Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Grade Inflation at NYUAD

What this ultimately means is that grades, as a pedagogical tool, are becoming less and less useful, for both faculty and students.

Oct 9, 2016

Like at many U.S. American institutions of higher education, grades at NYU Abu Dhabi are losing their value. This is known as grade inflation, and it has widely been regarded as a problem in U.S. academia since at least the early 2000s.
In 1973, the average student at a four-year college in the U.S. received a GPA of 2.9. By 2013, the average GPA attained was 3.15.
Grades are generally higher at private institutions like NYU and notoriously, the median grade at Harvard University is an A-minus, while the most common grade is an A as of 2013.
What this ultimately means is that grades, as a pedagogical tool, are becoming less and less useful, for both faculty and students.
As Associate Professor in Arab Crossroad Studies Justin Stearns — who co-authored a report outlining the issue of grade inflation at NYUAD for the Arts and Humanities faculty — said, “I do not have the feeling that grades that students are getting represent their abilities on an absolute scale and I think that’s a disservice to the students.”
The U.S. American A to F letter grade system, which is the basis for the 0 to 4.0 GPA scale, has been in use for roughly the last century. Articles questioning the utility of grades have been around for almost as long.
With only six years of final grades, NYUAD may be more afflicted by grade variation — where grades vary within and among courses — than grade inflation. In a 1998 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lee Clark Mitchell, former chair of the English Department at Princeton University, bemoaned grade variation, writing that, “good students in different sections of large courses have much greater or lesser chances of earning top grades simply because they drew this or that instructor.”
For NYUAD, Vice Provost for Academic Administration Charles Grim explained how grades vary across the institution.
“We expect the grades will be lower in sciences and engineering than they are in social science, than they are in arts and humanities.”
This reflects U.S.-wide trends, in which science departments generally grade 0.2 points lower than social sciences and 0.4 points lower than humanities.
Stearns also noted that grades differ across institutions.
“Grades are being given in different fashions in different parts of the university and that results in certain programs, majors, divisions being known for being easier than others.”
Recently, a forum was held among faculty about grading at NYUAD. This covered personal practices and disciplinary conventions. Ken Nielsen, associate director of the Writing Center and chair of the Faculty Council Steering Committee, described how faculty come from many different academic cultures and backgrounds where grades work differently. Professors then have to work within the U.S. American grading system.
Grading within the U.S. American system reduces a student’s work and participation to a grade from 0.0 to 4.0, and Grim pointed to how much information is wrapped up in that one figure.
“All these reasons for having grades, a way for students to measure their performance against institution or faculty expectations, to understand where they stack up with their peers, to motivate them to do better, to get jobs when they graduate, to figuring out their self-worth as an academic … grades are trying to do all those things and having one number is always going to be problematic.”
Other universities have experimented with ways to give grades more value. After 10 years, in 2014, Princeton dropped its grade deflation policy, whereby each department was asked to give As to no more than 35 percent of students. The policy caused massive outcry as it was perceived as being harmful to Princeton graduates’ employment chances and causing unnecessary stress. In a report that recommended dropping the policy, the first concern was disputed but the second concern was heeded and ultimately led to the policy’s reversal.
The Princeton report recommended a move away from grades and a greater focus on the quality of feedback instead. Other colleges have taken this approach further. Hampshire College, for example, gives students narrative evaluations rather than grades.
In 1994, Dartmouth College adopted the policy of having median grades for a class show on a student’s transcript, which increases transparency and lets a student or potential employer better understand the value of the grade given.
Stearns was supportive of this approach, noting, “I am … a big fan of putting the median grade of each class onto each transcript so grades can be seen relationally … It matters what the average grade in each class was to know what each grade means.”
Grim also spoke positively about increasing the transparency around grading.
“My personal first inclination is that I like it — you get your grade, and on the same transcript is what’s the average grade for the class.”
Currently faculty are only starting to have a university-wide conversation around grading.
“The last faculty forum … began a conversation about grading based on [the Report of the Grading Committee] … the faculty has the beginning of an open conversation about grading and the philosophy behind grading,” Nielsen said.
Stearns stressed the importance of faculty and students having individual conversations about grading.
“Initially, individually, [the faculty and the students] need to discuss this and try to understand why this is important or not for them.”
Grim was more circumspect about the urgency required.
“My general sense is that we don’t have a big problem … but I do think … faculty ought to be talking about these things and ought to be thinking about whether there is a consensus, whether there’s a problem.”
Grim suggested that students should be involved through committees such as the Academic Affairs Advisory Committee and the Curriculum Committee; however, he did not see a place for them in the initial stages of the conversation.
For Stearns the focus is on how grading can be an effective pedagogical method.
“If we lose grading as a technique, as a pedagogical tool, I don’t see a clear replacement for it … In the short terms everybody wants to have a 4.0 but when you think about it, if everybody has a 4.0 it means absolutely nothing.”
Connor Pearce is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at
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