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If grades are any indication of on-the-job proficiency, the students graduating from UW-Madison’s department of curriculum and instruction should be very, very good teachers.

According to a Capital Times analysis of publicly available grade information at UW-Madison, the average grade awarded to undergraduates in this department  — which develops the teachers of tomorrow — is higher than a 3.9 on a 4.0 scale. Similarly, the average grade awarded to undergraduates taking courses in UW-Madison’s School of Nursing last spring was slightly above 3.8. To put these numbers in perspective, if 18 A’s, one B and one C were dispensed to students in a class of 20, the average grade would be 3.85.

The paper’s analysis also found that a surprisingly high number of A’s and B’s are being handed out all over campus, mirroring a decades-long trend. In the fall of 1958, the average grade-point average for undergraduates at UW-Madison was 2.5 on a 4.0 scale. It was 2.9 by 1988 and by 2008, according to the most recent reports available, had reached 3.2.

Add it up, and some on the UW-Madison campus are asking if the bar is being set too low.

“To be honest, some of those numbers do surprise me,” says Lizzi Ulmer, a UW-Madison junior studying political science and French, and earning a certificate in business. “I’d love to think students are getting smarter over time, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”

Some argue this trend is a clear case of grade inflation — the upward progression of students’ grade-point averages without an increase in achievement. Critics say these high grades have a negative impact on learning by rewarding mediocre work and sucking the competitive life out of classrooms; students have little motivation to work hard, the theory goes, because they learn quickly that they can usually earn at least a B by simply going through the motions. In fact, during the 2009 spring semester, 78.6 percent of all grades on campus were B’s or higher (A, AB or B).

“When you look at what’s expected of students to get a B, it’s pretty minimal,” says UW-Madison engineering physics professor Greg Moses. “If your measuring stick is so skewed that everybody falls within the upper limits, then it doesn’t really measure anything.”

And students might not be the only ones skating by due to what some view as relaxed standards. Moses, who has had informal discussions with deans and others on campus about finding ways to address grade inflation, suggests professors who award higher grades make life easier for themselves, too.

Moses says it is the responsibility of professors to set the bar and help students meet the stated expectations. But if that bar is set low and enough students are above it, “you minimize the amount of effort needed to help students achieve expectations,” he says.

But not everyone on campus is convinced something is terribly wrong and many suggest there are plenty of good reasons to explain why grades might be going up.

“The university has improved its admissions standards over the years,” says UW-Madison sophomore Jonah Zinn, who is chair of the Academic Affairs Committee for the Associated Students of Madison, the university’s student government. “And by being around other students, I can tell you people are working hard for their grades. If anything, students are getting smarter and maybe the grade standards are staying the same.”

In fact, some point out the average ACT score of incoming freshmen went from 24.0 in 1988 to 26.8 in 1998 to 28.1 in 2008.  It’s also plausible that professors have become better teachers than their predecessors due to an increased focus on pedagogy, and that as college courses and curricula have evolved, these changes have led to improved teaching and learning outcomes.

Besides, argues former UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, what’s the big deal if grades are going up? What’s worse, he says, is hearing stories from years ago when professors in some disciplines were ordered to “weed out” weak students from their classes by making sure at least 30 percent received D’s or F’s, or dropped the course.

“That philosophy is no longer acceptable to the public or faculty or anyone else,” says Wiley, who notes that college leaders today are under increased pressure from the public and politicians to increase the number of college graduates. “Today, our attitude is we do our screening of students at the time of admission. Once students have been admitted, we have said to them, ‘You have what it takes to succeed.’ Then it’s our job to help them succeed.”

Gloria Ladson-Billings, the chair of the department of curriculum and instruction — which is housed in the School of Education — says she is not aware of anyone within the UW-Madison administration ever suggesting that her department is dispensing too many A’s.

“It’s interesting,” she notes. “We want our kids to do well and get good grades, but when they do we don’t trust the grade.”

Ladson-Billings, who has been at UW-Madison for 18 years, argues there are plenty of good reasons why grades in her department are so high. First, she notes UW-Madison is the state’s most selective institution. And the department of curriculum and instruction, which doesn’t admit students until their junior year in a selective process, admits the “best of the best.”

“You just can’t have a normal grade distribution when you get so many great students,” she says. “It’s like, how many F’s do they give in astronaut school?”

But Stuart Rojstaczer, who has researched grading trends across the country, has a different take.

“Education schools across the country aren’t very good,” says Rojstaczer, a former professor of geophysics at Duke University and the creator of GradeInflation.com, a website that tracks grading trends. “They have students who are not our best and brightest, because the job doesn’t pay well, and they have an educational philosophy that simply does not believe in grading. This has been a long-standing problem for at least two or three decades. Their professors aren’t particularly good and they just sort of herd their students through and give them high grades. It seems to be the ethos of education schools.”

Ladson-Billings says that when students don’t show the makings of a good teacher they are “counseled out of the program.” She also argues that the vast majority of grades awarded — 81.6 percent last spring — in her department go to those classified as seniors. “Would you not expect seniors in their chosen major to get good grades?” she asks.

She also notes that class sizes in her department tend to be smaller, around 24 people, allowing professors to better get to know students. Perhaps most importantly, the department’s curriculum is based “on a set of standards that we have submitted to the Department of Public Instruction that say by the end of our program, we should have evidence that our students can do X, Y and Z. We are a standards-based program and we want to make sure that people meet the standards.”

Nadine Nehls, associate dean for academic programs in the School of Nursing, also defends the relatively high grades distributed to future nurses. She says her school also is a standards-based program that uses a predetermined grading scale.

“We think our standards are quite high, yet it’s possible that in any given class, theoretically there is no limit to how many students might earn an A — or any grade for that matter,” says Nehls, who has been at UW-Madison for 20 years. “We really feel there are minimum competencies that every student who graduates from our School of Nursing must have. That’s our philosophy or culture about grading.”

As in the department of curriculum and instruction, the vast majority of students taking courses in the School of Nursing are seniors. “The students who choose to apply and attend the School of Nursing are very motivated to succeed,” says Nehls. “They’ve already decided upon their major and their career. So they’re very invested, and similarly we’re very invested in assuring their success. We have lots of support services and academic support services available to students. There’s a nursing shortage and we’re interested in doing everything we can to address that.”

ASM's Zinn, a sophomore majoring in history and political science, admits to being surprised by the average grades being awarded to future teachers and nurses. “But I also don’t think it’s some big conspiracy or something where these schools said we’re going to just hand out easy grades,” he says. “I definitely trust the faculty to grade as they see fit. Sometimes an A means a lot, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Lester Hunt, a philosophy professor who edited and contributed to the 2008 book, “Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education,” says there are certain disciplines — such as music performance — where he sees no real problem if the vast majority of students receive an A. On the other hand, he says, nurses can kill people through negligence or incompetence. “So if the nursing school’s grading practices make it much harder for prospective employers to tell if a nurse is competent or not, I think that’s a serious problem.”

Wiley became interested in the topic of grade inflation during his days as provost, from 1994 to 2000, and later as UW-Madison’s chancellor from 2001 to 2008.

“One of the places where universities tend to be weak is studying themselves,” says Wiley, who continues to work at UW-Madison as the interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and as a professor teaching a graduate-level course in the La Follette School of Public Affairs. “I just thought it was a healthy thing to examine our grades and grading practices and see if we were happy with what we found.”

So Wiley spearheaded a campuswide self-study that led to a 1999 report titled “Trends in Undergraduate Grades.” That analysis found that between 1990 and 1998, there was a steady increase in undergraduate grade-point averages at UW-Madison, from 2.90 to 3.11. Even though the average SAT score of students on campus also went up during that period, the report indicated not all of the growth in grade-point average could be easily explained.

Additionally, the report indicated that there are wide discrepancies in grades across campus due, perhaps, to variations in how the departments and professors, themselves, view grades. These grading disparities, especially between departments on campus, continue today. So while the department of curriculum and School of Nursing hand out large numbers of A’s, the average grades awarded in the departments of mathematics (2.78), chemistry (2.92), economics (2.93), nutritional sciences (2.93), and geology and geophysics (2.96) were below a 3.0 in the spring of 2009. Likewise, while the average grade given out in most departments increased over the past 10 years, there are a few departments on campus — chemistry, computer science, anthropology and political science, to name a few — that recorded slight declines.

Part of this variation could be linked to the fact that there is no uniform grading policy across campus — something some students wish would change.

“I’m trying to get into medical school and it’s frustrating,” says Sheala Mullaney, a junior majoring in pharmacology and toxicology.  “I can work my butt off and come out of school with a 3.5 in my major, and a women’s study major going pre-med can come out with a 3.9 due to a much easier schedule. All of my courses have very strict policies — some where only 10 percent or 20 percent can get A’s.”

None of this surprises Hunt, who learned while assembling his book on grade inflation that “there is no orthodox view anymore of what the function of grading is.”

Some argue grades are a good way to differentiate students once they hit the job market, while others believe grades should mainly be used as a tool to motivate students. Still others contend the main purpose of grading is to offer feedback to teachers for how well they are getting their lessons across, and others say they’re a way of “border guarding,” or maintaining standards of what is or isn’t good work.

Overall, Wiley says he is generally comfortable with the grading practices used across campus — even if the average grade awarded by one department is above a 3.9.

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“One thing I learned is that grades don’t mean the same thing in every school or college,” says Wiley, who started his career at UW-Madison as a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering in 1975. “The School of Education has a philosophy of grading that is very different from one in the College of Letters and Science. It’s more like a professional school, where there are certain things you must know and you must know them to at least a minimum level of competence, and hopefully the minimum is set pretty high. And it’s the professor’s job to get you to that level of competence. And the grade is to indicate whether you achieved that level of competence. It’s not to distinguish among students. And so that’s basically a pass-fail system, and you either give them an A or something else.”

In fact, one current student who is studying to become a teacher says places such as the School of Education and School of Nursing should consider implementing a pass/fail grading system.

“The course work once one gets into these specific vocational programs is designed more around teaching competencies, skills and methodologies specific to the profession and how to effectively work and cooperate with others and less about the competition for individual grades and individual prestige and self-sorting that takes place within other disciplines,” says Joseph Koss, who already has a BS in philosophy and political science, and is in his final year as a secondary education major.

The topic of grade inflation is neither new nor unique to UW-Madison.

“Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily — grade A for work of not very high merit, and grade B for work not far above mediocrity,” notes a paper out of Harvard University titled, “Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard.” The paper was published in 1894.

And according to Rojstaczer, who has collected data on average grades from more than 200 institutions, the rate of grade inflation at UW-Madison is right in line with the averages of other selective state flagship institutions.

Rojstaczer, a Milwaukee native who earned his undergraduate degree at UW-Madison in 1977, theorizes the resurgence of grade inflation in the 1980s is likely tied to the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education. As tuition continues to skyrocket, students are paying more for the product every year — more often than not, Rojstaczer argues, they are rewarded with a good grade for their purchase.

In Rojstaczer’s opinion, grades should serve two purposes: To motivate students and to identify outstanding performers.

Not all students need external motivation, he says, but a significant portion of 18- to 22-year-olds do.  “If every grade is a B-plus or better, there is no incentive and you end up having a significant percentage of the class that has no good reason to try and excel,” Rojstaczer says in a phone interview from Palo Alto, Calif., where he consults on water issues and is writing a book. 

In fact, as grades have crept up, the amount of time students are studying appears to be dropping.

According to a paper titled “Leisure College, USA,” which was published in 2008 by two University of California system researchers, the average study time for full-time students at four-year institutions across the U.S. dropped from 24.4 hours per week in 1961 to 14.5 hours per week in 2003. More recently, the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement indicated more than two-thirds of freshman and senior undergraduates at UW-Madison reported spending 20 hours or less per week preparing for class.

“When we look at the amount of effort students are putting into their academics, it’s surprisingly low,” says Aaron Brower, UW-Madison’s vice provost for teaching and learning.

That, argues Moses, is a clear indication that academic expectations are generally being set too low across the UW-Madison campus.

“If we are promoting the importance of a future, knowledge-based economy, then students at UW-Madison should be way out in front on this,” says Moses. “As far as universities go, we’re certainly on the high end of things rather than the low end. Consequently, students need to be accustomed to performing at a level that I think they’re just not accustomed to performing at.”

Many of today’s students, however, say it’s ludicrous to suggest they aren’t working hard on their studies and assert the appearance of grade inflation is little more than a myth.

“True inflation would mean that grades would have to increase at a faster rate than the quality of the work they are supposed to reflect,” says Koss, the education major. “So the numbers only show grades increasing, not grades actually inflating, and there isn’t good data to show the latter. One may be able to hypothesize that grades increasing may be an indicator of grade inflation, but without a database of actual student work going back to 1958 or 1988 with which one can compare today’s work to, this cannot be said authoritatively.”

Perhaps John Wiley said it best while addressing the Grade Inflation and Academic Standards Conference in the fall of 2003: “Grade inflation is one of those topics that initially seem clear and simple, but become murkier and more confusing the longer you think about them.”