Transparency could fix grade inflation


A good compromise is rare, but not impossible. Texas students, parents and employers probably have some vague idea that something is amiss with grades at Texas colleges. It's hard to pin down just what "grade inflation" is. It's even harder to figure out what to do about it.

Texas has an idea — transparency.

How serious a problem is grade inflation?

"A recent study of 200 colleges and universities found that more than 40 percent of all grades awarded were in the A range," notes U.S. News & World Report. "Some have argued that these inflated grades are necessary to help students get ahead in a competitive job market. While that might be true for an individual professor or university, at the national level grade inflation is a negative-sum game that imposes serious costs on society. Therefore, universities need to take steps to bring it under control."

The problem is that grades exist for a reason.

Without grade inflation, a truly outstanding student might be awarded an A, while a very good student might receive a B+," the magazine explains. "With grade inflation, both students receive As, making it hard for employers and graduate schools to differentiate them. There is also evidence that lenient grading reduces student effort."

The Texas Public Policy Foundation's Thomas Lindsay explains it's a real problem.

"As monetary inflation devalues the dollar, grade inflation debases the currency of education: student transcripts," he wrote recently in Forbes. "Consequently, employers regularly complain that transcripts have become less-than-reliable indicators of genuine academic achievement. When a plethora of new graduates appear every year at job interviews sporting sterling transcripts, how is one to tell the real A's from the inflated ones?"

It also negatively impacts students.

"At the deepest level, grade inflation is a moral issue," he wrote. "Why? Because it deceives students. How? One of the fundamental truths of existence, concurred in by all the world's major religions and philosophers, is that life is difficult. Further, it is only through cultivating excellence of mind and character that we can learn to deal with life's inevitable difficulties."

Now, here's where a whole host of really bad solutions could emerge. Lawmakers in either Washington or Austin have no business dictating what goes on in a classroom. There's no good argument for the legislative branch to insert itself between a professor and the grade book.

But some Texas lawmakers have a solution, and it makes sense.

"Texas House Bill 1196, along with its identical companion, Senate Bill 499, would require ‘Open' or ‘Honest Transcripts' of all Texas public universities," Lindsay explains. "Similar to some of the measures described immediately above, the bill would require schools to ‘place the average or median grade, as applicable, immediately to the right of the student's individual grade' on official transcripts."

It stops short of telling schools how to grade — it just requires them to say what their grades actually are.

What would become readily apparent, to students, parents and employers, is whether a schools is inflating grades. After that, the free market will do the rest.