Grades have been increasing at United States colleges and universities for at least 50 years. That’s simply a fact. Many want to argue that at their university this is because students have been getting better over those 50 years. However, if this is happening everywhere, the same set of causes must be largely contributing everywhere. It’s a very hard argument to make that grades are increasing for unique reasons at each university (essentially an argument of “my place is special”). So let’s consider the premise that students are getting better over the last 50 years.

If ever-increasing grades in college over the past 50 or so years is truly representative of the academic qualities of those students when they entered college, this has to mean that the high schools in the United States have been increasing the quality of students they are graduating every year for the past 50 years.

This also has to be true of the entire population of high school graduates, because an ever-increasing proportion of the US population is attending college. Colleges and universities are now not skimming just the very best students coming out of high school as in the olden days. More high school graduates are going to college today than ever before. According to data at the National Center for Education Statistics, 45.1% of “recent high school completers” enrolled in college in 1960, but in 2006 that percentage had risen to 66.0%. Moreover, the total number of people enrolled in Post-secondary institutions continues to rise.

More people are going to college and university in the US that ever before, and they’re getting ever higher grades in college, year after year. But we’re not teaching them absolutely everything there is to know. So let’s think about this for a minute. This ever-higher proportion of high school graduates going to college are getting ever-higher grades in college because those high schools from which they’re graduating are giving them ever-better educations over the last 50 year. That is the unavoidable line of reasoning that one must draw if better students are the cause for grade inflation in US colleges and universities.

So, everyone agrees with the conclusion that US high schools have producing ever better students over the past 50 years?

I remember the enactment of No Child Left Behind to fix our failing K-12 educational system. I remember the recent Race to the Top. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Why is it that the United States has been in a national panic for the last 20-30 years about our failing K-12 school system, if we’re producing a larger and ever more educated population of high school graduates who are all going to college?

On it’s face, the case that the quality of students entering college is substantively better today than 50 years ago is a difficult argument to make at best, if you are going to argue that high schools are giving US students poorer educations now than before.

So we’re back to being between a rock and a hard place. If you conclude that college grades are going up because of better incoming students, then you cannot criticize our K-12 educational system for failing US students. But if you think the US public schools are failing our students, then you can’t conclude that increasing student preparedness is the reason for rising grades at US colleges and universities.

Based on the work of our committee at Dartmouth who have been developing a plan to try to stop many of the pernicious effects of ever-increasing grades, we have come to some conclusions.

Students may be getting better at standardized testing (think SAT and ACT). They have certainly had enough practice at it through their K-12 educations over the last 15-20 years. (I think this has been very bad for their educations, by the way.) However, if they are getting better, we need to keep the curriculum at pace with them by challenging them with more rigorous courses.

However, students seem to be on average much less prepared for college in other ways, such as in the quality of study skills many bring and the willingness of many to put effort into their classes. For example, yesterday’s Opinion in The Dartmouth which was written by the student Editorial Board said, “Increasing the intensity [academic rigor] risks undermining this goal [a liberal arts education] by limiting time available for personal care, extracurricular pursuits and social bonding — all of which are undeniably important to student well-being and overall achievement.” This is certainly the attitude of many students with whom we discussed our proposal – you can’t make us work more on our classwork, because that will severely cut into our time for extracurriculars. Students at Dartmouth reported to us spending 35-40 hours per week on their various extracurricular activities. Think about that number: they are saying they spend the equivalent of a full time job on extracurricular activities, and so essentially consider themselves as going to school part time (more on extracurricular activities in a later post). As a parent of people currently in college myself, I’m paying tuition and room and board so that they can go to class – full stop. If I’m paying for all this other extracurricular stuff for every student at their university, I want some of my money back.

In the end, we have concluded that grades are not going up over time because of the students – they may be getting better, but that’s just an excuse to cover the real problems causing this to happen. It’s primarily the faculty that are causing grades to increase over time. We’re the ones giving them out, for heaven’s sake. Many different factors are causing faculty to give ever-higher grades over time, and this is diminishing the educations we offer to students.  I’ll write about these factors soon.

I want to end this piece on a very positive note though. Despite what all the critics and politicans say, my experience is that US high schools are producing much more academically prepared graduates today than when I went to high school. That’s not only based on my experience with incoming Dartmouth students, but also with many local high schools in our area and the teachers that work at those high schools. They are putting students through academic paces today that I couldn’t have imagined (but would have loved) when I was in high school in eastern Kentucky in the 1970’s. What I see as the problem with our K-12 system today is all the result of the mania for standardized testing. Let teachers teach and innovate, and hold K-12 teachers accountable for how rigorous their curriculum is. I’ve learned at Dartmouth that even among the best and brightest you can’t make a student learn. All a teacher can do is give them a great curriculum and a great learning environment, and then hold the students accountable (oops, we’re back to giving lower grades to lower-performing students). My experience is that 99% of K-12 teachers are committed professionals. So base their raises on those criteria and not on how high the grades are that students receive (oops, guess what the latter will do). Likewise, 99% of university faculty in the US are committed professionals. Our proposal is to incentivize and hold Dartmouth faculty accountable for the rigor of our courses.