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by WALTER BRASCH

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 for 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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Comment Preferences

  •  Maybe it's time (3+ / 0-)

    to do away with course grades and divise a national standardized test of general knowledge and major-related specific knowledge as a requirement for getting a college degree.
      Educationally, there is no value in getting a grade at the end of the term telling you how you did in a course that is over. Grades are a sorting device. With grade inflation, sorting srudents by their grades no longer works.

    •  Worse- grades just sort students in one class. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      karmsy

      We have all encountered gifted teachers who can get everyone in their classes to learn. We have also encountered incompetents who don't do anything. Probably most of the students in the first class are "A" or "B" caliber based on their new understanding, while most of the students in the second are "D" or "F".

      Then there are the differences between schools. A first year chemistry class is not at the same level at Caltech and West Virginia University.

      One solution is to abandon grades for detailed student evaluations like US Santa Cruz did. I have read some of these, and they usually say "If I had been giving grades, Sam would have earned a B."

      The good news is that it really doesn't matter much. Five years out of school and no one will care about your GPA. There are high school failures working as professors and Harvard PhDs driving taxis.

  •  Grade inflation may get even worse now that (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    historys mysteries, karmsy

    such bleak economic prospects await those who fail. During the Vietnam War professors hesitated to give low grades lest students lose their educational deferments and fall into the military meatgrinder; so I can imagine today's professors becoming reluctant to fail out students who carry heavy loan debt but can't find employment.

    I continue to grade according to the older distribution, with As to no more than 10-20% and B-/C as average grades. It does anger those who see A's as an entitlement their tuition "purchases," though.

  •  This kind of opinion piece (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    karmsy, FG, Focusmarker

    always raises my hackles.  Faculty must have a certain amount of enrollment to continue teaching their classes. Departments must have a certain total number of students taught and a certain number of majors.

    Students will NOT take courses that threaten their GPA. They (and their parents) do NOT like majors that are not pre-approved for jobs.  If given a choice between a more difficult discipline and an easier one leading to the same job, they will almost universally choose the easier one, with the goal of making better grades.

    And frankly, if the only goal they have is a job, they are right to do it.  There are few recruiters who have the guts to tell students that a tougher major outweighs higher grades, because it is generally not true.

    The  attack on education has done a fine job of destroying any inclination to take a course for the sake of curiosity, or because it will broaden one's mind, or just to see if one can manage it. Taking a course with the risk of lowering one's GPA is almost unheard of. The students who do so are those who (in public institutions) are still clinging to the old idea of a liberal arts education and with the goal of being a well-rounded citizen. I treasure these students, but there are fewer and fewer every year.

    Brasch and people like him continue to work hard towards a goal of turning the colleges and universities into job-training institutes.  He may not want it, but this sort of article leads only in one direction - job training.  He is the vehicle by which the very disaster he hates is being imported into our educational system.

    Since I am on a rant, let me also say that since students can withdraw from a course until very late in a semester, the "curve" is skewed.  D's and F's almost always leave after the midterm, and C's will often leave on the last day for withdrawal without penalty.  It looks like grade inflation, but it is students voting with their feet.

    OK, rant over. Thanks for listening.

    •  Did you actually read the diary? n/t (0+ / 0-)
      •  Did indeed. (0+ / 0-)

        As I said.  I was writing a rant, being on the ground trying to deal with reality. Yes it makes me want to bite when doomsayers come by spreading misery and  then leave with a wave and "please deal with this".  You will notice Barsch does not provide an answer to the problem.

        May I ask you for one? Because we really need answers.

    •  You define a problem here, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Vatexia

      but I'm not sure what your personal point-of-view on it is. Are you sympathizing with professors who can't give students the grades they feel the students earn?

      It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

      by karmsy on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 06:59:07 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My point of view (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        karmsy, Focusmarker

        is that it is a very complicated problem.  I sympathize with myself and my colleagues, who have to protect enrollments so that the courses will be there in the future, and I sympathize with students and parents who are trying to make "rational" decisions about college courses to be taken right now.

        Some faculty and some students are only interested in gaming the system.  Most faculty and students are struggling every day to do the best they can in the circumstances.

        As I say above, what I want is some help in getting to an answer.  An answer will serve students and faculty better, because the one thing I really agree with Barsch about is that grades cease to have the meaning we all would like them to have.

         

        •  Do you have opinions about (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Vatexia

          what kind of "help" you would like in  reaching the answer--or, for that matter, what the "answer" to these problems would look like?

          In high school and college, I can remember being around people who were totally, 100% focused on their gpa. Society, no doubt, rewards these people today, but I say, blechhhh. What-ever. People I respected, if they WERE focused on earning grades, in order to meet their personal objectives, they were also able to critique. They could see that grades, in fact, were a pursuit in themselves. Grades had little or nothing to do with learning or education.

          It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

          by karmsy on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 08:06:04 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  You have the point of view (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            karmsy

            I would like to encourage, and which, in my view, is the only way to become actually educated.  

            Among my students who are gpa hounds, there are usually two or three who wake up in the course of a semester or two and actually get what it means to learn something, and to use grades as one way of estimating how much of that they have learned.

            Some only get it years after they leave college.

            But, in my mind, it is the only real way to become educated, by focusing on the learning, not the grade.

            •  Let me tell you another story. (0+ / 0-)

              It's about a girl I went to high school with--a competitive, can-do type, popular, a cheerleader. "Abigail" was 100% focused on getting into a certain prestigious university upon graduation. By junior year, it was basically all she talked about. Abigail was smart enough. She certainly had gifts to give society. She was all energy and "can-do." But she sometimes got "B's," and she anguished over that. Her parents anguished, too, and they were on the phone to her teachers.

              (I'm probably not going where you think I am going with this story; bear with me :)

              Now, I ran into Abigail many years later, at our 20-year reunion. She looked great. Her husband and kids, they glowed, too. But Abigail was frowning. She had long had a responsible corporate job, for a big employer. She told me quietly, "I've survived already 3 rounds of layoffs. I never know if I'm going to be next." What? Abigail?? If the morale at your workplace is so low, with your skills--which are no doubt marvelous--why don't you just go out and get another job?? She didn't, because she couldn't. What was she going to do? Move? Uproot the husband? The kids? Better just to live with the chronic uncertainty, and keep that perpetually furrowed face.

              If Abigail had been a "genius," as the survival-of-the-fittest people say, wouldn't she have avoided this fate? I doubt it. I believe Abigail's fate was outside her control. The irony of grades, in today's society, is that their pursuit is a fiction. High grades don't necessarily open the doors you think they will. Or, perhaps they will open doors--but you won't like what's behind them.

              Better to focus on learning. Critical thought. Inquiry. Informed compassion and concern for others. Intelligent dissent. The kind of faculties you will take out into society, to make society better for the generations that will come up, because it's all you may take away.

              It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

              by karmsy on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 09:24:48 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

    •  I think you have a reading comprehension issue. (0+ / 0-)

      You obviously missed his point entirely.

      Where are we, now that we need us most?

      by Frank Knarf on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 07:36:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  JOB-TRAINING (0+ / 0-)

      Yes, I acknowledge that as a procfessor my job was to help prepare students for the job market. I TAUGHT JOURNALISM. MY STUDENTS NEEDED JOB SKILLS. But, I also taught them critical thinking skills. And, all J-students need to tgake a minimum of 2/3 of their classes outside the major, often with a second major or a minor. While I appreciate rants, they should be based upon fact.

  •  I prefer the term "subjective assessment" (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frank Knarf, FG, vahana

    to "grade inflation."

    I taught high school English for 13 years. During that time, my state developed a state-wide standardized test (the "Regents" exam) for ELA that included, inter alia, a rubric for objectively assessing student writing at the 11th-grade level. The rubric assessed five qualities (Meaning, Development, Organization, Language and Conventions) at six levels of performance, with 6 being the highest, describing each in some detail. Although the five qualities were described separately, the rubric was designed to assess the work product holistically. The rubrics were accompanied by "anchor papers," sample essays (at least 3 at each level) illustrating what each scoring level should look like.

    Basically, it worked like this:

    6 - Exceptional writing; top 1%; valedictory material.
    5 - Excellent writing for high school.
    4 - Typical, average high-school writing.
    3 - Minimum competence for high school.
    2 - Below high-school level; deficient in most areas.
    1 - Severely deficient in all areas.

    The rubric made a lot of sense and was a good guide for assessing student writing. It was designed so the minimum passing score was 3, most students would score around 4, and very few would reach either 6 or 1. 6 is an A, 5 is a B, 4 is a C, 3 is a D, 2 or 1 is an F. (I would shift this down for lowerclassmen; 5 is an A, 4 is a B, and so on.)

    The only reason I present this long-winded explanation of the Regents scoring rubric is to provide a foundation to help illustrate what I mean by "subjective assessment." Ordinarily, one would assume that an essay meeting the criteria for level 4 would get a C no matter who wrote it. A C paper is a C paper. That is certainly how the Regents exam itself was supposed to work. But what happens instead is that we expect teachers to assess student work based not on its objective quality, but on a subjective view of the student's abilities.

    Let's say that Johnny and Billy are both in the same 11th grade class. Johnny is an excellent student, very bright, very literate, very capable, very hardworking. Billy is not such a good student, doesn't read or write very much or very well, not very studious, not very bright.

    In other words, Johnny is simply smarter than Billy and a better writer than Billy. Set aside for the moment how difficult it is to actually admit that to ourselves, and how utterly impossible it is to actually express such a thing out loud in polite academic company. We are never allowed to acknowledge that one student is smarter, more capable, more industrious, more literate, or in any other way "better" at anything than any other. But again, leave that aside.

    Let's say Johnny and Billy, in response to the same assignment, each produce an essay that meets the criteria for a Regents score of 4. You'd think they should both get a C on that essay. That would be an objective assessment. What we do instead is give Johnny a C, because we expect him to be able to produce a level 5 or 6 essay, but we give Billy an A because this is probably the best he can do and may actually exceed our expectations of him. That is subjective assessment.

    The idea, I guess, is to make it possible for every student to get an A no matter how intelligent, capable or studious they actually are. Unfortunately, this turns the grade into a mere token, not an accurate and useful measure of a student's actual ability and performance. And it entirely removes any incentive to actually learn; if Billy can get an A for writing a level-4 essay, what is his incentive to learn to write on level 5? If Johnny knows that if he demonstrates superior intelligence and skill he will have to produce a level-6 essay to get an A, while those who do not demonstrate intelligence and skill only need to score a 4 to get an A (i.e., the same grade in the same class for the same academic credit), what is Johnny's incentive to demonstrate intelligence and skill?

    I had this conversation once with a group of students. When I described objective assessment in comparison to subjective one student said, sincerely and not at all in an obnoxious way, "That would give an unfair advantage to the smart kids." To which I replied, You're darned right, except for the "unfair" part.

    That, I think, is the rub. We've decided that it's "unfair" to give A's to kids who are just smarter and more capable than their peers, whose relative lack of intelligence and skill is "not their fault." If we grade student work and performance purely objectively, most kids would never get an A and would be incapable of getting an A. The reason for that is simple -- only a very small percentage of any random group of people can legitimately be called high achievers, otherwise achievement has no meaning -- but we've decided to treat any grade less than an A as implicitly telling a student that (s)he is inferior and unworthy. So we make it possible for everyone to get an A, to be a "high achiever," by demanding less of those we deem less capable, and demanding true excellence only from those who have already demonstrated it.

    •  Thank you for this comment. (0+ / 0-)

      You have helped me understand why, when high school graduates come to my college classes, many of them become shell-shocked by my insistence on applying objective assessment to their writing. I use a quality rating scale very similar to that you described, and I evaluate only what I see on the page, not considering individual students' backstories.  A too-familiar lament is "But I'm an 'A' student!" My job then becomes the finding of gentle ways to explain, "But I was not grading your study habits or your participation in class. I graded your writing."

      I fervently wish that grade school teachers and administrators would realize the harm being done to young, impressionable minds by perpetuating the myth of "'A' for effort."  The tragic irony is that such teachers are implicitly saying to students like "Billy," "We know that no matter how hard you try, your work will never really merit this 'A' on its own." Somehow, those same teachers trust a "Johnny" to be motivated by the "C" he gets to try harder to produce the "A."  As well-meaning as subjective assessment seems, this angle on the practice reveals it is nothing but institutionalized discrimination against intellectually average and struggling students.

      The "we" who have "decided to treat any grade less than an A as implicitly telling a student that (s)he is inferior and unworthy" can just as well decide to understand that what students produce is not who they are. Rating the product of someone's labor has no blessed thing at all to do with the laborer's character or personhood unless cheating is involved.  If this same "we" believe that education is to prepare people for adulthood, then teaching struggling students how to cope, how to learn, and how to build on their strengths is so much more important than simply handing out feel-good grades.

      No one elected Grover Norquist anything. If everyone ignored him, he would dry up and blow away.

      by vahana on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 10:26:27 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It IS discrimination (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        vahana

        to require different kids to do different things to get the same grade in the same class for the same credit. Classic Equal Protection violation. That's why when "differentiated instruction" came along, I refused to do it (in the sense that I refused to teach, give assignments and make assessments in a discriminatory way).

        Subjective assessment and differentiated instruction don't just discriminate against average students. They discriminate against our true best-and-brightest by demanding they do more to get the same credit that their "average" peers get. They diminish and deprive our best-and-brightest of the achievement and recognition they deserve by making everyone into "achievers." And they create a "race to the bottom" in which students compete not for better grades, but for easier work.

        I had a lot of students and parents dispute grades over the years by saying, e.g., "I'm an A student" or "I get 90's in English." The grade they expected to receive was tied to that subjective idea of what kind of students they were, and completely disconnected from any actual performance or choices they had made in that class during that term.  

        The more we connect assessment to actual performance, abilities and choices, and the less we connect it to students' subjective sense of self-worth, the better off we will be, but we can't do that as long as parents demand validation instead of education. Until then, we'll keep praising and congratulating and rewarding students for knowing things they already know, and doing things they can already do, instead of challenging them to learn new things and develop new skills.

  •  Interesting discussion(s) you raise. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Vatexia, vahana

    But I guess I want your topic to be more focused. Are you really saying students confuse grades with learning? That might be a well-founded criticism. In school, I certainly did know people who were totally focused on grades--but who weren't interesting people, in truth. An educated mind makes a person interesting. Curiosity makes a person interesting. When your entire life's purpose is sweating for a few points of gpa, so you can get into law school, you are generally NOT that interesting. Not to me. Are you against relative grading practices, and proposing some kind of "gold standard"--other than other students' work in a course--for grading? That, too, might be a really interesting discussion.

    Let me come clean regarding a bias of mine, a pet favorite topic I'd love to hear discussed: a society intolerant of mediocrity. In recent decades, we've been all about "excellence" and "perfection," and this has affected student and worker and social culture across the board. Once upon a time a bronze Olympic medal was nothing to be ashamed of. Nowadays, it's gold or nothing. When I was hitting college age back in the 80s, Time or Newsweek ran a story about how students were pursuing the "pre-professional A" rather than "the gentleman's C." This obviously creates a bind for teachers and professors. Parents, who themselves have succumbed to this unreasonable demand for perfection, pressure instructors to give their children A's, rather than the grades the instructors feel they deserve.

    These are just a few possible directions.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 06:49:09 AM PDT

    •  Hit nail on head. (0+ / 0-)

      This:

      Parents ... pressure instructors to give their children A's, rather than the grades the instructors feel they deserve.
      And, by extension, instructors give students the grades their parents demand, instead of the grades the students earn. Teachers have, whether voluntarily or by administrative fiat, ceded their expertise in assessment to parents.
  •  The educational testing industry is missing a huge (0+ / 0-)

    opportunity here.  The credential issuing institutions take all the money but it is the assessment operations that could repair the sorting process and mine the wallets of anxious parents.

    Where are we, now that we need us most?

    by Frank Knarf on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 07:42:08 AM PDT

  •  Let me apologize (0+ / 0-)

    to Professor Brasch for addressing him in the third person and completely misspelling his name. That was a mistake and a rude one, especially in this blog.

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