As UCLA students, the concept of grade deflation is such a common part of our academic lives, we have no choice but to adapt to the strict grading style. The practice of creating harder standards of grading, albeit despised, has become widespread across several institutions in the United States. Nonetheless, there are many institutions that flood their students’ transcripts with a sea of saggy A’s, which has caused many to doubt what the grading system has evolved into.
Grade deflation is the practice of giving an extreme dose of lower grades (Cs and Ds) and a few As and Bs. This is usually done by setting a hard curve, causing most of the students to fall into the lower grade brackets automatically. On the other hand, grade deflation can also be implemented by making tougher exams, preventing students from falling in the +90% range, which is often the A-grade range for scaled classes. Sometimes, both these methods are used simultaneously.
As a third-year computer science (CS) student, I have had a fair share of encounters with this problem. In my spring quarter of freshman year, I received an email from my CS33 professor with my midterm score, let’s call that x% (<50). As a freshman, I wasn’t well acquainted with grade deflation (especially in particular engineering courses), so I felt downbeat and discouraged until, hours later, the follow-up email revealed the median to be 10 points lower. This, coupled with the measly 8% of A’s distributed among the class, is unfortunately not a rare occurrence in classes at UCLA.
A lot of other students face an analogous problem. Midterm grades around 60% in particularly tough classes are deemed high grades. In this case, even though students don’t have command over the course materials, they are awarded high marks, supposedly to indicate proficiency/mastery of the material. A-grades are supposed to indicate mastery in the course material. Having said that, if a person receives a high grade with a low overall percentage sore, that can only imply that either the professor is adding out-of-syllabus material to the exam or the students receiving the high grade are not proficient in the subject.
On the flip side, we see that some universities practice grade inflation, where As are pushed to a huge chunk of the class. Students often have to do minimal work to achieve their desired grade, which discourages learning and many academics believe that’s an intrinsic flaw in our academic society. This reason has caused a drastic decrease in participation of activities like office hours and discussion because students don’t have an incentive to engage in extra intellectual discussions. That isolated incentive to work towards the grade as opposed to expanding intellectual horizons is really resented by academics today.
Another issue that’s akin to that of grade deflation is grade boosting. Some universities like Stanford award students with 4.3 for receiving an A+ in a class. This only intensifies the GPA standardization problem, as graduate schools and recruiters don’t have a standard metric for evaluating candidates. Grade boosting, coupled with grade inflation, implies that a GPA of 3.8 could mean very different academic standards even though they’re the same number.
This whole issue of grade inflation and deflation is most certainly a problem. Having said that, it is imperative to really find out what this means in the first place. The meanings of certain grades vary vastly from university to university, and this also causes an omnipresent dissent between the faculty and the students. Questions like “Does an A refer to mastery or a better percentile?” and “Does a C necessarily mean the student failed to grasp the core subject matter” are widely debated, and it prevents any action being taken regarding grade deflation.
Nevertheless, it is still critical to have some standardization of grades both within and across universities. By finding a compromise between a metric of the student’s commitment and his standing in the class, a new grading system would be lucrative and worthwhile for everyone involved in the process. This would especially be useful during recruitment, graduate school applications etc., where the GPA is taken into consideration for admission.
By: Samar Seth
Class of 2020