Karin Klein: Instructors must own up to role in grade inflation

Adjunct faculty member De-Laine Cyrenne, center, hugs student Amethyst Garner during Sacramento State’s graduation ceremony in December 2013.
Adjunct faculty member De-Laine Cyrenne, center, hugs student Amethyst Garner during Sacramento State’s graduation ceremony in December 2013. Sacramento Bee file

At the small private university where I teach a course in opinion writing, one of my students challenged his final grade, a B-minus. He had missed enough classes for a grade reduction. Some of his papers had been well-crafted, others less so. But overall, the grade depends on progress through the semester, and despite back-and-forth on his final writing project, he stuck to a conclusion without backing it up.

Yet here he was, wondering whether his grade was arbitrary. So I replied that while his writing had shown some good improvement, he and I could probably agree that it had not been excellent improvement. And a B-minus grade reflects good, not excellent, work.

But that’s not how grades happen these days, as I was reminded when a report came out last week chronicling grade inflation at four-year colleges. Nearly every academic I know talks about student expectations that they will get an A, even after handing in a six-page report rather than the assigned eight pages.

“I got straight A’s in English through high school,” they protest. “I showed up to every class! I handed in my assignments on time!” That’s nice, but it’s not excellence.

An A has become the default grade, and students take anything below that to mean that something is wrong with them. What was once a bell curve now looks like a steep uphill climb toward the right.

The question is why college instructors are going along with it.

The study, by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor at Duke University, can’t answer that because it measures grades, not the story beneath them. But one finding is telling: Grade inflation is much higher at private universities than public ones, and much higher at four-year schools than community colleges.

Rojstaczer says this might be because private schools attract more entitled students, and because ever-more expensive colleges see students as customers to be pleased, rather than as academic supplicants who must meet a certain bar.

But I wonder whether there’s another factor: the increasing numbers of adjunct professors – non-staff who are essentially outside contractors – as well as non-tenure-track lecturers and those who still have a ways to go for tenure or promotion.

Tough graders, or even just realistic graders, tend to be downgraded themselves in student evaluations. And the academic life is hard these days, with many highly educated people making a living commuting from college to college, raking in a few thousand dollars for each course taught. Bad student evaluations can mean no tenure, or for adjuncts, no job at all.

Even some tenured professors I know hold off on giving any grades until after the student evaluations are filed, usually the last day of class. In addition, the poorly paid adjuncts and lecturers I’ve talked to don’t want to fight about grades. It’s a painful process that can mean dragging out every paper, exam or participation grade for the semester. They’re already paid inadequately for the teaching, planning and grading they do; they’d rather give in than make more work for themselves.

Fortunately for me, I teach as an adjunct as a change of pace, not to make a living. But I wonder if students, parents or even college administrators are aware of how education is shortchanged when instructors feel they can’t afford to uphold standards. Or is everyone happy as long as undeserved A’s keep rolling in?

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at