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Grades Creeping Up on You

This is Part 2 of a series: Here is Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

One of the main problems with grade inflation is that too many folks consciously or subconsciously consider it to be a static issue. In other words, people freely admit that grades are (too) high, and that they’ve risen significantly. But what doesn’t get talked about nearly enough is how grade inflation is a moving target. Just like our economic indicators, grades don’t stand still. In fact, if you pay enough attention, you might be able to feel the shift right under your feet. Year to year, even term to term, grades continue to rise at Dartmouth and at many other institutions of higher learning.

Let’s examine the last decade of median grades at the College. The chart below shows the percentage of courses (with an enrollment greater than ten) with each median grade. You can see the inflation that has taken place in the span of just a few graduating classes.

Median grades 2001 20111.png

In 2001, only 128 of the 1,340 qualifying courses had A medians. Ten years later, 241 of 1,501 courses awarded A’s to their middling students. That’s an increase of 68% in just one decade. The percentage of courses with median grades of A- and above have gone up; they now make up a majority of the courses at the College.

The flip side is that lower grades are being phased out. B+, a well-above average score for previous generations in Hanover, was the most common median in 2001, with 37% of all courses. Its standing has eroded consistently since then, to the point where last year only 28% of courses handed out a B+ to the typical student.

The 2011 academic year saw the highest median grades since… 2010, which had the highest medians since, you guessed it, 2009. There’s no stagnation here. Rather, we’re reaching new heights (depths?) every term.

With the administration and faculty not paying attention, poor work has become mediocre, and mediocre has become good. That’s the academic world we live in now, and it shows us that a big first step in the grading battle would simply be to curb further inflation. We can worry about making grades more meaningful again after we’ve stopped the bleeding.


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