Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009
by Stuart Rojstaczer & Christopher Healy - 2012
Background/Context: College grades can influence a student’s graduation prospects, academic motivation, postgraduate job choice, professional and graduate school selection, and access to loans and scholarships. Despite the importance of grades, national trends in grading practices have not been examined in over a decade, and there has been a limited effort to examine the historical evolution of college grading.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Here we look at the evolution of grading over time and space at American colleges and universities over the last 70 years. Our data provide a means to examine how instructors’ assessments of excellence, mediocrity, and failure have changed in higher education.
Data Collection and Analysis: We have collected historical and contemporary data on A–F letter grades awarded from over 200 four-year colleges and universities. Our contemporary data on grades come from 135 schools, with a total enrollment of 1.5 million students.
Research Design: Through the use of averages over time and space as well as regression models, we examine how grading has changed temporally and how grading is a function of school selectivity, school type, and geographic region.
Findings/Results: Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D’s and F’s total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A’s and B’s combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.
Conclusions/Recommendations: As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses. Without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.
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