Grade Inflation Must Go

Like any student, I love seeing that beautiful letter “A” on my transcript. Throw a plus on it, and I’m even happier. Hell, give me an A- or a B+, it’s all gravy. But that’s not what school should be like.

A quick glance at the Courserank grade distributions tells you that the average grade in a Stanford class appears to be a B+, with occasional deviations up into the A- or down to the B. This isn’t just the self-reported data: looking at the officially reported data from the Engineering School, I saw only a few classes that did not have a B+ (or higher!) as the class average. While I can’t claim that my study was definitive, I would find it incredibly hard to believe that the average grade weren’t at least a B. That means that scores are basically bunched between A and B-, since many classes don’t offer the A+ or it’s reserved for beyond extraordinary students, and understandably so. Outside of introductory courses, professors want to save the mark of pure excellence for extremely rare students. But should it really be the case that giving an A+ is the only way to mark a strong student? By bunching the grades so heavily, the power of the A and even the A- has diminished greatly.

It doesn’t have to be this way; Stanford can and should take a stand against grade inflation. For starters, the curve for classes should be shifted down to having them be curved to a B. This means that there would be the B+, A-, and A above the curve and a B-, C+, C, and C-, with the A+ and D still reserved for exceptional students, good and bad respectively. If we’re willing to go harder, classes could (and should) get curved to a B-, with the full range of Cs below and the D, as well as the dreaded “NC” below, while B, B+, A-, and A lie above.

But wait, won’t such a change penalize Stanford students, in particular those that take challenging classes? No, for two reasons. First, we are at Stanford, one of the nation’s premier universities, so if Stanford announces this policy, employers and grad schools will take note. They won’t just write off Stanford students as suddenly becoming collectively stupider. Second, Stanford could combine this with the addition of a column showing the class average in each class that you take on your transcript. This change alone would free teachers from the pressure to curve the grades so highly as it would allow people who are looking at the transcripts to see how the student did in comparison to others in the class. Got a B+ in a class with a B- average? It’ll be clear that you did the work and did well. An A in a class with an A average? Well, you can’t hide in soft classes any more. It’s time for Stanford to take a stand on this issue.

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