The phenomenon of ‘grade inflation’

As though soaring prices of daily necessities like food, petroleum products, public transport, and electricity were not troubling enough, another form of inflation is causing equal alarm in the University of the Philippines. It’s called “grade inflation,” and it is seen as the culprit behind the explosion in the number of students who are graduating with the so-called Latin honors: cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude.

This year alone, summa cum laude honors are to be conferred on 147 graduates, magna cum laude honors on 652, and cum laude recognition on 634 others. That’s a total of 1,433 honor graduates, or 38 percent of the 3,796 graduates who completed their bachelor’s degrees in the different disciplines in UP Diliman in 2022.

Whether that’s abnormally high or not depends on what one expects the normal distribution of honor graduates to be. My own personal recollection, as a member of the UP faculty for over 40 years, is that the total number of honor graduates was roughly between 20 and 25 percent of the graduating class for the bachelor’s degree programs of any given year.

The number was far less in the 1960s when I was an undergraduate student. Teachers then were quite stingy with grades. In the entire Diliman campus, there would usually be no more than 20-30 cum laudes, two or three magnas, and maybe one or not even a single summa at the end of a typical academic year.

The rare summas went up the stage and were greeted with rousing applause or a standing ovation by the entire graduating class. These exceptional achievers were remembered by generations of UP alumni. The university graduation ceremonies this year simply won’t have enough time to applaud every single one of Diliman’s 147 summas.

Things began to change, I think, sometime in the early 1990s. In my own unit, the Department of Sociology, there was a semester when those who were graduating with Latin honors outnumbered those without. I remember asking for a review of the way we assigned grades, and a discussion of what we understood numerical grades 1.0 and 1.25 to signify. A student needs a general weighted average of 1.20 or higher to qualify for summa.

I soon found out that the phenomenon was university-wide, with some units acquiring notoriety for producing more summas and magnas than all the other departments in the college combined. And apparently, what we were experiencing in UP was happening elsewhere in the country and abroad.

The internet was transforming the whole enterprise of learning almost overnight, catching institutions of higher learning everywhere flat-footed.

The decade of the ’90s began to place vast amounts of digitized information at the disposal of university students. Not surprisingly, many professors lagged behind their students in the use of the internet as a reservoir of information. Many of them were not even aware of the kind of resources and references that were being freely shared on different websites around the globe. There were abstracts of books, videos of lectures, digital copies of seminar papers, lucid summaries of debates on a broad range of topics, and even answers to final exam questions in different courses. All waiting to be copied, pasted, and plagiarized.

Spotting plagiarized work is perhaps a little easy today with some help from specialized apps, or even with just the aid of the Google search function. But back then, it was not. When they were not freely lifting entire texts, students wove their own personal reflections into the fabric of other people’s intellectual labor—and passed off the resulting work as entirely their own. It’s hard not to give a grade of 1.0 for such effort if one is unfamiliar with the unscrupulous quarrying of knowledge that the internet has made possible.

In an environment overflowing with information, schools are more than ever faced with the challenge of cultivating and rewarding students who are not just resourceful and well-informed, but also curious, critical, creative, generous, and honest. Students who are not afraid to explore new lines of thought, who take risks, and who remain willfully open to the many surprises of university life.

It is the formation of students imbued with this quality of mind that is sacrificed when the relentless pursuit of Latin honors becomes the norm.

But students themselves can hardly be blamed for being grade conscious and for reducing academic excellence to what is signified by Latin honors. This mindset is drilled into them even before they set foot in the university. Undergraduate admission into UP is based on two predictive indicators—one’s score on the college admissions test and one’s grades in Grades 9, 10, and 11. The pandemic compelled UP to dispense with the admissions exam and to rely almost exclusively on the students’ high school grades.

The university’s response to the pandemic may have also partly contributed to the large harvest of honor graduates this year. To ease the multiple challenges of online learning, UP admonished its faculty to exercise leniency in evaluating student performance. Accordingly, it was decided that no grade lower than 3.0 (the lowest passing grade) would be given during this health emergency. The unavoidable consequence of this has been to push up the grades of the better performers.

In a number of reputable universities abroad, where grade inflation is worse, academic authorities are experimenting with ways to free education from the thoughtless pursuit of grades. In their experience, nothing seems to restore the joy of learning better than abolishing grades altogether.