There was a flurry of re-shares last week for this article about Yale shutting down a site that aggregated student course evaluations, which is fine as far as it goes, but repeats a stat that really bugs me:
About 43 percent of college letter grades in 2011 were A’s, up from 31 percent in 1988 and 15 percent in 1960, a 2011 study found. Over roughly the same span, the average amount of studying by people enrolled in college declined almost 50 percent, a 2011 study found, from 25 hours per week to 13 hours.
This is less bad than the usual, thanks to including the 1988 point, but it’s still kind of deceptive, suggesting a steady monotonic increase in A’s from 1960 to the present. In fact, though, the historical trend is lumpier, as you can see in the “featured image” at the top of this post, which I’ve blogged about before. In fact, nearly half of that increase occurred very rapidly, during the Vietnam era– The fraction of A’s increased from 15% to over 30% in just 14 years– in fact, the 1988 fraction is probably slightly less than the early-70′s peak. But saying “increased from 33% in 1974 to 43% in 2011″ doesn’t sound as dramatic as “increased from 15% in 1960 to 43% in 2011.”
Now, as I said, the recent piece is better than a lot of others in quoting one intermediate point, and you can argue that if you drew a straight line from 1960 through 1988 you’d hit the 2011 point, or close to it. But then, if you look at the trend in the early 1960′s, before things really go nuts around 1966, and extrapolate that you would also come pretty close to the modern number. Which kind of undercuts the claim that any modern phenomenon is to blame– back in the idyllic days when the professors who taught my professors were walking uphill through the snow to adhere to rigorous classroom standards, grades were creeping upward at more or less the same rate they are now.
This is not to say that the core point of the Post blog is wrong– there are lots of reasons to think that student opinion surveys are a lousy measure of the quality of a course, and lots of reasons to think that Yale was kind of stupid about what they did. But the grade inflation stat, as usually presented, is not the strong argument for this that people seem to think.
As noted above, I’ve made this point before, but it seemed to surprise a bunch of folks on social media when I mentioned it last week, so it’s worth repeating. If you want to see what dramatic grade inflation looks like, you need to look at the college days of the Baby Boomers, not the kids these days with their baggy pants and hip-hop music who won’t stay off the damn lawn.