Behind the problem of grade inflation
Grade inflation. The subject is hardly new, and it is real: GPAs on college campuses sit on the border of A-/B+, and grades have ratcheted up a notch every decade or so. It’s hard to make much of academic administrators’ plea for rigor and critical thinking skills when either they’ve already been achieved or there’s no metric to capture progress. Yet the conversation about grade inflation focuses our attention on the wrong things.
Given the apparent wholesale precollege pedagogical shift of “teaching to the test,” is grade inflation merely a function of students becoming superb test-takers? College classroom experience and raw scores suggest not. Is it that faculty are uncaring? On the contrary, professors are deeply concerned about students’ lack of basic skills and study habits, and many faculty regularly employ elaborate assessment schemes and pour dozens of hours into reviewing student work.
Yet it’s hard to square the sense of distress about student ability, orientation, or performance with the high grades given out at the end of the term.
Maybe we should do away with grades altogether, given the time and attention they absorb and how little anyone has to show for it. Yet students of psychology remind us that grades are critical forms of positive or negative reinforcement. Political scientists opine that schools increasingly depend on adjunct faculty, who equate easy grades with happy students; contract renewals follow. Economists amplify these considerations, pointing out that incentive systems matter — if in sometimes surprising ways — and that schools dependent on tuition aren’t wrong to kowtow to their student-customers.
All these represent grains of truth, but none address the source of our expectations, which seem to be diminishing in inverse proportion to GPAs.
The issue is not that GPAs are high, it’s that the curve they sit atop no longer exists. Indeed, at A-/B+ for all, there may not be much runway ahead. But when 60 percent of all students are in the same place, we’ve effectively removed the markers that tell us where we stand, as well as places to go to move off the dime.
The root cause of the problem is the apparent difficulty, or unwillingness, of many teachers to own up to their judgments. Not about their subject matter, but about the performance of their students.
Undifferentiated grades suggest a failure to engage with students, to acknowledge differences. Very high, undifferentiated grades make it easy not to ask, why? If the fault lies with students’ attitudes or abilities, shame on teachers; in not demonstrating how discerning judgment is exercised, they fail to equip students to determine how seriously to take their schooling and themselves, to wonder what in the situation they are responsible for. They are deprived of the means and reasons to ask: Did I work hard enough? How much should I care? Does this subject matter to me?
If the fault lies with teachers, on the other hand, we should beware the unintended consequences of our actions. Failure to engage, to acknowledge differences, to own up to discerning judgments of others, permits students to do likewise, and it undermines the very idea of a community of learning.
Donald Hurwitz is senior executive in residence at Emerson College.