If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.




December 13, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 50

Decoding inflation

In “Managing Inflation,” William J. Storck makes an excellent point that when something is controlled, it should have a target to which it is being controlled (C&EN, Nov. 1, page 18). The idea of “transparency” employed by the European Central Bank is also to be commended. I would like to see Storck do a follow-up article on defining inflation, particularly the individual items that are considered in calculating the gross national product cost, on which the subsequent inflation percentage is calculated. Energy and health care costs, which have risen extraordinarily, are of particular concern, since they take a substantial bite out of the ordinary consumer’s wallet. I have also noticed that the government reports on inflation exclude various important items, such a energy. Are food and health care costs also excluded? The fact that I don’t know implies that I don’t trust the present inflation reports, and I doubt that the general public gives them much credence. Arthur C. Sucsy Lubbock, Texas

Grade inflation and scientific literacy

A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences documented college-level grade inflation (Rosovsky, Henry, and Matthew Hartley, “Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing? Grade Inflation and Letters of Recommendation,” American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2002, http:/
). In 1966, 22% of Harvard undergraduate course grades given were As, but that percentage had nearly doubled to 46% in 1996, in which year 82% of Harvard seniors graduated with honors. And the problem is not restricted to elite institutions that, arguably, might have become more elite. The report quotes data from Arthur Levine and Jeanette S. Cureton, who, in a survey of almost 5,000 undergraduates in various types of undergraduate colleges, found that the percentage of course grades of A– and higher had grown from 7% in 1967 to 26% in 1993. During the same period, the percentage of grades of C or lower had fallen from 25% to 9%. Yet during those same years, average SAT scores did not change appreciably.

The academy report identified several contributors to college-level grade inflation. The first was the policy of deferment of military service in Vietnam when male college students with poor grades would be drafted. This put pressure on professors to avoid giving them grades of C and lower, and the practice soon spread to all students. A second was the introduction of evaluations of teacher performance by their students, to be used in decisions on faculty promotions and tenure. Teachers soon learned that giving higher grades led to more favorable student evaluations and therefore better chances for promotion and tenure. In general, the effect has been most pronounced in the humanities; less so in the more quantitative academic disciplines such as math, the physical sciences, and economics; and minimal in engineering schools, which are effectively shielded from competition with the humanities.

A recent book by Valen Johnson emphasizes a lesser known consequence of this trend: Students in liberal arts colleges tend to shun courses in the more quantitative academic disciplines because that will lower their grade point average and therefore lessen their chances to get into good graduate schools or jobs (Johnson, V. E. “Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education,” Springer, 2003). Johnson provides some telling statistics: At Duke University, where he gathered most of his data, the grades in the humanities are now so much higher than those in the sciences that majors in chemistry, mathematics, physics, and biology on average earn higher grades in courses taken outside those physical sciences.

Johnson estimates that elective student enrollment in the physical sciences would increase by about 50% if the grading field were level, and he proposes several ways in which this might be accomplished. However, no such schemes have been adopted so far, and none are likely to be acceptable to teachers of the humanities, who would see their relative advantage removed and their numbers of students and faculty positions reduced. Yet there is more at stake here than the self-interest of science faculty: In an age that relies increasingly on science and technology, the lower grade inflation in the more quantitative disciplines effectively penalizes students for taking courses that develop and hone quantitative reasoning skills.

Given that faculty members in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and economics will be in the minority in most colleges and universities, there is no realistic hope to reverse the grade inflation. They may have to reconsider whether to keep up the good fight against grade inflation, which they are slowly losing. Here’s an alternative: If you can’t beat them, join them. The playing field can be leveled when physical scientists link their grading scales to those prevailing in the humanities at their institution.

What would be the foreseeable consequences of such a step? If what has happened in the past four decades is any guide, few students, parents, or administrators will complain. Replacing the A, B, C, D, F scale by one that reads A+, A, A–, B+, and B changes little. There will still be a need to distinguish and acknowledge excellent, average, and poorly performing students.

Note that the above is an argument about grade nomenclature, not about course content or rigor. And it can be done: At Duke, the average grades in computer science are comparable to those in French. Simply by leveling the playing field in terms of grading scales, the trend toward scientific illiteracy in American college education and American society might possibly be halted or even reversed. It is worth a try.

Robert DeLevie
Orrs Island, Maine


Ballots for the American Chemical Society’s runoff election for District IV Director were mailed to members residing in District IV on Dec. 3. If your ballot (mailed in a green envelope) has not arrived, you may request that a duplicate ballot be sent to you by calling (800) 227-5558 no later than Dec. 23. The deadline for receipt of all voted ballots is Dec. 31.




This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.