Huffing and Puffing 

Grade inflation at BSU?

Hey kids--want some easy college credits? If you're attending Boise State, try enrolling in courses that grant the highest percentages of A's, such as American Sign Language (53.4 percent), construction management (51.9 percent), early childhood studies (56.3 percent), or environmental health (48.4 percent). Classes in the College of Education, including literacy (49.7 percent), special ed (53.9 percent), education technology (49.8 percent), and bilingual ed (42.0 percent) seem easiest but your overall best bets, by far, are ensemble music (89.8 percent), radiology (61.3 percent) and military science (59.7 percent).

These are some of conclusions that students might draw had they received access to a grade distribution report e-mailed to BSU deans during the first, week of classes for the spring semester. Some deans forwarded the document on to their department chairs, a few of whom passed them to faculty members. At least one chair did so under the message heading of "Grade Inflation," with the exhortation that "Grade inflation is a hot topic today. The data in the attached file may or may not be useful in discussing the topic but are certainly a good means of beginning such a discussion ... this time of the semester is indeed a good time to begin setting academic standards and establishing adequate means for gauging whether students are meeting them."

Individual instructors were also invited to see chairs personally, in order to review the records of their own grading tendencies. Some faculty recall the old warning: There are lies, there are damned lies, and then - there are statistics.

When it comes to the topic of grade inflation, or professors supposedly handing out too many high grades for undeserving work, Boise State University Provost Sona Andrews remains skeptical but concerned. "I don't know if there's real grade inflation at BSU," she said. "It's nothing we've ever looked at systematically at the university."

She speculates that tougher admissions standards, better high school preparation and improved teaching techniques and attitudes help elevate grade distributions.

"If we do our jobs, correctly, more students actually should get A's. This is really about making the students as successful as they can be," she said.

Andrews expressed more apprehension about courses in which students were failing, and about the relationship of university grades to the kinds of skill sets that employers expect of BSU graduates.

Still, some professors remain skeptical as to how the data might be put to use. Two junior faculty members who preferred not to be identified voiced concerns that the records will be held against them by department chairs concerned with reputations for academic rigor.

Anthropology professor Bob McCarl views the spreadsheets with similar suspicion. "This is simply another way in which faculty are micro-managed by overzealous administrators who used to be colleagues," he said. "Grade inflation and the proper number of 'meat like substances' in your taco exist in parallel universes of rationalized labor for control. In academia we maintain the pretense of faculty governance while the substance slips farther and farther away."

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