NAS member Chuck Chalberg, who teaches US History at Normandale Community College in Minnesota, recently wrote this piece on grade inflation for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
I concur that grade inflation is ubiquitous throughout the academy – as a friend who recently completed her doctorate in psychology at one of the Ivies discovered. She’d been serving as a TA and graded undergraduate assignments with what she thought was the appropriate level of rigor for her school. This produced a pretty standard grade distribution, reflective of the performance disparity among the students. How else would you do it? Surprise: her professor revised nearly all of the grades upward, so that there were left no failures, few C's, and mostly A’s and B’s. After all, these were very smart kids, and their grades should be at a level that reflected that fact. Plus, I suspect that the students also thought that they were really, really smart, and would have been quite angry and thrown some major tantrums if they got what they actually deserved. Bully for trying, though.
As one who also teaches at a community college in New Jersey, I agree with Chuck that you feel the heat at that level for a variety of reasons, including the increasing pressure from administrators and state legislators who want to see evidence of “success.” Students, after all, are “customers” who’ve paid for their courses, and “customers” deserve satisfaction. Whether or not they've learned anything seems secondary to the need to stick diplomas into their hands.
There’re a couple of other factors as well. One is the fact that, as open admissions institutions, community colleges find themselves obliged to try and educate increasingly large numbers of students who aren’t ready for college, who never should have been graduated from high school – where there’s also very heavy pressure for “success” – and who invariably end up in remedial courses to help them acquire the skills they should have picked up long before. Rather than fail them, the demand for “success” means that they’ll be walked through and graduated as they’ve done all through K-12, and to do that we’ve got to give ‘em the grades that produce the results. Naturally, that means that those who would have passed with C's will now be bumped up to A's or B's.
The other factor is the large number of adjunct faculty employed by community colleges. They’re certainly a lopsided majority where I teach. Since they don’t have tenure, or even the guarantee of employment from one semester to the next, I think they feel especially squeezed to award lots of A’s, in hopes of gaining positive student evaluations and hanging on to their jobs. For all I know, I might do likewise were I in their shoes, but it makes it harder for us full-timers to justify our tougher standards when students complain about “my other teachers” who aren’t such big meanies. Not surprisingly. it's a tendency found increasingly among untenured junior full-timers anxious about tenure and promotion.
I join with Chuck in hoping that these circumstances will change, but in the short term, at least, I’m pretty pessimistic about the likelihood that they will.