A lot of pixels have been spent discussing this study of grade inflation, brought to most people’s attention via this New York Times blog. The key graph is this one, showing the fraction of grades given in each letter category over the last fifty years:
Lots of effort is being put into trying to explain why the number of A’s given out has increased so much over this time span, with most of it focussing on the last twenty years or so (see Mad Mike for a plausible but wrong explanation– the fraction of students going on to graduate school isn’t big enough to drive this). I think this is misguided, though, because it buys into one of the most pernicious myths about grade inflation, perpetuated by older professors: that grade inflation is something new, brought on by spineless younger faculty who can’t hold to high standards. The really important thing about this graph is that it ought to blow that theory out of the water.
If you look at the data, it’s abundantly clear that grade inflation is not a recent phenomenon. First and foremost, there’s that huge Vietnam-era lump, with the fraction of A’s given basically doubling between 1966 and 1974. Even before that, though, there’s a clear upward trend. In fact, if you use a piece of paper as a straight edge, you can see that the points from 1960-1966 fall on the same sloping line as the points from 1988-2008.
So if you want somebody to blame for grade inflation, blame the Baby Boomers. First, as students, they got a gigantic bump in grades that many people are happy to attribute to faculty helping them avoid the draft. Then, as they entered the faculty ranks, they continued the upward trend begun before the Vietnam era. There’s nothing new about modern grade inflation that wasn’t happening during the Baby Boom years, so the next time some older professor starts in on the “Back in my day…” routine, show him this graph, and tell him it’s all his fault.
(Of course, this model breaks down circa 1925, when a backwards extrapolation of the line would suggest that there were no A’s given out at all…)