Every public school teacher, every professor, has heard the plea of the occasional student for a higher grade. “79.2%...that’s so close to a ‘B’...and I worked so hard!” Compassionate teachers question their own teaching, doubt the accuracy of some test items, and next thing you know: grade inflation...the cause of the Lake Wobegone Effect, where all children are above average.
But grade inflation is not a laughing matter.
First it hurts the student who is overgraded. I remember the call from a high school teacher who asked me “Don’t you use Grade Point Averages any more at the university?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” she replied, “we are being asked to re-teach and re-test until every student has earned an A or B...it’s called ‘mastery learning.’ But,” she pleaded, “not everyone is an A or B student!”
When an average student is given superior grades, they come to believe they are performing at a superior level. And so do their parents. Then they hit the hard reality of performing at college or grad school or on a job. Broken dreams. Wasted money.
The second party hurt is the truly superior student. Grade inflation now hides these true scholars among a pool of mediocre students. Commencement time is approaching. They will soon read off the names, going up the scale to magna cum laude and valedictorian. And many of the students left standing will be from a discipline known for easy grading. Some of these students could very well be the very best of our scholars, but they are painted with the stigma of easy courses, inflated grades. This is not an unjustified stereotype. In some fields, professors have begun their course with: “Now students, let’s not worry about grades. You all have A’s. Now what are we going to do to earn them?” But this so diminishes the accomplishments of the truly good students.
Finally, grade inflation hurts the system. We are told that schools are to serve the NEEDS of the student, the NEED to have high grades, the NEED to get certificates and licenses. But those are the students’ WANTS. The real needs are society’s need to have physicians who can operate, writers who can edit, engineers who can build. That means we NEED to be able to distinguish those who can understand and can perform at the highest levels, from those who can’t.
When we don’t grade seriously, so-called “assessment experts” threaten to impose external tests on us. That adds pressure to teach-to-these-tests. And that drives all the creativity and professionalism out of teaching.
Six professors at a university in Pennsylvania recently lost a thousand dollars each in merit increases because of grade inflation. According to a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, those professors gave over half of their students A’s. And sometimes up to 80% of their class got A’s. The fact that a university must resort to using money to hold down grade inflation is but one indication of how serious the problem has become.
How’d I do J?
Oh, I’d give it a C+.
C+! That’s close to a ‘B,’ man!
Tagline: That was John Richard Schrock, who trains biology teachers in Emporia...pleading for a higher grade.