Photo by Jeremy Gaines and Michael Nowakowski

The Grade Escape

There's more to getting a 4.0 than just good study habits.

By Anne Li

Four accordion files rest on a cart in the back of Deering Library’s University Archives. Each file contains detailed records on the respective year’s distribution of grades to Northwestern undergraduate students, by letter grade and by school.

Maintained from 1969 to 2002, typewritten letters and numbers document a measurement of success for the students who receive them. And the grades are important for their givers as well. Successful students, to some extent, indicate successful instructors.

The data contained in the accordion files tells a story about how these two players work with grades to tell the stories they want told. It shows what happens when students and professors manipulate the grading system, when students engage in GPA padding by seeking out easier classes and professors even if they consequently learn less, when universities inflate grades to maintain a reputation.

No wonder critics argue that the American grading system is in crisis mode and that the versatility of the letters themselves renders them more and more meaningless each year.

According to Chris Healy, a computer science professor at Furman University, grade inflation is “awarding a higher grade than is deserved” or “awarding a higher grade than what would’ve been awarded in the past.”

Healy and former Duke University professor Stuart Rojstaczer worked together to create, a project that documents and illustrates their research on grade inflation at universities nationwide. Rojstaczer is currently working on updating the data beyond 2010.

The numerous charts on the site show, among other phenomena, that a student at a private university fares better GPA-wise than a student who earned a similar SAT score in high school but attends a public university. The data charts how the number of A’s assigned is increasing while the number of B’s and C’s is decreasing, leading Healy to believe that the U.S. is moving towards a pass-fail system that was in place in the 19th century.

One of the schools included in the data is Northwestern University, which between 1990 and 2006 inflated less than 0.2 points, a rate slower than Brown’s and Duke’s but quicker than Harvard’s, which is frequently criticized for its grade inflation.

The numbers tell a controversial story. When asked for data on grade inflation, the Office of the Provost, the Registrar and even the Data Book all say something along the lines of, “We don’t keep data on grades,” or “Northwestern does not publicize GPA data.”

Healy doesn’t buy it. “I can’t imagine how the administration would not want to know,” he says. “They might be embarrassed by it. It might be because many of Northwestern’s peer institutions don’t publish [data on grades].”

Whatever the reason, the data curated in the Archives confirms Healy’s findings: At least between 1969 and 2002, after which the Data Book stopped recording overall undergraduate grades distributed, NU has been inflating undergraduate grades.

Out of all the grades Northwestern distributed in 1969, 26.4 percent were A’s. By 1992, the last year the Data Book recorded the University’s overall grades, A’s made up 41.1 percent of grades.

But what’s more stunning is the different rates of inflation between undergraduate schools. McCormick, whose faculty is known for projecting bell curves after every exam to their students, had the lowest amount of inflation between 1969 and 2002, just 8 percent. Meanwhile, Bienen’s distribution of A’s skyrocketed from 53 percent in 1969 to 89 percent in 2002. SESP’s distribution of A’s held most steady, hovering around the upper ‘50s and lower ‘60s throughout the years.

Bienen Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s student evaluations, it’s shopping around for colleges,” Healy says regarding why grades nationwide have been rising. “The customer is always right, and the consumerist model is that college is a business in which the students are the customers and they are always right. They have to be happy.”

Photo by Jeremy Gaines and Michael Nowakowski

While the Civil Rights Era was coming to a close and the Vietnam War was just beginning, Healy believes that educators held a national discussion on the effects of the American grading system on college students.

The term “grade inflation” made its first appearance in The Daily Northwestern in 1974. In 1975, it was brought up again in an article on students allegedly manipulating their grades after the “P/N” option was instituted.

The data justifies the hype. The percentage of A’s distributed spiked between 1972 and 1973 in most Northwestern undergraduate schools. 1973 was the last year of conscription. Before then, according to a 1976 article in the Chicago Daily News, professors nationwide gave men higher grades to help them avoid being drafted to the war in Vietnam.

The New York Times published a piece in 1974 on grade inflation and its effects on students. It described a grade panic taking over campus, when freshmen saw grades not as an indicator of their future aspirations but of their own self-worth. As a result, incidents of cheating apparently increased, including at Northwestern, the then-Weinberg assistant dean was quoted as saying. Blame began to circulate.

“The humanities majors blame the pre-professional students. The pre-med and pre-law students blame their professors and graduate schools for placing too much emphasis on grades in admissions decisions,” the article states. “Some faculty members blame the colleges themselves for failing to foster closer contact between students and instructors, to convince students that there is more to college than good grades.”

Four decades later, undergraduate science and overall GPAs still play an important role in the Feinberg School of Medicine admissions process. Because Feinberg tries to holistically review applications, GPAs are considered alongside other criteria, including the applicant’s MCAT scores, knowledge of the medical field and leadership experience. But when applications arrive at Feinberg, they’re sorted into two piles. One pile contains the applications of those who meet the baseline GPA and MCAT score. They’re automatically sent to be reviewed by the admissions committee. Feinberg’s entering median GPA for the class of 2018 was a 3.87. The median science GPA was a 3.86.

The other pile goes to Warren Henry Wallace, associate dean of admissions for Feinberg, who looks to see if these applicants are competitive in other aspects.

“It is difficult being an undergraduate in a competitive environment, where your performance is going to affect your future prospects regarding medical school,” says Warren, who believes that coping with stress–even if it’s from grades–is good practice for work in the medical field. “But in a situation where we have data that suggests performance as an undergraduate is a predictor, and that there are twice as many seats as there are applications, it’s gonna be a long time before the GPA is not a part of the evaluation of potential medical school candidates.”

Although GPAs can determine which pile your Feinberg application falls into, schools like Northwestern don’t make maintaining near-4.0s easy. Mark Morel graduated from Northwestern in 2014 and now attends Emory School of Medicine. He believes that the rigorous course load at Northwestern prepared him for the MCAT, but he remembers students on the pre-med padding their GPAs by taking classes at Harvard over the summer instead of at Northwestern, because transfer credits are not calculated into the Northwestern GPA.

“One of my pre-med advisors said that there were almost 800 pre-med kids in the freshman class,” Morel says. “It whittles down to 200 by the time they’re seniors.”

Morel majored in art history because he enjoyed the subject, though he says the boost it gave his GPA may have influenced his decision “subconsciously.”

Morel graduated with a 3.8.

But what do grades mean for undergraduate students? Their meanings are perhaps impossible to pinpoint without defining the meaning of success. Nicky Hackett, a second-year Feinberg student, knew during his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt that he wanted to attend a prestigious medical school. But the pressure to maintain his GPA did not come without consequences.

Hackett switched majors mid-freshman year from engineering – a subject he was genuinely interested in – to religious studies, and then again his sophomore year to a major in medicine, health and society.

“I’m taking [a class] because this is my life, not just an educational opportunity to learn something,” Hackett says. “Grades have a direct effect on how I get to live my life.”

He hated the effect it had on his classmates and that he couldn’t “explore opportunities that were interesting, in the spirit of college.” Once, a friend who was on the pre-med track and later “dropped pre-med and became a different human being” broke down during a study session.

“[She] couldn’t figure out a math problem and that brought her to tears in a public place,” Hackett recalls.

Hackett graduated with a “3.9 or something.”

“If there was no such thing as GPA and I could’ve stuck in engineering and done the same thing, I would’ve done that,” he says. “It was disappointing, for sure. I’m kind of disappointed in myself, because I didn’t take a risk.”

Stephen Carr, undergraduate dean of the McCormick School of Engineering, does not believe that grades are an indicator of engineering aptitude.

But he does say grades can play an indirect role in a professor’s ability to gain positive reviews when they are up for tenure or contract renewal. Much of this data is gathered through CTECs.

Of course, some considerations must be made when reading CTECs. Carr says that student comments are more important than scores and that freshmen are more honest than older students in their reviews. Some professors grade hard but score high on their CTECs. Manipulating one’s CTEC scores is difficult, Carr says.

“If a professor had wanted to inflate their CTEC scores by using higher grades, it fails in effect to gain higher CTEC scores. ‘The professor’s a patsy, gives really high grades,’” Carr conjectures.

Yet McCormick undergraduate GPAs have been steadily creeping upward in the past few years, though Carr says not as quickly as incoming freshmen standardized test scores have been rising.

“One [reason for grade inflation] is, we have better students. And that is an understatement. So when professors assign grades to the work done by their students, it’s likely that they’re going to be quite satisfied by the quality of their work,” Carr says.

A second reason is that professors are less confident that giving poor grades – C’s and D’s for example – makes sense.

“That is sort of a spontaneous creep from the culture,” Carr says.

The percentage of A’s distributed in McCormick increased 25.7 percent between 1978 and 2002. Overall SAT scores of the entering freshman class increased 16.4 percent in that same time frame. SAT math scores increased 11.2 percent.

McCormick has no standardized rules for grade assignment. The faculty handbook states that McCormick faculty has the option of distributing grades on a scale where a 4.0-A reflects “excellent” work, a 3.0-B reflects “good” work and so on.

However, there are a few school-wide rules: Grades must fit a bell curve so that the top students in the class receive A’s and professors must inform students on the first day of class how grades will be assigned.

Regarding grade inflation, Carr admits it exists. But “So what?”

For all his confidence in McCormick’s grading system, Carr doesn’t think that grades should hold that much importance.

“Once you get into college, it’s becoming more and more important how you develop yourself as a person, especially how effective you can be,” he says.

“It means that you have ideas that other people respect, and probably you have the ability to communicate the value of your good ideas.”

And perhaps that’s the biggest irony in the American grading system. The accordion files in the Archives tell a story of inflation and manipulation. They tell the story of students and professors who rely on grades for their success and emotional well-being. In reality, the rules behind grade assignments are so versatile that the age-old standardized measurement of success may actually mean nothing at all.

Photo by Jeremy Gaines and Michael Nowakowski