Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Monday, January 24, 2005

Grade Inflation

For over thirty years, the Economics Department at The University of Western Ontario has had the same grade guidelines for its introductory course. Slight variations are tolerated, and any prof who turns in marks that are too low will usually have them accepted. I.e., the guidelines serve more as an upper limit than a lower bound.

Why do we do it? to maintain horizontal equity across the sections (even though some profs probably teach better and some sections may have brighter students) and longitudinal equity from year-to-year. Needless to say, grade inflation is not a problem in our introductory economics courses. If only everyone else had had the courage to do the same thing.

It seems that grade inflation has gotten way out of hand in many schools. See this chart for example. Now Princeton is so concerned, they are doing something about it. [thanks to Jack and JC for the links; the story is also available here]. Harvard, Northwestern, and Duke are also mentioned as universities trying to do something to curb grade inflation.

And to the extent that students respond to incentives, the heightened competition for grades will almost surely lead to more studying and harder work by many students.

If the reaction of Princeton students is any indication, limiting honors
may mean sharper elbows. Princeton students — never exactly slackers — have been studying even harder this semester, said Tom Brown, executive secretary of the student government.

The problem with imposing tough grading standards is that if one school or one department crack down on grade inflation, it is difficult to convince students they won't be harmed. Unless students believe that grades are adjusted according to where they are earned, they will switch out of the tougher majors and tougher schools. This response makes it very difficult for each department or university to maintain grading standards so long as others are inflating their grades to make it easier for students to be admitted to professional or graduate schools.
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