Grade Inflation And Bullshit





Adapted from a twitter thread.

Remember back at the end of September when it came out that a university professor Chris Healy was part of the pro-fascism deadly protest in Charlottesville five years ago? Well, it’s important to connect the dots sometimes because he’s also the person who collected data on grade inflation that has been used for the last decade and a half to complain about modern universities. And data collection is fine, but he also put a spin on that data which has impacted how it’s been used. Biases and perceptions are important and concept that you can fully remove your biases from your interpretation of data is probably a fools errand. Well, turns out his biases may have impacted his analyzing of the data.

If you haven’t seen it before, “grade inflation” is used as an attack on under-represented minority students in university by many groups (looking at you Fox News), but turns out it really happened because rich white parents wanted it for their kids. No seriously, he doesn’t interpret it that way, but Chris Healy’s own data shows it.

There’s 2 issues that show up in the data: the SATs and the difference between Private and Public universities and student results.

First the SATs. Now, there are a lot of problems with SATs, and I’m sure the decision in the 60s to make it harder (and thus showing a drop in SAT scores over the next decade) had nothing to do with more Black students applying to universities /s/. But that’s not what I’m talking about today.

Healy assumes that SAT should directly predict GPA. But those who study education know that the ways to game the SATs are many and varied, and usually used for those trying to get into either elite private universities or into elite STEM PSIs, aka the schools he identifies as having GPAs lower than what the SAT should predict. Meanwhile students less likely to game the SATs tend to be in the schools he identifies as having a higher GPA than the SAT would predict. The takeaway should be that the SAT doesn’t predict success (and that rich parents generally pay for more SAT prep than poor parents), his takeaway is that public flagship universities are inflating grades more. Except his earlier finding in his data is that public flagships inflated grades substantially less than the private equivalents.

So the second problem, public vs private university comparison. What his data seems to show is in the 1950s private universities started inflating grades (I’m sure this has nothing to do with how private universities became the bastion of segregation for a decade as wealthy whites sent their kids to them). Then when the last of the Ivy League universities kinda desegregated, the public universities started increasing grades to keep up with the substantial grade inflation that had ALREADY HAPPENED in the private universities.

Yep, the grades were the same until private universities decided to inflate grades, a decade later the public universities played catchup, but they never actually caught up to the inflation of private universities, because the inflation slowed drastically in the mid 70s as both private (.4 GPA increase) and public (.2 GPA increase) flattened out. It remained that way for the next two decades in public university while private continued to creep up. Then the public universities began to increase again. The end result being private universities were 0.7 above their 1950s average GPA and public universities were 0.4 above. And remember in 1950 public and private had the same GPA average.

TL:DR what it shows is private universities having massive grade inflation, and public ones following suit a decade later to try to keep up.

So though the stick of “grade inflation” is used to complain about lowered standards because of historically excluded students, it’s actually happening because legacy rich white students didn’t like that black students or poor students were getting the same grades as them.

I’m 0% surprised by that, it’s exactly how the US higher education system works, and how they like it to work. It’s another case of privilege laundering.


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