56 percent of grades given at Colby are A range

Addie Bullock

For the past several years, conversations at elite colleges across the country have been dominated by the topic of grade inflation. Colby has not escaped this; it has been a topic of interest among the faculty and administration for several years, and on March 21, the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) released a report to faculty and staff on grading policies, patterns and trends at Colby from 1964 to 2017.

The study found that A grades (including A+, A, A-) represent 56 percent of all grades given at the College. According to data tracking spring semester grades from 2001–2015, the greatest increase was an 11 percentage point increase in the amount of As given, rising from 19 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2015. There was also a five percentage point decrease in Bs given, falling from 19 percent in 2001 to 14 percent 2015. Associate Provost Russell Johnson told the Echo that grade inflation began in the 1960s.

The report also documents uneven distribution of grades across different departments. A graph, included here, displays the percentage of fall and spring semester A grades from 2015–16 and 2016–17 from 33 different departments and programs, excluding independent studies, honors research projects, and internships. The graph grouped different majors into four groups: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Interdisciplinary Studies and Humanities. The lowest scoring department is the natural science major, which awards a little more than 20 percent A grades, while the highest department is an interdisciplinary studies major, with about 75 percent of grades awarded as As.

Nationally, there have been several studies examining grade inflation. In an interview with the Echo, Johnson pointed to gradeinflation.com as a resource that the AAC has relied on. The website includes data spanning from 1940 to 2016. The site reports that grades started to increase dramatically after the Vietnam War and have continued to rise steadily.

While Colby is not part of this data collection, peer institutions, such as Middlebury College and Carleton College, are. By 2013, GPAs at private colleges in the database were on average over 0.2 points higher than those found at public schools.

The Echo interviewed Johnson, who created the report because “the AAC wanted to be paying attention to [this issue] and seeing how that might relate to how we deliver a strong education at Colby.” He pointed out that one of the ways this issue has impacted students manifests itself in the Phi Beta Kappa award and the Dean’s List, for which the minimum GPA requirements have steadily risen. This past fall, the GPA requirement for Dean’s List, which is made up of the top 30% of students, was a 3.77. Johnson added that the AAC has worked on creating a common set of grading guidelines that addresses this inflation: “When faculty members across the College are giving students those grades, there is more of a consistency and common understanding around what it means to have an A, a B in a class.”

The Echo obtained a copy of this report from an anonymous source that was also distributed online, after Johnson declined the Echo’s initial requests for access to the report, stating that the College’s data runs similar to national trends.

The report indicates that visiting professors and newer tenure track professors tend to give higher grades than professors who have spent a significant amount of time at Colby. From 2015 to 2017, faculty in their first two years at Colby averaged 62 percent A range grades, while tenured professors averaged 51 percent. In semester and JanPlan classes, 100-level classes tend to have lower rates of As, with 52 percent A grades, while high level courses were at 58 percent.

“There is an understanding that there are different classes that have a different way of doing things. The objective is not to make everything the same but to at least make everything reasonably comparable enough that students don’t feel an unfairness and that there is at least something close to a common understanding of what grades mean,” Johnson said.

The AAC’s report concludes, “Current grading practices at Colby do not always provide students with a realistic assessment of their performance, or consistently provide incentives for them to do their best work. In addition, the disparities in grading between different academic departments/programs can result in inequities for students.”

It included two proposals, both motions that need to be passed at the monthly Faculty Meeting on March 21. The first proposal would revise grading guidelines that, if passed, will appear in the Colby catalogue, the faculty handbook, and the student handbook. As are “exceptional work,” with A+s being given in very rare situations where students have exceeded expectations for undergraduate level work. Bs are very good to good work, Cs are satisfactory in meeting the goals of the course, Ds are minimally acceptable in their course work, and Fs are seriously deficient. The guidelines also note that Ds count as a passing grade in an individual class, but students receiving multiple Ds are at risk of not meeting the minimum graduation GPA of a 2.0.

The second motion in the report would require that the Office of the Provost “ provide a summary of grading information on a yearly basis to each department chair and program director, for use in discussion within the department or program. This information shall include the grading patterns of members of the department/program, as well as for the department/program, division and the College.

The AAC said that they had considered instituting Princeton’s quota of no more than 35 percent of all grades given being As, Wesleyan’s policy that the median grade be no higher than a B+, or Dartmouth’s inclusion of grade distribution in deciding tenure.

Commenting on the report and proposed solutions, Associate Professor of Geology Bill Sullivan said, “I am concerned about the trend. I don’t think the motions are bad, but I don’t think they’ll do anything to change the trend. There are powerful incentives to grade higher. It’s easier and there is a correlation with positive student evaluations. There is no incentive beyond my conscience to grade more rigorously. If we really want to make change, a quota system is a terrible way to do it.”

The vote for the two motions was slated to be held at the April meeting, for which the minutes have not yet been released.

Professor of Anthropology Mary Beth Mills raised concerns at the faculty meeting and in a memo circulated among faculty on March 27. In a copy of this memo obtained by the Echo, she points out, “It does not offer specific evidence other than the grade distribution data themselves to explain why this is a problem or how it is harmful to our students. Implicit in the discussion, however, are the suggestions that grade inflation indicates a lack of rigor and challenge in the classroom and that students are being misled about the quality of their academic performances.” Mills also wrote that there has been no discussion of how different teaching approaches, experimentation with collaborative learning, and the new writing curriculum implementation could impact this shift in grading distribution.

Mills stated that passing the second motion will increase the likelihood that faculty across different departments will allow for unexamined biases to be incorporated into teaching assessment that will disproportionately harm untenured colleagues and particularly women and people of color. “Motion number two…appears to address a problem (lack of rigor in the Colby classroom) that is presumed but not demonstrated… the evidence I have seen suggests quite the opposite: I am regularly impressed with the care and rigor with which colleagues across the campus approach their teaching.”

She concluded the memo by requesting that the AAC withdraw Motion two, and if that is not possible, that it be changed to ensure that grade distributions cannot be the only evidence of rigor or challenge in the classroom and that it not be used to make conclusions about teaching effectiveness in general and in the review process.

Natalie Oakes ’18 commented the following upon hearing this information: “I don’t believe that grade inflation is a real problem here at Colby. I think it’s possible that because the College admissions pool is getting more competitive, incoming students are more equipped to perform well at Colby. I don’t think you need to give students lower grades in order to academically challenge them, especially at the cost of impacting professors and their professional future because of the grades that they give students.”