On Grade Inflation

May and June. Grading time. Permanent record. As it does every year, my Facebook feed lit up over the last two weeks with laments from friends who teach at colleges and universities around the country. More and more, it seems, grade submissions are quickly echoed back with furious rounds of protest, debate, and negotiation. This year, there was one story of a professor at a midwestern research university having to write a point-by-point justification for a C on an economics final. The C-student was not persuaded in the face of this evidence and in an email response got to the heart of the issue: he felt the professor failed to value his effort sufficiently. Another, more troubling story, had a classics scholar fielding not only emailed complaints from a student who’d earned a B for the term but a multi-page handwritten protest from the 20-year-old’s parents, threatening legal action. The student’s final essay had included Wikipedia citations.

Any one of these stories in isolation could be dismissed, but it seems that there’s a rising tide of them. A recent piece by Slate education columnist Rebecca Schuman only reinforces the sense that something has shifted in the collective attitude toward grades among some segments of the population. Schuman records her own litany of the complaints she’s seen on social media from friends and colleagues around academia: parent complaints, actions taken to the dean, pleas for an A for effort. On the high school beat, we recently heard the story of a female student who didn’t think a teacher’s grading was sufficiently sensitive to her individual learning style. She took her complaint to the principal, and the principal took away the teacher’s grading privileges for that one student. Many knuckle under. Schuman herself confesses to contributing to the process of grade inflation by assigning A’s at a rate way out of line with the normal distribution curve, not least because she wants to avoid all the post-grade mishegas.

Schuman hazards a number of interesting theories about the forces behind the shift in grading practices and student expectation, but the most powerful, from the view we get working with younger students, are two that she moves on from fairly quickly: 1) the educational culture of “exceptional” ability and 2) the consumer model for education.

We’ve written recently about the first of these. Schuman alludes to the graduating high school class with 34 valedictorians. In middle and upper class American education, we are often effectively post-Bell Curve. C was once average. Now, it is essentially failing. The word average itself would never appear in any student evaluation. It’s a dirty word. (GNC, the sports supplement company, recently launched a print and TV ad campaign urging us all to “Beat Average,” which gets us quickly into paradox territory.) The trouble, of course, is that grades or scores without clear, normal distributions lose their descriptive power. If everyone clusters at the top, we can’t really tell who needs help, who deserves commendation, who will thrive at a top-tier college and who will crash. Can we doubt that this has deleterious effect on our students? The causal chain from grade inflation to over-committed high schoolers with hyper-programmed weeks is very short.

The consumer education model is troubling, too. If education at every level is a product that we acquire, then educators are service providers to be hired and fired in accordance with how successfully they deliver that product to suit our desires. Since this model often defines enhanced job prospects as the ultimate purpose of education, the education product as such is not knowledge or critical capability but grades. The name of the alma mater, the student’s grade-point average, the magna or summa are the only traces of his or her educational experience that will appear on the young job applicant’s first resume. As the educational consumerist sees it, they are the definitive work product of schooling.

And we see this attitude in some of our students. Increasingly, students approach classes with the expectation that there is almost a contractually stipulated and concrete outcome at the end of the term. If they meet obligations, they are due a grade, an A. They define deliverables as grades, not as knowledge. The quid pro quo of the classroom setting is not work for knowledge, it is work for A. One of Schuman’s colleagues tweets such a student’s protest, “‘I came to almost every class’ ‘I followed instructions’ ‘I did the readings’ ‘I turned in my work’ (for real).” These students think of grades as a reflection of completion, not mastery.

The intellectual habits that result have a real impact. More than ever, we are seeing students, from higher education on down, who are incurious. They are interested in subject matter simply as a means to an end (a grade). They don’t look for or explore interesting side issues. They don’t tug at loose threads. Most strikingly, they tend to be intolerant of context, chiefly because it doesn’t directly contribute to the next quarterly report card. Of course, learning the context of an idea develops long-term retention and long-range critical thinking skills, but it doesn’t pay immediate dividends if grades are what matter.

In the end, grade inflation is a perfectly apt term. We’re devaluing grades in multiple senses. The more A’s that are out there, the less each is worth. But, also, the more that A’s come to reflect effort, rather than performance, the less they matter. Schuman, in the end, admits that she’s lax with grades because they mean more to her students than they do to her. And there’s something to that: grades are an imperfect medium to communicate creativity, critical thought, curiosity, and all the other fruits of education. But they are also the only one we have. Grades, after all, are the primary testimony of our students’ closest observers, their teachers. When we break faith with grades that have meaning, we open the door to all these politicized arguments about standardized testing and standards because they are theoretically free from subjectivity. We’d prefer that grades mean something again (with apologies to the C-students who don’t know it yet).

Tags: Pedagogy, Grades, Politics of Education, Tutoring Philosophy
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