Students have access to the articles and database via the World Wide Web or they can read the two newspaper articles posted outside my office:
The anonymous note left under my office door in May 1991 was like a slap in the face: ``How can you justify giving 13 A's in a class with over 200 people. You are just an old expletive deleted. I could have had a 4.0 for three straight semesters. You know you have a blow-off class. Burn in hell.''
At the bottom of the note was a drawing of a hand in an obscene gesture. Uncivil? Certainly. What was more interesting, however, was that its author felt entitled to an A in my criminology course, one consequence of the grandiose expectations fed by grade inflation.
When I started teaching at Rutgers 43 years ago, A's constituted 13% of the grades awarded to our students, B's 29%, C's 34%, D's 12%, and F's 6%. In 1971 about a quarter of the Rutgers grades were A's and about a third were B's. By 1990-91, A's and B's were two-thirds of all grades. Grade inflation galloped even faster in the most highly selective - and expensive - private colleges. About 90% of the grades at Stanford and 73% at Harvard are A's and B's. Stanford, Brown and Oberlin abolished the F, and Brown and Oberlin abolished the D for good measure.
Some faculty resistance to grade inflation has developed. This June the Stanford Faculty Senate voted 37 to 3 to bring back a failing grade in 1995-96 - to be called NP for ``not passed'' - despite a poll of Stanford's undergraduates showing that 48% of the sample opposed the return of the possibility of failure, compared with 40% who approved. A few professors also resisted failing grades. Ronald Rebholz of the English department accused the Faculty Senate of falling into a ``punitive mode'' that involved ``branding students.''
There is still much more to be done, at Stanford and at most other colleges. Grades cannot communicate clear meanings unless they are understood in the same way by the professor who assigns the grade, the student who receives it,
and the other people who read the transcript. Stanford's NP decision does not attempt to deal with the confusion created by different professors with very different grading standards. This confusion drives grade inflation.
When some professors give everyone or nearly everyone an A, students who enroll in a course taught by a professor old-fashioned enough to give C's, D's and F's are at a competitive disadvantage. A ``C'' in that course can ruin their averages and jeopardize their chances of getting into law or medical school even though it does not mean what readers of the transcript think. This tempts many students to take courses with professors with the lowest grading standards, and tougher professors are tempted to sell out to the enrollment votes of student consumers.
A more pointed attack on grade inflation will begin this fall at Dartmouth. To reduce the incentive to give and to receive inflated grades, Dartmouth will start to include on the student's transcript not only the grade in each class but the size of the class and the median grade of all of its students. Predictably, some professors objected. Prof. Delo Mook of the physics department said this would ``pit one student against another. I don't think competition is something we want to encourage.''
But one of the main reasons for going to schools and colleges instead of being educated by one's parents is to find out how one compares with agemates in the ability to learn what society thinks it is important to know. The grading system has to be consistent, however, for the competition to be fair. Without compelling professors to change their previous grading practices, the new Dartmouth policy, used also by a few other colleges and universities, seeks to return grading to a more honest evaluation of students, which is what grades are intended to be.
Students need to discover early whether they are wasting their time in college because they lack either the intellectual ability or the motivation to learn enough to justify taking four years out of their lives. An ``A'' should encourage the student to continue studying; he is learning what he is supposed to be learning; a ``D'' or an ``F'' should tell him that he may be in the wrong field or the wrong college. Or maybe a low grade tells him that he should stop fooling around and start studying.
Society - and society includes parents - also needs grades. Is the enormous expense of sending a student to college for four years - as much as $100,000 - likely to pay off? It is now almost impossible for a student to work his way through college without a subsidy from parents, government or the college itself. Shouldn't students justify the subsidy to their sponsors? Several high grades suggest that the investment has prospects of paying off. Several low grades suggest that the student may be better off quitting and taking a full-time job, or shifting his studies to a school or program where he will do better.
Postscript: I discovered the identity of the angry student. A computer check showed only one student with a B+ in criminology and two previous semesters with a straight A average: a graduating senior with a double major in economics and computer science. Had my evaluation of his work cost him an award at graduation? No, it hadn't. Although his cumulative average was very good, grade inflation had eroded the value of his achievements; many of his classmates had even higher averages.
Mr. Toby, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, is working on a book about higher education as an entitlement.
For 24 years, it was impossible to flunk at Stanford University. Professors weren't allowed to give out an F.
But this week, the Stanford faculty voted to reinstate the failing grade - an ``NP,'' meaning ``no pass.'' That reverses a policy in effect since 1970, where failing students were given a benign ``NC,'' meaning ``no credit,'' on their transcripts.
Dartmouth College, meanwhile, will start next fall adding the median grade for each class along with a student's individual grade on transcripts. Thus, an A in a course where most everyone else gets an A will have less impact in some circles than an A in a course where most others get a C.
``Our goal is to help employers and graduate schools get a better sense of the actual level of performance,'' said James O. Freedman, Dartmouth's president.
Many observers in higher education say such actions offer a glimmer of hope in the campaign against grade inflation, which has been extensive on college campuses across the country. Institutions, citing greater sensitivity to the varying abilities and backgrounds of students, have been unwilling to impose strict, quantifiable standards, many say.
``The fact that Stanford is moving in that direction is almost enough to set a trend,'' said Jeffrey Wallin, president of the American Academy for Liberal Education, a group of academics that has been campaigning for tougher standards in higher education.
At many colleges and universities, it has long been an open secret that few students get anything worse than a C, especially in humanities courses. At some colleges students about to get a failing grade can drop out of courses without penalty, as late as a week before the end of classes; the result is a transcript filled with successes.
``It's awfully hard to get a failing grade. None of us give them very much,'' said Freedman. ``Most students regard anything less than a B as a failing grade these days.''
The rebellion against letter grades in education has continued on and off for decades. Just recently, the National Council of Teachers of English proposed eliminating grades for writing courses, because ``giving grades in writing courses risk(s) objectifying both students and their writing, without regard to their individual goals and backgrounds.''
Advocates for different ways of assessing students say that although letter grades can motivate some students, many more will improve their learning if they are assessed through one-on-one conferences, narrative evaluations or by keeping journals evaluating their own progress.
The trend has its roots in the `60s, when some faculty rebelled against letter grades as an outmoded method of evaluating students. Some professors saw grades as an artifact of the establishment; radical feminists viewed grades as patriarchal, and critical legal theorists said they were a way to perpetuate the power structure.
In a practical sense, professors also became reluctant to fail students because flunking out meant they would be sent off to fight the Vietnam War.
``I remember I had students come to my home to argue their case. An F would send them to their deaths,'' said David Riesman, professor emeritus at Harvard University.
In recent years, the proliferation of easy As on campus has been fueled by other factors. Graduate study has become more common, and colleges want their students to have good transcripts to get into the best medical, business or law schools.
The cycle is perpetuated because ``everyone keeps an eye on each other, and no one wants to disadvantage their students compared to others. They're all going to compete to go to Harvard Medical School or Harvard Law,'' said Freedman.
In addition, said Riesman, there is often an unspoken contract between students and faculty seeking promotions and merit raises. ``The idea is, `You give me good grades, and I'll give you a good evaluation,' '' Riesman said.
Colleges are also reluctant to flunk students whose families are paying as much as $25,000 a year in tuition and fees - or, just as often, students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and may not be as traditionally prepared for college work.
``There's a general egalitarian sentiment on campus - an interest in equal outcomes, versus equal opportunities,'' said Robert M. Costrell, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
A prevalent notion is that people who do well in school are going to get better jobs, Costrell said, so grade inflation ``is just a kind of redistribution.'' Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield was harshly criticized a year ago for linking grade inflation with affirmative action, suggesting that minority students were spared tough assessment so they would not drop out and reduce diversity on campus.
To a degree, the trends leading to grade inflation can also be seen in other areas in education. Some observers say admissions standards have dropped as institutions scramble to fill classes from a dwindling and demographically changing pool of students.
Whatever the manifestation, grade inflation disturbs those who say there is no substitute for an old-fashioned test and the occasional D or F, and that American education has drifted too far away from enforcing standards.
``The battle has just begun,'' said William Cole, an instructor of romance languages and literature at Harvard who has spoken out against grade inflation there.
Stanford's reinstatement of the failing grade, Cole said, ``is a victory. It's a small victory, because students really have to put in quite an effort to fail. But it's a victory.''