To Fight Grade Inflation in the Humanities, Add Context

July 21, 2014

"You don’t understand," the student said. "This is sociology. I took this class to increase my GPA. It wasn’t supposed to be hard!"

It was my first semester on the faculty, and the student had come to my office to complain about the grade she’d earned on the first paper for my sociology class: a B-minus. I had explained to her why the grade was appropriate, and one she could feel proud of. (UNC’s official grade system says the B range indicates "strong performance demonstrating a high level of attainment," and that "the student has shown solid promise in the aspect of the discipline under study.") But the student remained dissatisfied.

Alongside too many such conversations I’ve had, I’m happy to say that there have been at least as many with genuinely curious students who want to explore the material and see where it takes them. But the governing assumption—particularly in relatively humanistic fields like mine—that merely adequate performance deserves an A makes it difficult to document or reward the outstanding work of such curious young minds. That is why I became an advocate for curtailing grade inflation and grading inequality.

I am an unlikely candidate to lead grading-reform efforts. The standard assumption is that the so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—are the "hard graders," the humanities and most of the social sciences the grade inflators. And my subfields—cultural sociology and social theory—are particularly susceptible to the steady upward creep of grades because their intellectual style is closer to the humanities than the sciences. I suspect this pattern is due in part to the inherently subjective nature of evaluation in humanistic fields, in part to the fact that students don’t complain when their grades are too high, and in part to the reluctance to exercise judgment that has characterized the humanities in recent decades.

Whatever the causes, my experience is that grade inflation contributes greatly to the devaluing of the humanities and some social sciences. In fact, humanists have, if anything, more reason than our STEM colleagues to push back against the expectation of excellent grades for only fair performance.

The emphasis on STEM in public policy and public discourse rests on the common (though rarely demonstrated) claim that these fields will be more useful in the job market than will the humanities and social sciences. Since STEM fields are assumed to provide the practical skills for gainful employment, social sciences and humanities are there to accept the students who couldn’t muster the effort for a STEM major and to pad the GPAs of those who could. Where could this possibly lead except to condemning education and scholarship in these fields to irrelevance and mediocrity?

The claim is not true, though. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s well-known study, Academically Adrift, shows that the students who gained in critical-thinking skills were those in classes where they were asked to read a lot and write a lot—and in which they believed their professors had high expectations for their work. These intensive reading-and-writing classes are the bread and butter of humanistic scholarship, particularly if we also communicate high expectations. Whether humanities and social-science education is important because it spurs broad intellectual exploration, because it helps students in their careers, or because it helps them be better citizens, we have a duty to encourage and reward outstanding performance.

To fulfill that duty, we need to reject the role of the social sciences and humanities as second-rate intellectual endeavors. We should expect every bit as much work, as much academic quality, and as much difficult, sustained engagement with the material as our STEM colleagues do. And rewarding only ambitious, excellent work with grades that reflect that excellence is an important step in that direction.

Undeservedly high grades in humanities and social science are already resented by our STEM colleagues because they penalize students who concentrate in their fields. They also hinder our ability to document and reward outstanding student performance in humanities and social science. Reducing grade inflation should benefit both groups. To do that, we need policy reforms to reduce upward pressure on grades while respecting intellectual diversity and academic freedom.

For the past five years, I have been involved in a series of conversations at Chapel Hill about how to do just that. A 2009 report on grading practices found that "grades assigned in classes at UNC-CH have continued to rise over time (with an average grade in fall 2008 of 3.213), are more concentrated in the upper range of the grade distribution (with 82% of grades being A or B in fall 2008), and exhibit disparities across and, in some cases, within departments." As a result, we developed a policy that will be implemented this fall: contextual grade reporting.

Beginning this fall, all undergraduate transcripts from UNC will include information about the context of grades alongside the grades themselves. They will contain the median grade for each class and the percentile range the student’s grade reflects. Readers of the transcript, including the students themselves, will be able to determine where the student’s performance falls among her peers. In addition, the transcript will feature the student’s "schedule-point average," or SPA, alongside the familiar grade-point average. The SPA—calculated by averaging the median grades in the student’s schedule—can be used by transcript readers as a benchmark to evaluate the meaning, in context, of the GPA.

The new information on transcripts will help reduce the upward pressure on grades by documenting students’ relative success in courses with lower grade distributions. It will reduce the benefit of students "shopping" for courses in which they expect an easy A, as my student tried to do in that first class. In addition to classes that will increase their GPAs, students will prefer those that decrease their SPAs: those that use the full grade range. This, in turn, will encourage faculty to use that range to reflect accurately the range of students’ learning and offer rewards accordingly. As graduate and professional schools, employers, and scholarship programs learn to use this new information, they will no longer assume that humanities and social-science classes offer uniformly high grades. Instead, they will be able to see those grading patterns, assess students’ performance directly, and reward outstanding work in all their classes.

Contextual grade reporting alone will not solve the problems with grade inflation, but it’s a step in the right direction. Other institutions following UNC’s lead can move further in that direction. Humanities and social-science scholars should see this as an opportunity to inspire and reward great work in every discipline.

Andrew J. Perrin is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter (Polity, 2014).