Arenson, Karen W. "Is It Grade Inflation, or Are Students Just Smarter?" New York Times, 18

 

Arenson, Karen W. "Is It Grade Inflation, or Are Students Just Smarter?" New York Times, 18
April 2004, p. WR2.

A Million dollars isn't what it used to be, and neither is an A in college.

A's - including A-pluses and A-minuses - make up about half the grades at many elite school,
according to a recent survey by Princeton of the Ivy League and several other leading
universities.

At Princeton, where A's accounted for 47 percent of grades last year, up from 31 percent in the
1970s, administrators and some faculty have proposed correcting for so-called grade inflation by
limiting A's to 35 percent of course grades.

Not everyone is convinced there is a problem. A recent study by Clifford Adelman of the United
States Department of Education concluded that there were only minor changes in grade
distribution between the 1970s and the 1990s, even at highly selective institutions. (A bigger
change, he said, was the rise in the number of students withdrawing from courses and repeating
courses for higher grades.)

Alfie Korn, author of the coming book "More Essays on Standards, Grading and Other Follies"
(Beacon Press), says rising grades "don't in itself prove that grade inflation exists."

"It is necessary to how - and, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been shown - that those
higher grades are undeserved," he said.

Is it possible that the A students deserve their A's?

Getting into colleges like Princeton is far more difficult than it used to be. And increasing
numbers of students are being bred like racehorses to breeze through standardized tests and to
write essays combing Albert Einstein's brilliance with Mother Teresa's compassion.

Partly to impress admissions officers, students are loading up on Advanced Placement courses.
The College Board said the number taking 10 or more such courses in high school is more than
10 times what it was a decade ago. And classes aimed at helping them do better on the SAT
exams are booming.

"Back in 1977, when I graduated from high school, it had to be less than 25,000 students
nationally who spent more than $100 on preparing for the SAT," said John Katzman, founder and
chief executive of the Princeton Review, which tutors about 60,000 studen6s a year for the
SAT's. "It was the C students who prepped not the A students," he added. "Now it's got to be
circa 200,000 to 250,000 students who are going to spend more than $400 to prepare for the
SAT."

But Wayne Camara, vice president of research at the College Board, said that while students are
increasingly well prepared, "that in no way accounts for the shift in grades we are seeing."

"Grades are not temperatures or weights," he said. "What constitutes an A or B has changed,
both in high school a college."

`He said teachers are aware of how compe5itivethe academic world has become and try to help
students by giving better grades. "If you graduated from college in the 1950s and you wanted to
go to law school or a graduate program, you could," Dr. Camara said. "Today it is very difficult.
You are not going to be able to graduate from Harvard or Princeton with a 2.8 grade point
average and get into Georgetown Law."

In addition, one recent Princeton graduate who works in investment banking and has participated
in recruiting meetings cautioned in a letter to The Daily Princetonian that hiring practices can be
superficial, and that grade-point averages are one of the first items scrutinized on a resume.

Stuart Rojstaczer, a geology professor at Duke who runs the Web site www.Gradeinflation.com
says that higher grades are the result of a culture where the student-consumer is kind. "We don't
want to offend students or parents," he said. "They are customers and the customer is always
right."

Valen E. Johnson, a biostatistics professor at the University of Michigan and author of "Grade
Inflation: A Crisis in College Education" (Springer Verlag), said the use of student ratings to
evaluate teachers also inflates grades: "As long as our evaluations depend on their opinion of us,
their grades are going to be high."

Even if the Princeton plan is approved, Professor Johnson, who unsuccessfully tried to lower
grades at Duke University a few years ago, cautioned that reform is difficult. "It is not in the
interest of the majority tp reform the system," he said. "Assigning grades, particularly low
grades, is tough, and it requires more work since low grades have to be backed up with evidence
of poor performance."

But Princeton and others may take some comfort from Reed College, a selective liberal arts
college in Oregon, where the average grade-point average has remained a sobering 2.9 (on a 4.0
scale) for 19 years.

The college says it ranks third among all college and universities in the proportion of students
who go on for Ph.D.'s and has produced more than 50 Fulbright Scholars and 31 Rhodes
scholars.

Still, Colin S. Diver, Reed's president, says graduate schools worried about their rankings are
becoming less willing to take stueen5s with lower grades because they make the graduate schools
appear less selective.

"If they admit someone with a 3.0 from Reed who is in the upper half of the class, that counts
against them, even if it is a terrific student, Mr. Diver said. "I keep saying to my colleagues here
that we can hold ourselves out of the market for only so long."

Editor, "True Lies," Nature 428 (15 April 2004), p. 679.

If you are ever unfortunate enough to take a polygraph lie-detector test, you will be told by its
administrator to answer a question falsely. For instance, you might be told to say ‘no' when
asked if it is Thursday, even though it is. This is to establish a baseline for lying, the examiner
will say. Even though you may feel very little guilt about doing just as you are told, the sensors
strapped to your body will register changes in pulse, breathing and sweating. Or so you will be
informed.

If in fact, the polygrapher does not even need to read the traces, because they are unlikely to show
anything, according to polygraph training manuals. The purpose of this ‘test' is to establish in
you mind the infallibility of the machine - if you lie, it will catch you.

As a result, a polygraph exam is only as useful as the examinee thinks it is. A nervous subject is
more likely to betray a lie as much through intonation or behavioral changes as through any
physiological parameters. Polygraphers are trained to pick up on such cues, making the polygraph
a useful tool for interrogation.

But that's not the same as calling it a lie detector. In fact, the instrument's reliability in detecting
lies has been thoroughly discredited, most recently after an exhaustive review by the US National
Academy of Science. In a 2003 report, an academy panel concluded that the tool was worse than
useless for catching spies - its main purported national-security function. Spies can learn to
defeat the machine, the panel pointed out, and their passing score merely serves to bolster their
credibility.

The Department of Energy responded by reducing the number of employees ast US nuclear
weapons laboratories who are required to take the exam. But other US government agencies have
been slow to follow suit, arguing that the polygraph remains useful to them.

New detection technologies are being rolled out in response to current security concerns in the
United States... These include devices that monitor brainwaves and cameras that read heat
signatures in the fact. But there are alarming signs that the inventors of these tools are more
interested in getting them into the field than in doing the research needed to see if they work.

As with the polygraph, the problem lies with the seductive appeal of technology. In the
courtroom, juries are far less likely to question the results of a ‘scientific' test than the testimony
of a witness. Consequently, the polygraph is now banned as evidence in most states.

If the purpose of these tests is really intimidation, than any technology will do, as long as subjects
believe that it works. But if the goal is to discover deceit, then the technology must be validated
by solid research. If this is to be done, the US government will have to engage independent
scientists - rather than people who work for the companies marketing the machines, or the
agencies that plan to deploy them, as is currently the case. Only then will the truth come out.