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UI bucks national grade inflation trend

BY JULIANA FABIANO | JULY 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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University of Iowa officials said despite recent evidence of grade inflation across the country, UI instructors and administrators still have a strict academic policy when it comes to final grades.

The study, "Where A is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading," tracked the grade distribution of more than 200 schools from 1940-2009. Results suggested the recent number of As given totaled 43 percent— the highest percentage of grades given. The percent is the highest from the duration of the study.

Christopher Healy, a coauthor and an associate professor at Furman University, said that while public institutions such as the UI have significantly fewer As and Bs given out than private institutions, there has been a constant increase in grade-point averages for the past 40 years.

"When you're a professor, you don't necessarily think about GPAs but you might notice which grades were actually given out," Healy said. "Percentages, not the averages, are easier for people to understand. Up until now, research collected was usually regarding GPAs, and we thought that was too abstract."

While Healy stated that the A has become the most common grade on American college campuses — and the campuses do not have strong grading guidelines, UI officials do not believe this is the case.

Helena Dettmer, the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences associate dean for undergraduate programs and curriculum, said the suggested distribution guidelines are intended for courses with representative enrollments and different education approaches. The college makes adjustments based on sections and courses of different sizes, formats, and levels of ability.

The number of As given out for elementary courses in the liberal-arts school are 15 percent of grades distributed compared with 18 percent in intermediate courses and 22 percent in advanced courses, she wrote in an e-mail.

Dettmer said the Educational Policy Committee strongly discourages instructors from assigning the A-plus grade — noting few or no grades of A-plus should ever be awarded except for truly extraordinary work.

Still, the study implies 28 Midwestern universities having the second highest As distribution — 45.0, compared to the West's 44.6 and the South's 39.7, though the UI is not one of those institutions.

Healy said he believes the cause of this is the changing in nature of higher education and is not a positive attribute.

"I don't think this rise of As is a good thing at all," he said. "Let's say you're finding candidates for an award, and you want to identify the No. 1 student in the class. How are you going to do this when all the students look the exact same on paper? You can't call in thousands of applicants for an interview."

At the UI, liberal-arts officials also regulate grade distribution by asking the heads of departments to review the grades of the faculty before approving them. The heads then speak with faculty if they notice grades are too high.

Dettmer said as an associate dean of the college, she monitors grades and speaks with department heads if a trend of high grades is noticed.

Professor Dan Anderson, the head of the UI Mathematics Department, said he recognizes the GPA increase. However, he doesn't believe his department awards too many As.

"The math department is a tougher grading department," he said. "Certainly, grades have gone up, but I don't see the high grade distribution as a general problem."

While Anderson believes the department is one of the stricter grading sections, the percentage of grades given out follows the guidelines of the liberal-arts school.

UI senior and elementary education major Katie Jepson said the curriculum at this public university is not necessarily easy but is multidimensional.

"It all depends on the class, but I think the curriculum is hard because there are other measures for grading besides just tests. Take participation, for example," she said. "I know a lot of people who don't like to speak in class, but they have to do it — we're graded on it."


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