- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

Recently, reports surfaced that Princeton University has tried to solve an academic problem affecting many other social problems: grade inflation. We see the consequences of this regularly when many public school students fail to test up to graduation standards. Too many of my fellow academicians — and the general public — have their heads in the sand about this, denying it exists or that it is a real problem.

More objective measures than classroom grades indicate proficiency has not increased as grades have. While grades are up significantly from 35-40 years ago (see www.gradeinflation.com), college boards (SAT/ACT) are considerably lower than then. That is a natural result of much greater numbers of less-prepared students taking the boards and today’s students admittedly spending less time studying than since University of California-Los Angeles began examining this situation more than 15 years ago. I believe postbaccalaureate tests (GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) show a similar decline.

This is partly why grade inflation is not as unimportant as many think. Studies show employers routinely fault the skills of who high school and college graduates. Therefore, they raise required job credentials — hoping to ensure current baccalaureate or graduate degree holders have the skills former graduates once possessed.

Inflated grades also inflate a graduate’s expectations of marketplace potential. A recent study found the modal high school senior expected to earn at least $75,000 by age 30. The average 30-year-old now makes about $30,000. The anticipated income is true of about 15 percent of households.

Relative deprivation theory suggests those whose expectations are vastly disparate from reality are likeliest to be dissatisfied and react negatively. When we contribute to such inflated expectations by grading policies divorced from marketplace realities, we set graduates up for dissatisfaction and disillusionment — at best — and perhaps even narcissistic aggressive retaliation for offended pride, social psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests.

While there are many contributing factors, it’s no mere coincidence the U.S. has gone from the largest creditor nation in the world 20 years ago tothe largest debtor nation. Based on what they learned in school, our workers expect high pay for mediocre products and services. Employers must respond somewhat to these expectations. Consequently, “domestic” has become a synonym for overpriced, inferior goods. (Indeed, quality reports on Japanese cars built in U.S. factories rate them lower than those built abroad).

Ergo, people around the world (Americans included) prefer to buy products with higher quality and better value — negatively affecting our balance of trade. This indicates the educational quality crisis both reflected and affected by grade inflation.

Higher quality and better value from abroad result from the educational standards and expectations of other countries. American students compare unfavorably to those abroad — except in academic self-esteem.

The American Electronics Association blames offshoring on inadequate math and science education that leaves U.S. graduates unprepared for workplace demands. A National Science Foundation representative has acknowledged we are losing our dominance in science and technology, and Americans are issued a lower percentage of new patents than in the past. These things are hardly unimportant. (I won’t get into how inflated expectations have contributed to marital dissatisfaction and divorce in the United States.)

While Princeton recently received national press for grade inflation, and it may be a more egregious problem there, it is not Princeton’s problem alone. It is widespread in education for the above noted reasons — as those of us know who have followed the literature (from the 1983 Education Department report, “A Nation at Risk”). The only unknown is whether enough of us will pull our heads out of the sand to rectify the problem, or if people like me will continue to be “voices crying in the wilderness.”


Chairman, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Law Enforcement

Normandale Community College

Bloomington, Minn.

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