroom and they know by simply signing up they can get a B-plus or better — which is true of many classes even at Ohio State — a lot of students say ‘B-plus is good enough for me,’ and they don’t work,” he said.
Mastery of content
Kevin Turner — instructor for the two-credit course MUSIC 1101.35, in which all but one student earned an A in the past five years — and Mohammed Omer — instructor for all three 1000-level Somali courses, in which 99 percent of students earned an A-minus or higher in the past five years — did not reply to interview requests for this article.
Mark Ruegsegger is a professor of practice in biomedical engineering at Ohio State and one of two instructors to teach BIOMEDE 4900 in the past five years — in which every student earned an A.
He said the course material is valuable, but less complicated than much of what biomedical engineering students encounter earlier in their major program.
He said the principles are the softer skills students don’t get in other classes, “but are things that companies want.”
The class is required for every fourth-year biomedical engineering student and is meant to complement the senior design capstone courses, he said.
Those design courses are worth three credits each and are taught by Ruegsegger as well. In the past five years, more than 660 grades have been issued in those two classes — 99 percent of which were an A-minus or higher.
Ruegsegger said his teaching philosophy is to assign grades to students according to their progress toward meeting the learning objectives laid out in the course syllabus.
“If you earn an A, you get an A,” he said. “I could just as easily give the entire class a D as give the entire class an A if they’ve earned the points for that.”
Additionally, all the programs offered by the College of Engineering are subject to review every six years by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology. Ruegsegger said his courses have met the board’s standards for continuous improvement and appropriate level of difficulty.
Every term, courses are also reviewed by the faculty within the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Ruegsegger said.
“Every faculty who taught a course has to give a 5- to 8-minute summary of that course,” he said. “We also, for a couple years, looked at grade distributions of the course … and we didn’t find anything out of place.”
Also — with respect to Ohio State and the College of Engineering — Ruegsegger said students are entering the school more prepared and goal-oriented than ever before. Those better students are driving grades up and the university might need to tighten its academic standards to avoid grade compression.
“Maybe faculty have been slow to adjust to the knowledge base that students are at,” he said. “Maybe we need to adjust our, either, rigor or … push our students to the information that we need to bring to them so we’re challenging them more.”
Inflation is now and will continue to be a fact of academic life, Rojstaczer said, and the best solution is to accept it.
“Once Princeton threw in the towel, it was all over,” he said.
With little fanfare, Princeton implemented a grade-deflation policy in 2004 and ended it in 2014. GPAs have increased ever since, according to The Daily Princetonian.
“They’re wasting their time. They’re not going to get a job,” he said. “We should be looking at other careers for people instead of just telling everyone to go to college.”—Gerald Rankin
Rojstaczer said college administrators should instead focus on the problem that grade inflation creates — grade compression. He added the easiest solution is to remove the 4.0 ceiling.
“You could buy another 50 years of useful grading if you create a grade higher than an A,” he said.
Students should focus on ways of boosting their transcripts other than high grades, Ruegsegger said.
“[Employers] realize everyone is top 10 percent,” he said, “They’re going to make you have three co-ops or two internships or three years of research or a paper.”
Rankin said students who regularly earn C’s should regard them as E’s and consider other career options.
“They’re wasting their time. They’re not going to get a job,” he said. “We should be looking at other careers for people instead of just telling everyone to go to college.”
How the analysis was done:
GPAs are conventionally rounded to the nearest tenth and calculated as non-cumulative and unweighted from a 10-year grade distribution dataset obtained by The Lantern. The set contained all combinations of academic year, subject and catalog number with at least 25 students. That accounts for 88-95 percent of all classes. Combinations with fewer than 25 students were excluded by the university due to FERPA regulations. We consulted a grade inflation expert regarding our calculations and the missing data. They agreed that calculating GPAs as noncumulative and unweighted is the fairest, most accurate way to measure grading patterns and that the missing data would have little to no effect on the overall results. If the data had any effect, it would be to increase the GPAs, since smaller class sizes typically result in higher grades.