Arizona State University’s business school is pushing faculty to award fewer A’s in an effort to beat back a rising tide of grade inflation and shore up its academic reputation.
No strict limits are being placed on top grades at the W.P. Carey School of Business. However, Robert Mittelstaedt Jr., the school’s dean, instructed professors to closely monitor — and possibly reduce — how many students receive the highest marks.
Each department in the business school has been free to decide for itself how many A’s are too many, Mittelstaedt said.
The measures are needed, faculty say, to show accrediting agencies and the companies that hire ASU business graduates that a high grade point average from the school is an accomplishment rather than the norm.
“We’ve tried to make sure that getting an A-plus really means something,” said Barbara Keats, a business management professor.
Professors teaching evening courses in the Master of Business Administration program are urged to give top grades to no more than 45 percent of each class, according to a department e-mail distributed in June.
Keats said her undergraduate department looked at the average grade in each class last semester and, if it was higher than a low B, the instructors should reconsider how they score students.
Students will learn of the change at the start of the fall semester, said Gerry Keim, an associate dean heading the masters program.
Students typically voice the loudest opposition to forcing lower grades, arguing that it unfairly upsets the graduate school and career plans of those already enrolled.
In this case, the change was launched by complaints from honors graduate students disgruntled that their lazier colleagues’ grades were nearly the same as their own, Mittelstaedt said.
Steve McBride, president of the business school’s student council and a finance major, said he would embrace a more arduous program. “You pay to be educated and to be educated you want it to be challenging, because that’s the way you learn more,” McBride said.
It remains to be seen if a majority of students will embrace lower marks when classes resume in August.
The business college’s move toward grade deflation comes as the rise in scores nationwide has again fallen under scrutiny. A federal panel reviewing university issues — the Future of Higher Education Commission — singled out grade inflation as a serious problem in a highly critical draft report last month.
Only a handful of universities have attempted to reverse the steady rise in marks. Boston University and Princeton University have implemented caps to force down grade point averages.
The rest of ASU is not following the business school’s example, said Ruth Jones, the university’s vice provost. There has been insufficient proof that the grade increase is not legitimate, she said.
“These students are highly competitive, hard-charging and they want to be at the top of whatever they’re doing,” Jones said. “And that means A’s and B’s.”
Mittelstaedt bristles at the suggestion the business school is deflating grades. Rather, he argues, professors are better defining what merits a top grade — which will likely result in fewer of them.
The business school itself has not determined for sure that its grades have inflated, Mittelstaedt said.
Grade inflation is essentially the lifting of all grades so that a majority of students cluster at the top, making it difficult to differentiate between average and excellent students. Researchers have attributed the phenomenon’s current surge to what’s now the prevailing mindset at universities — that students are customers who must be satisfied.
When Yuhchang Hwang, a W.P. Carey School of Business accountancy professor, began his teaching career 20 years ago at the University of Pittsburgh the professor held far more power than his students. “We’d joke around with the students and tell them, ‘We’ll give you an F for friendship,’ ” Hwang said.
Today, such joking might cause a negative instructor review, which students in the business school complete at the end of each course. The reviews are taken seriously and have a significant impact on each professors’ standing in the college, Keats said.
Several faculty members said they believe their colleagues lift scores because they fear poor reviews.
“I certainly can’t fault these younger untenured professors for trying to, sort of you know, play out what’s in their best interest,” Keats said.
Professors also must be wary of the Internet, Hwang said. Web sites such as Pick-AProf and RateMy Professors.com allow students to post their thoughts about instructors anonymously. Instructors’ abilities are discussed, along with how tough they grade and how attractive they are.
“This has put the faculty in a very awkward position,” Hwang said.
Keim contends those worries are overblown. The business college recently finished a study of grade distribution and professor evaluations and found that one does not affect the other in a statistically significant way, he said.