Inflation Nation
Universities grapple with lower standards, higher grades
By Alex De Grand

If he were in school today, Dan "Potatoe" Quayle might be magna cum laude material.

National surveys showing large numbers of college graduates who can't perform even basic math - like calculating change from $3 for a 60 cent bowl of soup - have universities worrying about "grade inflation," an increase in reported grades accompanied by stagnant or declining student achievement.

Next fall, Eastern Kentucky University is scheduled to introduce a plus/minus grading system that is aimed at better gauging student achievement.

It will also start to "index" scores on transcripts by including an indication of how much the student's individual grade exceeded the typical grade given in the class.

These measures are part of the school's overall plan to address the problem announced last year.

But whereas EKU has openly acknowledged that measures of student achievement, such as ACT scores, remain flat even as GPAs are growing each year, some officials at the University of Kentucky aren't ready to do the same.

"Nationwide there is a lot of concern about [grade inflation], but there is less empirical data to draw that conclusion," said Phil Kraemer, the dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky.

"Some professors feel it is [a problem], but I'm reaching the point where I think it might not be," Kraemer said.

Students are paying more attention to their grades because they want to enter graduate programs that have become increasingly selective, Kraemer said.

Kraemer suggested students who are paying more attention to their grades are, in turn, paying more attention to their school work and earning those higher marks.

But a number of faculty recall students who jockeyed for better grades by other means than studying harder. For example, students will haggle and nag instructors during office hours - or have mommy or daddy do it if they aren't successful themselves.

"I've had visits from parents and phone calls from parents involving grades," said Richard Fording, a political science assistant professor at UK.

Kraemer acknowledged such episodes occur, but did not change his mind.

Before he would be ready to say whether there is grade inflation or not, Kraemer said there needs to be more testing of student knowledge after completing course work. He said this kind of "outcome testing" has begun at UK, but it will take several more years to gather data.

"There's too much speculation and not enough data," Kraemer said.

Kraemer did not agree with those like EKU officials who found signs of grade inflation through stagnant college admission test scores and simultaneously growing GPAs.

ACT and SAT test scores can predict how well a student will do in college, but they are not absolute, Kraemer said.

While UK plans to study whether grade inflation is occurring at its campus, some say EKU still has work to do beyond the actions already announced.

EKU's faculty senate recommended a three year moratorium on the use of numerical teacher evaluations completed by students for the purposes of merit pay and tenure or promotion decisions.

Typically, numerical evaluations allow students to rate how well the instructor teaches on a scale of one to four.

EKU Provost Michael Marsden said the recommendation to ban such evaluations has not been implemented because details need to be worked out. For example, the school must decide how to treat professors who seek tenure with data gathered under the old system.

Marsden said the school recognizes the faculty's concern about an over reliance on numbers to judge the quality of teaching and is considering ways to broaden the scope of evaluations.

Research on grade inflation suggests instructors grade higher when students assign a number to evaluate the quality of teaching. Many faculty say their experience supports that.

"The sole measure of our teaching performance is the course evaluation by students," Fording said. "A lot of untenured, young faculty - probably subconsciously - grade higher."

"No one comes in to watch us teach," Fording said. "We might get a few letters from a student that will go into our permanent file... But teacher evaluations are the primary - if not the only - measure."

But Fording said there is another pressure on faculty to give higher grades besides grade grubbing students and their evaluations.

"Department budgets are based on enrollment so departments are in competition with each other for majors and warm bodies to fill those seats," Fording said. "A department with a reputation for tough grading may scare away students and that's bad from a budget standpoint."

Fording said while it is impossible to say whether the individual instructor has those budget considerations in mind, it is something that concerns a department as a whole.

Michael Kennedy, a geography professor and president of UK's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the College of Arts and Sciences publishes departmental GPAs.

When told his department's GPA was "only" 2.97, Kennedy responded that's "not necessarily a bad thing."

Again, numbers drive the process.

Kennedy joked, "There's the old saying, 'Deans can't read, they can only count.'"


You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Anyone who visited downtown Lexington this weekend would've come away with the idea that it was a thriving hive of activity. Although accessibility to the Farmers' Market was nearly destroyed by the closing of Main at Rose early in the day (and further hampered by the decision to cordon off the metered spaces a dozen hours in advance of the midsummer night's race), traffic picked up around lunchtime. A crowd of thousands spent the day at Woodland Park for the annual Woodland Arts Fair (not a cornshuck doll in sight). And by the evening, thousands more had arrived downtown for the annual Midsummer Night's Run. And in a rare stroke of genius, the city leadership had apparently collaborated with the engineers who time the traffic signals, and most of the police force, to ensure that those thousands would remain downtown - the average time spent trying to exit downtown, in a car, was anecdotally estimated at about 45 minutes per city block. And many of the streets remained blocked off at around 11 p.m.

While it was a distinct pleasure to see our downtown so heavily populated, the crowds may continue to visit, but they won't stay unless and until we solve our longer term problem of making downtown friendlier to residential living, mixed use neighborhoods, and shopping. Even a phalanx of cops and an endless sea of red lights wasn't enough to hold them in on Saturday night. Short of high-voltage electric fencing, we could use a real plan.

Love Gun

Reform Party congressional candidate Gatewood Galbraith met with reporters August 22 on the steps of the Fayette County Courthouse to spotlight his endorsements from the Gun Owners of America and the Kentuckians for the Right to Bear Arms.

Galbraith blasted his opponents in the sixth congressional district race with charges of "compromising" the constitutional right to bear arms with their support for trigger locks and background checks at gun shows.

In campaign literature, Galbraith reported the Gun Owners of America rated his Democratic opponent, Scotty Baesler, a D-minus for his 1998 congressional voting record. Fletcher only received a B-minus from the group, Galbraith noted.

Erosion of gun rights is part of an overall roll back of constitutionally protected freedoms, according to Galbraith who has championed a politics of maximum personal freedom with minimum government. In that vein, the use of marijuana and hemp have been among Galbraith's other signature issues.

Asked about gun violence in schools, Galbraith called for firearm instruction for school children. He suggested if young people become familiar with guns and know how to use them properly, they will be less likely to misuse them. - ADG