Want More STEM Grads? Stop Grade Inflation

By Thomas K. Lindsay

Our country is on an apparently bipartisan crusade to increase the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates. Republican Florida governor Rick Scott recently proposed lowering tuition rates for students majoring in STEM subjects in order to bolster Florida's economy. Democratic president Barack Obama announced last February a plan to "create classes that focus on STEM -- the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future." But what's missed in this project is the silent killer of STEM enrollment: grade inflation.

I first became aware of this reading Valen E. Johnson's fine book, Grade Inflation. A professor of statistics at Texas A&M University, Johnson has been researching grade inflation since the 1990s, when he taught at Duke. Grade Inflation verifies some things that we who have taught college have suspected for some time: Professors who give higher grades get higher student evaluations, calling into question the usefulness of both student evaluations and the grades themselves. Further, fewer students enroll in fields that grade more rigorously -- and STEM fields such as the natural sciences and mathematics hold students to the highest standards.

To appreciate grade inflation's war on STEM graduates, we need first to understand just how widespread grade inflation is. A national study finds that, in the 1960s, 15 percent of all college grades awarded were A's. Today, that percentage has nearly tripled; 43 percent of all grades are A's. In fact, an A is the most common grade given in college today; A's and B's together now account for 73 percent of all grades. Such is the state of real-life campuses as they increasingly mimic Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average."

Johnson's work at Duke found students "twice as likely to choose [elective] courses graded at an A- average as they were courses graded at a B average." He writes that this "likely results in a 50% decrease in the number of elective courses taken by undergraduates in the natural sciences and mathematics."

Because students seek easier-grading elective courses, they are less likely to take the chance to explore courses in the tougher-grading STEM fields. This lessened exposure reduces students' opportunities to discover that a given STEM course so interests them that they decide to go on to major or minor in it. Were grading practices made more equitable between STEM and non-STEM fields, this obstacle to intellectual exploration would be removed.

Simply stated, while the nation cries out for more STEM graduates, grade inflation in non-STEM fields undermines this effort. This is but one more price -- a substantial price -- that society pays for a dysfunctional academy in which "knowing the grading practices of the instructor from whom students took courses is as important as knowing the grades they got."

For his part, Johnson deems "carefully designed constraints on mean course grades" to be the "most comprehensive solution" to the problem. Such constraints nullify the incentive for students to enroll in classes with easier-grading professors and lower-performing students.

Last year, Texas's house of representatives debated what would have been the biggest effort ever to battle the cancer of grade inflation. Called the "Honest Transcript" bill, it would supply much-needed transparency by requiring all public universities to include on student transcripts both the letter grade the student received for each class and the average grade for the entire class. The bill passed virtually unanimously in the house, but was not heard by the state senate.

The Honest Transcript would help students, their parents, and prospective employers to learn whether a student's high grades were the product of real talent and effort, or simply of taking easy courses. But, as Johnson reminds us, the same device was implemented at Dartmouth in the '90s, and that has not stopped grade inflation continuing there. Honest Transcript's defenders hope that their effort, which affects all public-university students in the nation's second-largest state, will have a greater impact than that of a single college at alerting the populace to the crisis in higher-education standards -- and that it will bolster support for stronger measures, key among which is Johnson's "weighted grading" solution.

Until that happens, grades in Lake Wobegon will likely continue to rise, even as job prospects wither.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).

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