Assessing intelligence: Testing and grade inflation in college

Richard Huish College Exam Hall

Richard Huish College Exam Hall

Not many of us like tests. But testing has long been seen as the best means for assessing intelligence and what students have learned from their instructors. So how is that view affected by the possibility of grade inflation in college? And is grade inflation really a problem, or has its impact been blown out of proportion?

Boosting learning

The whole purpose of college, and education in general, is for people to walk away with a certain mastery of a subject, as well as the ability to process new information as it comes to them. Professors, therefore, test to see if their students have an understanding of the materials and what areas might warrant more study. But is that the best way to boost learning?

‘Cheating’ Can Be An Effective Learning Strategy” posted by Tania Lombrozo on NPR’s blog on May 20, 2013, looks at how UCLA ecologist Peter Nonacs sought to increase learning for his behavioral ecology class students by allowing them to use peers, books and the Internet to give the best answers to exam questions. Nonacs viewed it as students changing their learning goal, from getting a better score than their classmate, to providing the best answer.

Adopting mastery goals like these that focus on improving one’s own competence, according to Lombrozo’s post, might lead to greater learning and increase students’ willingness to tackle hard problems. She concludes, “So conceptualizing tests as opportunities for learning – consistent with a mastery goal – can itself improve learning, even if the tests take more traditional forms.”

Assessing intelligence … and grades

And with tests come grades. According to a new study, “Is the Sky Falling? Grade Inflation and the Signaling Power of Grades,” about grade inflation, the worry has been around for more than a century, with a Harvard University committee issuing a report on their concerns about the topic back in 1894. Scott Jaschik shared details on this new study in his May 20, 2013, post, “Missing the (Grade) Point” on Inside Higher Ed. The study published in Educational Researcher found that college GPAs had actually declined over the 30-year period of 1972 to 1992, from 2.73 to 2.33. Meanwhile, Jaschik sought a second opinion from Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired professor at Duke University, who believes that his research, and the data of others, shows that grade inflation is, in fact, a serious concern for higher education.

The downside of competitiveness

Whether or not grade inflation is a real concern, one issue that does seem to be pervasive for today’s college student is an increased level of stress because of grades. Higher Education in Transition: The Challenges of the New Millenium by Joseph Losco and Brian L. Fife, available at, looked at a number of factors that have influenced higher education since 1966, from the women’s movement to a change in students’ values. Student stress is also one. They write that “there is good reason to believe that student stress may also have been exacerbated by competitiveness.”

Losco and Fife’s research shows that grade inflation is real and that it “has had an effect on students’ expectations.” They find that between 1990 and 1996, the number of freshmen with an A- or higher increased by nearly half (from 22.6 to 31.5 percent), and those with a C+ or lower went down from 19.2 to only 14.6 percent. What’s more a record number of students believe they will at least achieve a B average.

Interested in learning more about grade inflation? has a range of full-text books and articles you can read on the topic. Assessing intelligence is undeniably complex. Testing will probably always be a part of the equation, despite any worries students and others may have about grade inflation in college.

Is testing a fair way to assess intelligence? Are colleges and universities inflating grades? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

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