Faculty Report Noticeable Rise In Grade Inflation in Recent Years

Voicing concern about the recent sharp increase in grade inflation at Phillips Academy, various faculty members have asked the Dean of Studies Office and members of the Academic Council to investigate and take action against this steep and sudden rise. In the winter term of 1974, only 25 percent of the student body qualified for the Honor Roll with a grade point average of 5.0 or higher. By the winter trimester of 2003, this number had nearly doubled, to 47 percent, the highest Honor Roll percentage for any winter in Andover’s history. Furthermore, the rate of inflation has also risen in recent years. From 1978 to 1990, the percentage of students on the Honor Roll in the fall term increased only 4 percent, from 25 to 29 percent. However, in the fall of 2002, the Honor Roll percentage had jumped 12 percent, from 29 percent in the fall of 2001 to 41 percent. Dean of Studies Vincent Avery admitted that the indicating factor in grade inflation is the Honor Roll percentage. “We [the faculty] will look into Honor Roll,” he said, suggesting that Honor Roll be given to a certain top percentage of each class, rather than to any student who surpasses a benchmark percentage. The trend of grade inflation also evinces itself in the GPA of students in the Cum Laude Society. The top 10 percent of the Upper class is admitted each winter, and then another 10 percent are chosen to join the Society during that class’s Senior spring. In 1992, approximately 55 percent of Cum Laude students held GPAs between 5.0 and 5.2. In 1998, the majority of students held a GPA between 5.2 and 5.6. According to Chair of the History and Social Sciences Department Victor Henningsen ’69, students do not receive 3’s as frequently as they used to, while 5’s are given out more freely. However, he maintains that “the grade of 6 seems to have retained its exclusivity.” Mr. Henningsen stated that one must consider numerous factors when attempting to explain any grade inflation that might exist. Numbers and statistics alone, he said, can easily lead to erroneous conclusions. Consequently, Mr. Henningsen explained, it is foolish for one to attempt to explain grade inflation by declaring that current PA students exceed their predecessors in academic ability or that current Andover instructors are easier than their predecessors. Instead, he suggested that when looking for explanations behind the rise in grade inflation, one should consider the different assessment techniques used by Andover faculty in the past and those used now. According to Mr. Henningsen, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when grade inflation existed at a much lower rate, the most prevalent form of academic assessment at Andover was the objective test; in other words, tests made up of a combination of multiple choice questions and short, factual essays. As a result, he noted, the grades were more indisputable, and it was easier for teachers to evaluate a student through these tests and, if necessary, fail him. Consequently, out of the 130 students who entered as Juniors in Mr. Henningsen’s Class of 1969, only 62 graduated. On the other hand, he stated, “differing forms of assessment which involve subjectivity in grading” lead to increases in students’ grades by allowing effort to come under consideration, but also allow students to learn the material more thoroughly. Another factor that Mr. Henningsen noted is the “category” in which the grade belongs. The average grade in a diploma-requirement course is likely to be lower than that of an elective in which most of the students enrolled have both a passion and a skill for the material. Furthermore, Mr. Henningsen explained that different subjects require different grading techniques., “My guess is that it is easier to define a 3 in mathematics than it is in, say, Dance,” he reasoned. In addition to differences among disciplines, Mr. Henningsen feels that the variety of interpretations of the grading scale among teachers is an issue to consider. Many teachers revise the scale according to their personal teaching style, and thus students who might receive a 4 with one teacher, could be awarded a 5 by another, or given a 3 by yet another. Although grade inflation at Andover has never been “severe,” many teachers have thought of various techniques to curb the grade inflation that exists. One of these is the utilization of pluses and minuses in term grades. Mr. Henningsen explained that this technique was considered “on the grounds that moving from a 4- to a 4+ over a yearlong course shows progress, while getting simply three 4’s in a row really does not and may influence a teacher to give a 4+ student a really low 5 instead.” Although the administration has never adopted this strategy, Mr. Henningsen maintains that it could become a possibility in the future. If grade inflation ever became severe, Mr. Henningsen stated, departments might consider a return to departmental examinations graded by all members of a division, an assessment technique employed by the school when objective tests were popular as well. A second possibility would be to rotate teachers from term to term in all yearlong courses. Although Mr. Henningsen admitted that these techniques have drawbacks, such as the discontinuity that the rotation of teachers would cause for a class, both assist in countering grade inflation. Dean Avery stated that another contributing factor to the problem is the increased intensity of college admissions process in recent years. He considers grade inflation at Andover to be indicative of a nationwide inflationary trend. Consequently, he explained, since admissions officers from outside institutions need to be able to fit Andover grades into the national four point scale, perhaps Andover faculty would be doing a disservice to their graduates if they did not inflate grades slightly. Despite these suggestions, Mr. Henningsen stated, “I like the current Phillips Academy more [than the one without grade inflation]. … We’re a more supportive place and the teachers believe that coaching students to get better at something is as important and perhaps more important than simply judging whether they clear the bar. If grade inflation is part of that cultural change, than so be it as long as it is not excessive. But it is always a good idea for the faculty to review these issues on a regular basis.”