July 28, 1997

A Question on Inflation of Grades at CUNY


NEW YORK -- How many A's and B's should a college give? And how many students should graduate with honors?

At the City University of New York, about half the course grades given are A's and B's. To Herman Badillo, vice chairman of the board, that is too many.

In calling for higher standards, Badillo has repeatedly said that professors are cheapening the university by grading too leniently and granting too many honors.

Badillo said he was dismayed that more than half of the graduates at Brooklyn College, a four-year CUNY college, take honors. That suggests, he says, that "the students at Brooklyn College are the most brilliant in the country, and I don't believe it."

But to some CUNY faculty members, Badillo's charges amount to a gratuitous attack.

"The charge of grade inflation is absurd," said Bill Crain, a psychology professor at City College, speaking at a news conference in front of City Hall last week. "City University has always graded much tougher than other public universities, and certainly than private universities and colleges in the United States."

Both sides agree on the data. At all but one of the university's four-year colleges, between 40 percent and 60 percent of the course grades given in the fall semester of 1995 were A's or B's, and at City, Hunter, Lehman and Queens, the rate was between 50 percent and 60 percent. The highest rate was at Lehman, 59 percent. The rate at Medgar Evers was the lowest, 33 percent.

At the university's six community colleges, the rate was somewhatlower; the proportion of A's or B's in course grades in the fall of 1995 ranged from 40 percent at Queensborough to 51 percent at La Guardia.

Badillo says that those figures are simply too high, and that they put the university's graduates at a disadvantage. "It undermines the value of the diploma," he said. "Anyone who says this is not happening is in a very serious state of denial."

He said that he believed standards had been lowered because so many of the university's students are members of minorities -- about 55 percent are either African-American or Hispanic.

"As a Puerto Rican, I resent that," he said. "I competed with other students and still came out on top."

Some City University professors say Badillo and other trustees and politicians should look at the top students.

"My classes are superb," said Ed Kent, a philosophy professor at Brooklyn College. He said Brooklyn's high dropout rate screened out weaker students and left some very strong students.

"The new waves of immigrants have stronger early educations than the typical American high school student," he said. "They just need to catch up with expanding their vocabularies in English."

Dean Savage, a sociology professor at Queens College, said an independent measure of the quality of City University students was the number who pursued graduate degrees. He said the proportion of graduates from Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens who earned Ph.D.s between 1989 and 1993 was greater than the 3.4 percent national average.

And he and other university professors said their standards were neither lower than those at other colleges nor lower than they were in the past. They pointed to figures from a study of 21,000 transcripts by the United States Department of Education, which showed that 59 percent of all grades given to students at four-year colleges were A's or B's.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company