Grade Inflation: When is an A Really an A?

August 29, 2006

Fr. Peter Guerin, O.S.B., was quoted in a article on August 24, titled Grading: Is Honesty the Best Policy? On a similar note, Portraits, the college’s alumni magazine, featured an article on grade inflation in the winter 2004 issue - The Fairness Factor. quote:

Fr. Peter Guerin, a former dean of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., agreed that “there is great pressure on non-tenured faculty who rely on student evaluations to receive potential tenure.”

“Many parents may view universities as a consumer market in which their in a way paying for the diploma,” Guerin continued, adding that “students who attend class on a regular basis and are paying tuition feel that they should be receiving that A, even if they have not deserved it.”

Some professors and administrators believe that inflating grades makes it harder for students to realize their academic strengths and weaknesses and may encourage students to take classes based on grade expectation. The practice also makes it harder for parents and students to determine whether or not the grade was earned.

One way to fight the practice of inflation is “to join the administration and faculty and mend them into a working force against grade inflation,” said Guerin.

At Saint Anselm, a curriculum committee was set up in 1980 to meet with the academic dean and review the grading polices on a monthly basis.


15 Responses to “Grade Inflation: When is an A Really an A?”

  1. Dick Burke on September 18th, 2006 11:22 pm

    Interesting article/comments. Unfortunately the theme of the article is that St. A’s is almost alone in their just fight with academia over grade inflation. While I believe in a honest grading system it must also be real and fair. A high school A/B student who has higher academic ambitions after college might steer clear of a St. A’s that commits to a bell curve on grading.

    Look, St. A’s is a good school; but if anyone thinks that a Harvard, Columbia graduate admission officer, etc., knows or even cares that we believe that a C at St. A’s is a B at Holy Cross or a B- is out of their mind.

    Take a look at the Milton Academy’s Web site and look up their grade dispersion and you will get the idea. When the Dean of admission at Harvard Business School tells me that he accepted a C+ from St. A’s over a B+ student from Holy Cross because HC inflates their grades, give me a call. Until then, I suggest we keep our silly bell curves to ourself!

  2. kimberly cushing on September 27th, 2006 8:50 am

    I believe that the article is postive in its truth and integrity. The comments and grading system support the vision of St. Anselm College and it is truly beneficial that the college’s grading system be commented on in the press.

    St. Anselm College has earned a very good reputation in many ways, and especially in terms of academics. Perhaps this grading system has contributed positivly to their reputation.

    Furthermore, grades are not the only criteria implemented in the admissions process. Schools want students who are successful and steady, participated in extra curricular activities, and who have other talents (such as leadership skills and maturity and the ability to balance life) that the school can benefit from.

    I believe that changing the grading system would not support the foundations that Saint Anselm College was built on, those that ultimately contribute to the college’s success.

  3. Dick Burke on September 27th, 2006 4:59 pm

    Perhaps Ms.Cushing should do a little extra home work re:graduate school admissions.while extra curricular interests/skills/accomplishments etc. have some impact on admissions ,at the end of the day the numbers are the numbers1
    good test scores with ,what some people may perceive to be average grades ,oftentimes signify a smart but lazy student.
    Let’s cut to the chase,good test scores with good grades are the most important factors to grad school admissions.
    change the average at St.A’s to a B- and give students who want to further their education a fighting chance.
    ps. i know from experience after having to talk my way thru “average” grades and good test scores into graduate degree programs at BU and Harvard.
    Given the ooportunity to competetSt.A’s does well, let’s give kids the chance to compete!!

  4. John Wyluda on October 3rd, 2006 12:31 am

    I attended Saint Anselm’s for 2 years with a B- average, a very good average. I left for many reasons and a main reason was the grading policy. After awhile I never cared what I got in class because no matter how much work I did I could never get an A. I got one A in my years there, and that was on a test, not a course. I was disenfranchised by the grading system and quit working hard. Now, at a school with a ‘normal’ system I work much harder because I can see my efforts actually paying off.
    Also, it is completely ridiculous to make students take five courses each semester rather then making students take 15 credits. I took the normal load of five courses as an Biology Major for my two years and averaged over 19 credits a semester. How in the world was I supposed to get A’s let alone B’s and maintain a schedule that consistently had me taking four more credits then students at any other college. Three credits is a non-lab based course, so if I was at a different college I would have been averaging over six classes a semester (Imagine six classes with one of those classes being organic chemistry). Kudos to all in the sciences that have stayed. I could not.

  5. Kip Brockmyre on October 6th, 2006 7:56 am

    You would have gotten a B or less for your comment “…had me taking four more credits then students at any other college.” “…then…” should be “than”.

  6. Alicia Cook on October 23rd, 2006 1:27 pm

    Interesting article. I graduated from St. A’s in 1994 as a nursing major. I would have to say that up until about 5 years ago, I would have agreed with Mr.Wyluda. I’m not sure what happened that made me change my views about the grading system at St. A’s. My grades were on an average about a C+ for most of my classess, including my nursing classes. I studied hard and had a great time at St.A’s. Could I have studied more? Absolutely!! But I am thankful for the critical thinking skills that St. A’s has taught me. I am grateful for the variety of classess that we were required to take. Maturity and experience in my field has lead me to this conclusion, so I guess I answered my own question. I changed my views because, although my GPA was not an A at St. A’s, I have found a career that I love, that is always changing, and assisting me in expanding my knowledge in all aspects of my life. So maybe St A’s and my professors, didn’t think I deserved an A in their classes or on their exams, but I think they would give me an A for being successful in my career.

  7. Frank Gibbons on October 24th, 2006 5:27 pm

    I currently have three children in college - U. Mass, Providence, and Fordham. Although I love what St. Anslem’s College offers for academics, I won’t let my fourth child apply there. The reason is St. Anslem’s grading policy that is, to my mind, a function of hubris on the part of the adminstration. I believe that a student should have a rigorous education in the liberal arts, but a conscious policy of deflating grades handicaps St. A’s students who must compete with students from more prestigious schools that gave a less stringent grading policy. Graduate and Professional school admissions offices are unfortunately obsessed with GPAs and test scores. They don’t care that St. A’s grades hard and I won’t belive otherwise until I see empirical proof.

  8. Meghan O'Brien-Girard on October 27th, 2006 3:23 pm

    I have to say, I received A’s at Saint A’s during my four years there. It certainly isn’t hard as people seem to think it is. I didn’t get all A’s, or even mostly A’s. But they are possible to get, and I can say with 100% certainty that I never got a grade lower than an A that I didn’t deserve. I didn’t give up my social life, and I didn’t have a fluff major. Refusing to let a child apply to a school because it doesn’t hand out A’s like candy is a bit overboard. And yes, I got into grad school and I will get my MBA in two years. Shockingly the B’s I got at Saint A’s didn’t destroy my life.

  9. Amy Cadoret on November 6th, 2006 3:23 pm

    I most certainly agree with both Fr. Peter and Mr. Wyluda. How is this possible? While I feel that the grading system and expectations are well known in the New England area, and can be considered a plus, I also know that St. A’s is limiting their students by remaining alone in this fight for their bell curve. I know from personal experience that no school outside of the New England states, let alone the east coast knows of the school or the grading policies. I have been turned down by graduate schools whom have explained that I should retake several courses at another school to show them that what I claim about St. A’s is true. I have gone to the extent to include the grading policy with my applications, and still no results. Like Mr. Wyluda says, until graduate schools begin accepting those of us with B averages over those with B+ averages at other schools this policy serves no purpose other than to keep the students in their rooms studying to attempt to compete with other colleges where the students are socially active and happier.

    P.S science majors really do need a break, they usually end up with at least 6 hours/week or more of labs in addition to class work and still have the same workload as other students. Calculated based on what one professor told me while I was there “you should spend at least as much time studying for a class as you spend in the class every week…” a biology major would have approx. 9 hours a day to eat, sleep, and socialize. you can guess what gets left out. We all know each other, and no one else, because we are always in class, lab or the reading room.

  10. John Wyluda on November 17th, 2006 1:59 pm

    I would like to quickly comment on Meghan O’Brien-Girard post. I am not sure when she went to Saint Anselm, but from talking to alumni I feel the college has drastically changed in recent years. It is by no means a party school anymore, and they are very strict with grades. I have heard that it used to be a party school, in the late nineties, but certainly is not now. Also, as a science major I had to take many more credit hours compared to most students making it extremely more difficult to find time do all my work and receive decent grades. I highly doubt any person as a biology major or science major benefited from Saint Anselm’s grade policy.

  11. Chad Sandford on November 24th, 2006 1:09 pm

    I am very interested by the comments here, and would like to add my perspective, although perhaps it’s so late no one will read it. I think those who have raised concerns about the science majors have a legitimate point. I remember feeling sorry for the hectic lives they lived while I as a history major seemed to have so much more free time! However, I disagree with several other comments.

    First, in response to John Wyluda’s statements, I graduated in 2003, so can speak to the alleged increased rigor in recent years. While school was challenging, it was not insanely difficult. I suspect that those who say there is a dichotomy between good grades and an active social life are looking for excuses to explain away poor grades to tuition-paying parents. I worked hard at Saint Anselm and maintained an active social life (I could list the many activities in which I was involved, but won’t). When all was done, my transcript had one B plus, a few A minuses, and A’s, which calculated to a GPA of 3.946. Some might accuse me of being brighter than most at the college, but I think that would be an insult to the hard work I put in to earn those grades. I do not consider myself especially intelligent, but can tell you that when the library was usually devoid of activity, I was there. My consistent effort to keep up with things meant that during finals, when suddenly the library was packed with would-be scholars, I was enjoying one of the freer and easiest weeks of the academic year, as there was no work to do except prepare to show on an exam what I had been learning throughout the semester.

    As far Mr. Wyluda saying he was “disenfranchised” by the grading system, I think this is indicative of the attitude many people take towards college, which is referenced in the Portraits article. “Disenfranchised” meanst to be “deprived of a right or privilege.” I assume this is the definition which he meant, not “being deprived of the right to vote!” But this suggests he feels he deserved an A or B, I assume because he put in some effort and paid tuition. Because I don’t know him I will not venture to critique his personal study habits. But as an educator myself and an observer of fellow students at Saint Anselm, I would suggest that students in general who complain about their grades often do not put in the basic effort to visit a teacher or professor about how they might improve their standing in class. And if they make one visit during office hours, they do not continue to do so until their grades go up. Professors are generally very glad to assist students, but too few of them take the opportunity. If students made less excuses and took more responsibility for their grades, they would improve.

    As far as Dick Burke’s concerns about the unequal playing field allegedly created at Saint Anselm, his explanation for how he got into Harvard and BU seems to be the solution. Good test scores and an ability to “talk” his way in worked for him, so why shouldn’t they work for others? In fact, I would suggest that a student with poor test scores, only a “B” average, and an inability to articulate an argument probably does not belong at Harvard. This may sound harsh, but is rooted in part in my personal experience. I was accepted into a competitive graduate program in American History at the College of William and Mary. It was an extremely challenging experience for me. Most of the time I felt like I was barely staying afloat academically. Although I did earn an M.A. there, I think a student with a 3.0 average (or lower) at Saint Anselm may not have survived there. Simply put, if you are graduate material for a competitive program, your grades should also be strong at Saint Anselm. Receiving only a “B,” as much of a human rights violation as it may feel to some, actually does what it is intended to do: it shows you that graduate work in that field may not be the thing for you. Of course, there are exceptions to this, including, as was already noted, the fact that high test scores may show there is still strong potential.

    In response to Frank Gibbons worries, I think the grades your child earns at Providence would be slightly lower or perhaps comparable to what the same child would earn at Saint Anselm. This is based on anecdotal evidence, as I have had several friends attend PC, and based on conversations with them I think it probably would have been more difficult for me to maintain my GPA there than it was at Saint Anselm. So you might want to consider sending your fourth child to Saint Anselm instead of Providence!

    Lastly, to conclude this epistolic post, I would add that some current Saint Anselm students seem to have “I deserve better” attitude about their grades, even while their academic deficiences are glaring. Perhaps the fact that Saint Anselm has a reputation for academic rigor has made them feel like they are more intelligent than they are, simply because they are enrolled there. I was impressed with thoughts along these lines awhile ago upon visiting the campus and picking up a student newspaper, in which the grading policy was criticized by a current student (when is it not?). Frankly, the grammar of the author was weak, and left little explanation in my mind as to why the grade they earned in a writing-based course was as low as it was. Yet they had the audacity to complain about it?

  12. Jaime Sturgeon on November 26th, 2006 9:46 am

    I was able to successfully complete two separate graduate programs over the past few years. I found the graduate programs to be fairly easy since I was well prepared by the Saint Anselm faculty. However, what bothered me about my admission to each graduate school was the stipulation that I was “on probation until I could prove that I belonged in graduate school.” Both of the graduate schools I attended were outside the “Ivory Towers” of New England; these graduate schools had never even heard of Saint Anselm. Last, I had many grades lowered by professors because my “A” or “B” was not the highest “A” or “B” in the class. Was this fair?

    One last thought here: a college degree is becoming what the high school diploma used to be–necessary for many entry level job positions. Graduate degrees are separating, in many instances, individuals as they climb the ladders in their respective professions. The undergraduate degree is a stepping stone to grad school. I currently work with and for people who attended undergrad schools earning overly inflated grades at a much cheaper price. Granted, I know that the Saint A’s education encompasses more than just the cost factor. Yet, these fellow co-workers are earning salaries equivalent to, or higher than my salary without having had to borrow ridiculous amounts of money. When they applied to grad school, because they had high GPAs and good test scores, they were able to get the funding they needed. We know the Saint A’s education is SOLID; we continuously prove this in grad school. Inflating the grades as (almost) every college/university has done will only provide Saint A’s grads with more opportunities to compete in the best grad schools in the country.

  13. Marya LaRoche on November 27th, 2006 5:12 pm

    Good points from Jaime Sturgeon. I didn’t care as much about the grades as what I was learning and the (intellectual) relationships I was forming. Regurgitating information on paper was not the point. To some extent I felt I was paying for an A education, which is more about what the college can offer in terms of faculty and lessons than what I could retain. I may not remember details of a particular war, or economic plan, or piece of literature, but there is alot of value in the ability to be able to think critically. If that could be measured in a better way, or perhaps more fairly, then you would see all of the A students produced.

  14. Katie Brandt on November 28th, 2006 3:21 pm

    I think that the issue of grade inflation (or deflation) at Saint Anselm is one that will continue to be an ongoing challenge for students applying to graduate school. I want to be clear - the preparation for grad school is EXCELLENT, but if you are applying to a school that cares a lot about numbers and does not have a love for St A’s, the grading system is likely to hurt you. I was lucky to pursue (and obtain) a graduate degree in non-profit management where my essay, experience, and interview weighed heavier than my B level grades. I found that it was VERY easy to obtain As in graduate school and I would like to believe that I was working every bit as hard as I did at St A’s. I appreciate all that the St Anselm staff and faculty did to prepare me for graduate school and my career, but I don’t think that my St A’s report cards are truly reflective of the work that I put forth over 4 years.

  15. Michael on August 28th, 2007 2:48 pm

    I graduated 9th in my class at Saint Anselm with a 3.58 GPA. This did not even get me a summa cum laude honor. Now I would not have minded except that I decided to apply to law schools. I scored a 170 on My LSATs (top 1%). My GPA absolutely killed me. For example, the average GPA for a student who gets into Yale Law is…4.13. Nice. 4.13?

    How can I compete with that crap? And yes, it is crap. And I agree with Saint A’s dislike of the trend. Nevertheless, Saint A’s needs to make a decision. Either continue its losing battle against grade inflation, or give students grades that reflect their comparative performance with non Saint A’s peers. Saint Anselm’s reluctance to inflate grades ultimately prevents its grads from getting into top graduate institutions.

    Epilog: I did mange to get into a top 10 law school, but it was not Harvard or Yale. I believe that those schools say my 3.58 and never looked. Why would they? It lowers the average GPA of accepted students, and everyone knows that’s a factor US News uses in its annual rankings.

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