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 gradeinflation.com, 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.”