Tackling ‘Grade Inflation’: Area lawmaker pushes for higher education reform

Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent

AUSTIN – A North Texas lawmaker is teaming up with allies in the Texas business community to confront a grading pattern in colleges and universities that they say is eroding the quality of higher education. Rep. Scott Turner, a Frisco Republican who represents part of Collin County, says he is redoubling legislative efforts to crack down on what some experts describe as “grade inflation.” Over the past five decades, say critics, professors have increasingly given out A’s to such an extent that they are no longer considered the standard of excellence that they once were. Some higher education officials counter that the trend is more representative of improved student performance and toughened academic standards in colleges and universities. A study published by two educators in 2012 found that A was the most common grade given in colleges and universities as of 2009, representing 43 percent of all letter grades. That was an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960, when A’s made up 15 percent of all grades.

Lowly D’s and F’s typically total less than 10 percent of all letter grades, according to the study. The survey, conducted by former Duke geophysics professor Stuart Rojstaczer and Furman University associate professor Christopher Healy, focused on past and current grading patterns from more than 150 universities. Healy has continued to update the study online. “To me it’s an integrity and transparency issue for parents and students,” said Turner. He said he plans to revive a bill that he pushed during the 2013 session that would have required a student’s post-secondary transcript at public universities to include the average grade for each class – a requirement that essentially would show whether an A grade was the exception or the rule. The Honest Transcript Bill passed the House with only two no votes but died in the Senate. One of the dissenting votes came from Rep. Diane Patrick, an Arlington Republican and a former faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is also vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Higher Education.  

“I voted against it because I did not believe it was needed,” Patrick told the Fort Worth Business Press. “From my personal experience as a college professor, I set my standards for my students extremely high and expected them to attain certain standards to make a certain grade.” Patrick said she has been told by former students that her course on public school finance was the hardest they ever took. “I do not think the quality of teaching is determined by the number of A’s or F’s that a professor might give,” she said. “I think it’s determined … by the motivation of the students to meet the objectives of the class, which should be rigorous.” Turner, who is unopposed in his bid for re-election, said he plans to re-introduce his bill in the next legislative session, which begins in January 2015. He is currently trying to bolster public support for the proposal. He said the measure could undergo “tweaks” but he has not focused on what those changes would be. When he introduced his bill during his freshman year in the Texas Legislature, he said, “I started thinking back to my time in college. I had to work very hard to earn an A.” “We didn’t have websites out there that would show you which professor you could choose for a class because that professor was more likely to give you an A,” said Turner, 41, a former pro football player who is a corporate chaplain and business development specialist for a software firm. “You had to go in there and earn your grades.” Grade inflation, which has been a topic in education for several decades, came under renewed attention in recent weeks after news reports that A is the most common grade given at Harvard College. The dean of undergraduate education made the disclosure at a faculty meeting in December, according to The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Healy, in a telephone interview with the Business Press, said his most comprehensive research of Texas schools focused on Texas A&M University at College Station and Texas State University at San Marcos. At A&M, the proportion of A’s increased from 27.3 percent in undergraduate courses in 1985 to 40.8 percent in 2012, according to Healy’s research. At Texas State, A’s constituted 13.6 percent in 1960, increasing to 34.1 percent in 2007, said Healy. (The San Marcos campus, which has had several names, was once known as Southwest Texas State University and formally became Texas State University in 2013.) 

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 “While there likely are several factors that have influenced changes in grade distribution over the last five decades at higher education institutions,” said Dr. Gene Bourgeois, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Texas State University, “it is clear that student success has played a significant role in the case of increased performance at Texas State University. ” Bourgeoistudent that “student admission requirements have increased substantially,” noting that the average high school rank of first-time freshman alone rose 15.4 percent from 1985 to 2010, from the 65th percentile to the 75th percentile. University investment into student success initiatives has also had “a significant impact on student outcomes,” he added. Joseph J. Pettibon II, associate vice president for academic services at A&M, said in a statement that while A&M has not verified the statistics, “We would be surprised if the record didn’t show that our students are achieving better results than they did more than a quarter century ago, and we have complete confidence in our faculty to evaluate the performance of our students and reflect this through their grading.

“There is no question that our students come to Texas A&M with increasingly better credentials, as reflected by many measures, and our faculty is unquestionably more distinguished and qualified than ever before,” he said. Healy said that he also compiled a “little bit of data” from Texas Christian University that showed the percentage of A’s declining from 36.4 percent 1979 to 33.2 percent in 1991. During that period, the percentage of A’s dipped as low as 30.8 percent in 1982. Healy said the data could reflect a period during which grade inflation nationally appeared to be stabilizing or decreasing before turning back upward. He said he did not have subsequent statistics for TCU. “TCU does not have any current research indicating grade inflation on campus,” said Lisa Albert, TCU’s director of strategic communication. “It is difficult to speculate as to the reason, but it could be indicative of a stronger class or the fact that we have gone to a plus/minus grading system, which further stratifies grades.” The University of Texas at Arlington was not included in the study. Nevertheless, “I do not see any evidence of grade inflation being a problem at UT Arlington,” said Ronald L. Elsenbaumer, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the university. Turner and others say grade inflation threatens to diminish the quality of the workforce by turning out graduates whose academic skills don’t really measure up to the grades on their transcripts. “We definitely share the concern because what it means is that the grades don’t indicate how people did,” said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business. “I mean, if everybody is clearly outstanding then the very worst student is as good as the very best student.”

The TAB supported Turner’s bill in 2013 and would likely do so again, said Hammond, asserting that grade inflation “cheapens the work” of outstanding students. Turner described grade inflation as a “national scandal” when he pushed the measure last year. Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), who is running for lieutenant governor, sponsored the bill in the Senate. A major supporter of the measure is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank in Austin that is working with Turner to educate the public on the issue in advance of the next legislative session. Tom Lindsay, a former professor who holds a doctorate and heads the foundation’s center for higher education, said employers complain that it’s “virtually impossible to rank job applicants” accurately because so many have A or B averages. “Another part of it is just a failure of leadership,” said Lindsay, a former provost at the University of Dallas. “Being a tough grader requires a degree of moral strength. It seems that fewer and fewer are willing to do it these days.”