Letter to the Editor

Dear Kerong Kelly,

Thank you for your article on grade inflation at Bucknell in the Feb. 14 issue of The Bucknellian. I write you to give you a perhaps larger perspective on the issue.

I came to Bucknell in 1967. At that time there had been a trend of a very slow increase in the average GPA at Bucknell. These data were kept and made available by the Administration at one time. After I arrived, I kept a record of two numbers: the average entering SAT scores of BU students–which were at that time announced at the first faculty meeting each fall–and the average GPAs of the graduating seniors. For a while the entering SAT scores and the average GPAs both increased annually. But around 1972, each successive year’s entering SAT scores leveled off and then drifted downward, a trend that continued until the entire SAT scoring was ‘renormalized’ to bring the national average back up to around 500. I retired in 2003 and haven’t followed this issue since then.

Interestingly, the average GPA of graduating seniors after 1972-4 did not follow the declining trend of the entering SAT scores. In fact the rate of increase in the GPAs of graduating seniors actually increased. I couldn’t find the graph mentioned in your article that would have shown these trends had it been extended back to 1967. Cynics suggested that the faculty were trying to make up for what the incoming students lacked! There is no reason to believe that suggestion is true, but the coincidence is worth noting. I am sure the sociologists of education have a variety of theories with which to account for these trends.

As you note, grade inflation is not peculiar to Bucknell. It is, I believe, almost nationwide or perhaps by now worldwide, though doubtless it is more pronounced in some countries and locales than others.

You correctly note that the influence of grade inflation differs between divisions within the University (arts, science and engineering), between departments within those divisions, and also among the instructors within departments! Interestingly, if departments are ranked in order of average grades given, individual departmental ranks have changed over the years. Some departments systematically give higher grades than others, but that order varies from year to year, from decade to decade. Does that mean that some departments get better students that others? Or are there other factors at play? Similarly does that mean that some instructors consistently get better students than others? You get the idea, I’m sure.

You also note correctly that there is no consensus as to what, or indeed whether anything, should be done. The one thing that is certain is that the value attached to inflated GPAs/grades has seriously declined over the last 45 years or so. No one knowledgeable now reading a transcript takes a GPA purely at face value. Gresham’s law for GPAs? When I was in high school in the mid-50s, a mechanical drawing instructor solved the problem by giving all As! The lowest grade was simply A, the highest A+++++++. No one seemed to mind too much–even then!

Professor Marsh has ably kept this issue in focus during his career at Bucknell. Thank you raising it once again.

John Cooper

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