Students at Georgetown may not be learning as much as their grades indicate.

According to a report on academic standards issued by philosophy department chair Wayne Davis in 1997, grades are on the rise at Georgetown, and statistics show Georgetown’s grade distribution is dramatically higher than the average distribution at even the most selective institutions. “[Georgetown’s] current grade distributions are high by nearly every available comparison,” Davis said.

But some students, like Britania Boey (MSB ’02), said they do not believe the existence of high grades is an indicator of grade inflation.

“Just because we have high grades doesn’t mean [professors] are throwing grades around,” she said.

Davis offered a definition for grade inflation. “[Grade inflation] would mean an increase in grades without a change in the quality of work on which the grade is based. To prove a charge of grade inflation, you have to provide evidence that students weren’t doing any better or worse but were getting better grades for it.”

According to statistics compiled by the Office of Planning and Institutional Research, the number of `A’ grades awarded at Georgetown has increased dramatically over the past 15 years.

“What you see is a very dramatic shift in terms of the increase in the number of `A’ grades and a decrease in the number of average to failing grades,” said Michael cGuire, executive director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Research. “So statistically, this is evidence of grade inflation – by definition, you see shifts of the distribution.”

McGuire cited recent statistics that said 46 percent of the grades distributed in the fall of 1999 were `A’s or `A-‘s. In the fall of 1984, 10 years before “minus” grades were implemented, only 28 percent of grades distributed were `A’s. The number of `C’ and below grades decreased from 21 percent to 10 percent between 1984 and 1999.

“You could have inflated grades that are accurate representations of students’ achievement,” McGuire said, “and in the 1999 figures, what you see could statistically be considered grade inflation, but there’s no evidence that those students don’t deserve high grades.”

Psychology professor James Lamiell encouraged those who discuss grade inflation to differentiate between high grades as a result of low standards and high grades as a result of exceptional work. According to Lamiell, an abundance of `A’s may reflect the caliber of the student body. “The idea that somehow [Georgetown students] would conform to a curve from the general population is, of course, nonsensical,” Lamiell said.

The Committee on Georgetown’s Intellectual Life addressed the question of grade inflation in the 1995-96 school year. The committee submitted its findings to the Executive Faculty of the ain Campus in 1997, suggesting the root of the grade inflation problem was the low grading standards of the university, as well as low expectations of the faculty.

“Many of Georgetown’s undergraduates lack a seriousness of purpose and an intellectual habit of mind, and they do only what they must to maintain their grades,” the committee wrote in its report. “And yet, we had only to reflect on the routinely high grades that so many of our students receive to recognize that we, their professors, shared the responsibility for this discrepancy between the high grades of students and the amount of work they report.”

Davis’ report supported the findings of the Committee on Intellectual Life. The report cited statistics as recent as 1996 and identified grading that could be inflated within Georgetown and in comparison to other schools.

The percentage of `A’s steadily increased from 27 percent to 42 percent between 1974 and 1994 at Georgetown. That percentage is even higher today, according to statistics provided by McGuire.

While the number of `A’s awarded at Georgetown has steadily increased, the national average has decreased slightly, from 31 percent to 29 percent. This means that nationwide Georgetown has more grade inflation than other universities.

According Davis’ 1991 statistics, 33 percent of Georgetown graduates had a grade point average over 3.5, compared with 25 percent at peer schools. This peer group includes 31 highly selective universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Duke and Johns Hopkins. Rachel Hoy (COL ’03) said people at Georgetown work harder when compared with most institutions but argued that “some people get `A’s very easily.”

Despite high grades, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT and GRE scores for Georgetown students were relatively low compared with those of students at the top graduate schools, according to Davis’ report.

Davis also discovered Georgetown students’ grades were high relative to time spent studying. Basing his results on the 1994 Senior Survey, Davis reported in his survey that “24 percent of GU students study more than 16 hours per week compared with 36 percent at peer schools.”

Many of Davis’ findings were based on statistics published before 1996, but McGuire’s 1998 and 1999 statistics also show an increase in the number of `A’s. This lead McGuire to think that the increase cannot totally be attributed to the academic caliber of the student body.

“From 1997 to 1999, I don’t think you can argue that the strength of our students has increased that much over time,” McGuire said.

Some argue that “grade deflation” would negatively affect Georgetown graduates when they enter the job market or apply to graduate school. Ellen Henderson, chair of the biology department, said her department walks “a fine balance between holding the line on grade inflation and not putting students at a disadvantage when they graduate.” She worries that Georgetown graduates under a grade deflation would not be able to compete with students from other schools that inflate their grades.

“The students who come to Georgetown are exceptional and they are going to go out and compete with other schools,” Henderson said. “How do our students compete for grad school and med school with other institutions, most of whom inflate their grades?”

Davis’ report suggested just the opposite. “Our transcripts will be interpreted by employers and admissions committees in light of the fact that we are a highly selective, `top 25 university.’ There is no reason … why our grade distribution should be higher than that of the average peer university,” he wrote.

One possible solution for grade inflation is the enforcement of a norm-referenced distribution. For example, in a norm-referenced system a test score of 90 percent may warrant a `C’ if the class’ average is 90 percent. However, Lamiell said a norm-referenced grade distribution may be problematic, because it often leads to a situation where a student’s grade depends on the performance of others, not his or her own.

“I could force the grades into a distribution that looks more like [a bell-shaped curve],” he said. “Now you come and you take my class. You say, `Professor Lamiell, what must I do to earn an `A’ in the class?’ I have to say to you, `I don’t know, and the reason I don’t know is that whether or not you get an `A’ in this class depends in part on what the other students do.’ And you say to me, `Do you mean, Professor Lamiell, that the grade you’re going to assign to me is not solely contingent on my performance?’ Answer: `Yes.'”

Davis offered several recommendations to ameliorate low standards and grade inflation, such as increasing the intellectual level of courses and students’ workload. Most significantly, however, Davis suggested increasing overall grading standards by adopting a grade distribution target similar to peer school’s averages which would yield an average GPA of about 3.12.

Davis’ new grade distribution recommended changing the meaning of a `C’ from “acceptable” to “mediocre,” as well as setting a target percentage for the number of `A’s awarded: 30 percent, down from 40 percent. `B’ grades were targeted at 45 percent, an increase from 54 percent; `C’ at 11 percent, a decrease from 13 percent; and `D’ and `F’ grades at about the same levels.

“The percentages indicated are intended not as quotas, but as targets to be used in setting standards for individual courses,” Davis wrote in his report.

While Davis’ targets have been approved by the Executive Faculty, they are not mandatory but rather were instated as a guideline for professors when formulating class grades. According to Davis, several administrators who supported the targets left Georgetown shortly after the report was issued.

Although the Executive Faculty supported these guidelines when the Intellectual Life Committee published its findings in 1997, the number of `A’s has actually increased since then.

“Instead of correcting inflation a little bit, [the report] had no impact,” McGuire said.

Lamiell said he objected to any solution that would force grades at Georgetown to conform to a pre-set norm or curve. Investing time and money in an effort to legislate the grading standard of every professor in every department is simply not practical, he said. According to McGuire, any solution would begin at the departmental level.

“In terms of what really gets enforced, supervised and checked up on, that all happens at the departmental level,” cGuire said. “You look at these departments that have three-fourths of the students in their courses getting `A’s. I think it’s a good question to ask, `Are your students really that strong? Are your students really stronger than in this other course where only 48 percent are getting `A’s? That’s a 25-percentage point swing. That’s significant.”

Lamiell suggested retaining the current system, hoping students are assigned a grade that accurately warrants the quality of their work measured against a set of challenges the faculty has put forth.

“I think we have to rely on the good judgment and the sense of responsibility and commitment of the faculty to strive to give the students at Georgetown a worthy educational experience – and part of what `worthy’ means is challenging,” Lamiell said. “We just have to try to do the best we can, and then I think these other problems take care of themselves.”

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