State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, said on Wednesday that he is preparing to revive a push to curb grade inflation at Texas public colleges and universities in the next legislative session.
Earlier this year, Turner filed a bill that would have required institutions to include on students’ transcripts, alongside the grade earned in a given course, the average or median grade awarded in that class. Pass-fail courses or classes with no more than 10 students would have been exempt.
The legislation, House Bill 3498, easily passed the House but stalled in the Senate Higher Education Committee. Turner said it received pushback from members of the academic community who felt it was a prescriptive measure that was addressing something that was not actually a significant problem.
When he said was not giving up on the issue on Wednesday, Turner was at the Capitol participating in a panel hosted by Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, that also featured Brian Roberts, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Thomas Lindsay, director of the foundation’s Center for Higher Education.
It was Lindsay who initially brought the issue to Turner’s attention. Lindsay cited a study of grade inflation nationally by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor, and Christopher Healy, a current Furman University professor, that found that in 1960, 15 percent of all grades awarded were A’s. Today, Rojstaczer and Healy found, A’s make up about 43 percent of all grades.
The problem with grade inflation, Lindsay said, is that “it eats at the essence and morale of a learning institution.” He also expressed concern that it leads to an underprepared workforce. “I worry that we’re doing our students a disservice by signaling to them that this is how hard you need to work in order to succeed,” he said.
Turner said his bill would help ensure that students and parents knew they were getting value out of their investment in college.
But Roberts cautioned that any meaningful effort to combat grade inflation would have to come from employers in the business community.
“We’re going to have a problem getting a lot of enthusiasm from students to attack this problem,” Roberts said.
He also noted the conflicting pressures professors are under from higher education reformers. TPPF, for example, has called for combating grade inflation and also — as part of a controversial set of higher ed reforms unveiled in 2008 — providing financial rewards for professors with high student evaluations. “So be careful what you ask for,” Roberts said.
In Texas, because of the state law that grants students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes automatic admission to public universities, Roberts noted that many students are conditioned to place a significant emphasis on grades before they even arrive on campus.
“GPA becomes the guiding force in their lives,” he said. “That is the measure of success.” He noted that this pressure can, in some classes, cause the lowest performers to drop out before the final grades are awarded. Then, he said, “what would have been a very pleasing grade distribution suddenly looks bad.”
The concept of “Honest Transcripts” that include courses’ average grades has been promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council and adopted at some individual institutions elsewhere in the country.
“I think it would be a real feather in the hat of Texas to become the first state to institute this,” Lindsay said. “I think it would send a powerful message and a good message.
Lindsay acknowledged, however, that changes to the transcripts are not a silver bullet in the battle against grade inflation. But he said one benefit of the proposal is that it does not require universities to change behavior but rather heightens awareness of the issue.
“It rests in the faith, which is really the essence of democratic faith,” Lindsay said, “that people are capable of enlightened consent and a transparency measure like this, shining light on the issue, will help people demand better.”