Grade inflation; education degradation

As a society we have allowed our children to believe they are all not just above average but superior.

Because we’re afraid to hurt anyone’s fragile psyche, or not be loved, or because we’re afraid of some nebulous retaliation if we aren’t soft, we dish out A’s and B’s as if they were scoops of ice cream on a humid day, the equivalent of myriad certificates and trophies we give our children for showing up so they don’t feel “left out” in sports and innumerable other activities.

Grade Inflation is rampant throughout the educational system. A recent UCLA study revealed that although students are studying less than ever, grades of A- and A in high school classes are the most common grades. At many colleges, over half the class graduate with some kind of honors, making it difficult to distinguish the truly exceptional from the grade-exceptional. The pursuit in college is of grades, not knowledge, so it’s not surprising that students are as adept at cheating as they are in hiding booze in dorm rooms.

At the university where I taught, last year’s freshman class had an average SAT of 1004 in verbal and quantitative tests, making their achievement dead-center average for the nation. But their high school g.p.a. was 3.3, about a B+. Those who don’t do well on the SAT shrug it off as “Well, like, y’know, I just kinda don’t do good on tests.”

At many colleges, at least one-third of incoming freshmen are enrolled in remedial courses. But they and the rest of the student body can graduate within six years by packaging a program of “cake” courses with watered down content.

At many colleges, the grades of “D” and “F” officially don’t exist; at many colleges, students can even drop classes any time, just so they don’t get a (horrors!) “C.”

In 2004, Princeton established a guideline that there should be no more than 35 percent A’s in freshman/sophomore courses, and 55 percent A’s in specialized upper division courses. Even then, the recommendations, while lowering some of the grade inflation, were still above what used to be a “bell-shaped curve” that once suggested A’s and F’s should be about 10 percent of a general education class; B’s and D’s about 20 percent; and C’s, the average grade, about 40 percent.

One of the reasons for grade inflation is that some teachers and professors can’t distinguish achievement levels or create tests that require higher level thinking and not a recitation of facts. Another reason is that teachers and profs want to be liked, to be seen as a buddy, who often allow students to call them by their first names and who go drinking in the same places students congregate. More common, there is a strong correlation between semester-end evaluations of professors and grades; high grades by teachers and profs, especially in colleges that use student evaluations for tenure and promotion, tend to propel similar high student evaluations.

Because of runaway grade inflation, students avoid professors who believe the grade of “C” is the average grade and who set up standards that require students to do more than show up, read a couple of hundred pages, and answer a few questions. Even then, a significant minority of our students spend more time trying to plea-bargain the professor into raising the grade than they do studying for the exams. If the professor doesn’t acquiesce, the student’s parents call administrators whose backbones are as strong as warm Jello and who subconsciously go along with the fiction that because some parent is paying thousands of dollars to send their precious child to college, the college has an obligation not to educate that child but to reward that child with trinkets known as high grades. Thus, some Helicopter Moms are sure that grades of C, D, and F are not their child’s fault, but the fault of a system that took their hard-earned money and won’t even do the minimal work of issuing the “right” grade.

High grades are important, every student wails, because it means being able to get into college, grad school, or to get a little extra consideration in the job market. But if all students get high grades, then the evaluation criteria becomes meaningless; the exceptional student may get into college and grad school, but so will those who get high grades but aren’t as exceptional. Companies hiring freshly-scrubbed graduates may soon disregard not only syrupy letters of recommendation but grade point averages as well.

Until we stop believing it’s a constitutional right to get A’s, with B’s seen as acceptable and C’s as failure, as a nation we’ll continue to complain about inferior workmanship, and, wonder why the U.S. ranked 32nd in the world in math abilities and 17th in reading ability, according to a recent study by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

Dr. Brasch was a university professor for 30 years. He is an award-winning columnist and author of 17 books, including the critically-acclaimed novel, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution. For several years he was a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor.

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One Response to Grade inflation; education degradation

  1. Does the use of student course evaluations contribute to grade inflation? At UW, course evaluation medians are reported in two ways, once using raw scores and the other as “adjusted medians” which are supposed to, in part, re-normalize things based on students’ expected grades in a course. (Other parts of the adjustment include whether the cuosre is required or optional.) I have no idea what formula they use but it is really easy to see how a tough midterm increases the gap between the adjusted scores and the raw ones. And do you think the complaints you are getting, even if you deny the appeals, are likely to push up your grade curve next time around? No. I have been using the same grade distributions since my first or second year teaching. My typical median is a little below the median of our students’ GPAs overall. The median grade goes up or down a little bit based on how well I think the class as a whole has done relative to previous classes. Because we have restricted admission to our major, the student population is more homogeneous in ability and we seem to get relatively few complaints about grades. One other way that I may get reduced complaints is that I tend to give a relatively easier midterm and a relatively more difficult final. Students may be less likely to complain when the raw score on their final exam is low. (My goal on the midterm is to be able to identify those students who are struggling relative to the others and on the final to identify those at the top end (though the very bottom students are also identified).