Don't even try to bring a midterm back to Political Science Professor Jack Nagel for a higher grade. He won't consider it. "It's like [being] a baseball umpire," said Nagel, who has a policy of not re-evaluating grades. "Even if you boo the call, you've still got to stick with it." But based on recent research, Nagel may be one of few professors to advocate such a non-negotiable policy. Recent studies in The Boston Globe showed that the average grade at Ivy League schools has steadily risen over the past 20 years. One study revealed that at Harvard, 87 percent of students receive grades of 'B' or higher. The majority of students at Harvard receive grades of A or A-. "What we're doing is making it impossible to discriminate between students," said Harvard Government Professor Harvey Mansfield, who is known for his tough grading policies. "[Grade inflation] keeps them from knowing what they do best and what they don't do well," Mansfield said. "It puts them in a cocoon of praise. You have to develop a certain character to be able to receive disappointing news." Although officials say the increase at Penn has not been as dramatic as at its peer schools, the University is no exception to the rise in high marks. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Richard Beeman said that Penn has seen a steady rise in grades over the last 20 years. While no exact statistics were available, he indicated that the average grade here is slightly below the Ivy League average. Some say the rise is simply due to inflation rather than increased merit. "Yes, [grade inflation] clearly exists, and it exists everywhere," English Department Chairman John Richetti said in an e-mail statement. But Kent Peterman, director of academic affairs for the College, said that the important issue is not the grade itself but the level of achievement it represents. "The important question to ask is whether students are getting adequate feedback from faculty," Peterman said. "What's happened as a result of inflation is that the meaning of a B+ or an A- varies from instructor to instructor." Some professors believe that deservedly or not, inflation itself is a significant problem at Penn. English professor Paul Korshin recently ran a faculty seminar for Penn professors on boosting grades, and said that inflation is so severe that it has affected Penn's standing among other universities. "Penn is so notorious for grade inflation that the deans at our collaborative colleges -- Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore -- have been debating whether they should continue to allow their students to enroll for courses here," Korshin said in an e-mail statement. Faculty point to several causes of grade inflation, including professors themselves, technological advances and pressure from students. Korshin said he believes professors are responsible for the increased average grade, but few will admit it. "Just as medical doctors do not like to talk about [disease caused by doctors], so professors don't like to discuss grade inflation." Others, however, are not as quick to place blame on faculty. Nagel credits some of the rise in grades to the information age, citing technological advantages -- such as spelling and grammar check. "I think there are some respects in which work has improved," Nagel said. "I think that I have seen higher quality work." Nagel also said that students are offered much more aid now than they were 20 years ago. With the increased popularity of tutoring and extra help sessions, he said that students are given better odds of achieving high grades. And still others point to the pressure that students put on teachers to award them good grades. "A grade is sort of a matter of negotiation as opposed to how it used to be," Peterman said. "Now, more often than not, a grade represents a willingness to do it over again or do extra credit." Beeman agreed that pressure from students influences the grading processes of some faculty. "I'm a tenured professor, and if you ask me, I don't feel pressure from the students," Beeman said. "If you ask an untenured assistant professor, you might get a different answer." And the effects of inflating grades may have more consequences than many students realize. Richetti said he believes that companies have become increasingly skeptical about high grades in their hiring processes. "Since everyone knows that grades are inflated, allowances are made, with employers translating the narrow range of high grades into the older, broader range when a B average meant you were a very good student," Richetti said. With overall GPAs on the rise, many schools are looking to resolve the issue. Dartmouth and Columbia, for example, have started putting two grades on each student's report card. The first is the grade that the student achieved in the class. The second is the average grade given in the class. Beeman supports this measure, saying that it more accurately represents the meaning of each grade. Although he proposed the idea at Penn, it has never been implemented. "I would like to see a grading distribution which would more accurately represent the merit of the work," Beeman said. "If you see that the average grade given in a course is a B+ then you question the truth in reporting."Comments powered by Disqus
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