Education: Too Many A's

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College grades, along with almost everything else, have been going up lately. Stanford University undergraduates were astonished recently to read in the student paper that their grade point average had spiraled to 3.5 + (or just under an A). "I've worked hard to get good grades here, and I thought they would help when I was ready for grad school," said Patricia Pels, a senior. "Now I find out everybody has good grades."

Indeed, in the past few years, the grade glut has been spreading across academe. At Yale, 42% of all undergraduate spring-term grades were A's, and 46% of the senior class graduated with honors. "It's ridiculous," says Eva Balogh, dean of Yale's Morse College. "They get a B and they bawl. It takes a man or woman of real integrity to give a B." At American University, 75% of all grades last spring were A's and B's, leading an undergraduate dean to ask for a faculty inquiry. At the University of Pittsburgh, the average grade was C five years ago; now it is B.

Why? Many students are using pass/fail options in difficult courses, thus reducing the percentage of low letter grades. For their part, many professors started giving higher grades in the late '60s to help students escape the draft, and some have wanted to avoid what they regard as the "punitive" effects of grading. Explains Pittsburgh Dean Robert Marshall: "We're getting away from the old concept that people should be required to jump through hoops." Some instructors are overly aware of the faculty evaluations their students will write at the end of the course. In effect, they are bribing students with good grades to get good grades themselves. Others are simply being generous, awarding more A's and B's because students need them to get into graduate school. This is tough on graduate schools. "Everyone coming in with a 4.0 makes it hard to evaluate the grades," says William Keogh, assistant dean of Stanford's law school. As a result, many graduate schools are increasingly depending on entrance exams.

The Stanford faculty committee that first uncovered the staggering grade point average was appointed four years ago when the university did away with D and F grades and permitted students to take a pass/fail option in any course outside their major. The committee has until Christmas to make its final report on how the new system is working. It probably will not be too harsh. "We just live in a nonjudgmental society," said Committee Chairman Bradley Efron, a professor of statistics. But today's graduates may be in for a rude shock when they discover that in the workaday world, not everyone can count on A's.