Elliott Miles, a retired educator and university president, discusses a disturbing trend on college campuses: grade inflation. Before you read, think of these questions: In the American education system, what does a grade of A mean? A grade of B, C, D? What about a grade of F? In your university courses, what grades do most students receive? Do you think the grades are distributed fairly
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(1) Most American universities today still use the traditional grading system of A-B-C-D-F, with A meaning “excellent,” B “good,” C “satisfactory” or “average,” D “unsatisfactory but passing,” and F of course “failing.” While some feel that this system has shortcomings (too inexact, too artificial, too subjective), it does represent the possible range of a student’s work, and most students and faculty members are comfortable – or at least familiar – with it. So far so good. However, American universities since the mid 1960’s have increasingly been affected by the problem of grade inflation. This refers to the tendency of many faculty members to over-evaluate the quality of a student’s work and consequently to assign her/him a grade higher than the work deserves. The reason this practice is called inflation, a term borrowed from economics, is that it resembles paying too high a price for a given item, for example twenty dollars for a loaf of bread. The problem is common among American universities, including even our most prestigious institutions, such as Harvard. As Craig Lambert reports in his article “Desperately Seeking Summa,” the grade of A there accounted for about twenty-two percent of all grades in 1966-67, whereas by 1991-92 it had come to account for forty-three percent – almost double.
(2) The trend toward inflated grades began in the mid-1960’s probably because that was a time of great unrest on college campuses in the United States. There were widespread student protests against the Vietnam War and civil authority in general, frequently with the support and participation of the faculty. Under these circumstances, grading standards began to shift for the worse. Faculty members became more and more unwilling to give students a D, let alone an F; the grade of C came to denote a minimal pass, B to represent “satisfactory,” and A to mean better than a B.” Today, students and faculty alike have this new, watered-down system in their heads, although their university’s official grading policy may be unchanged from previous times.
(3) Why is this a problem? After all, a student is unlikely to feel put upon if his/her work is over-valued. However, when a faculty member records that a student has done excellent work, when in fact the work might only be pretty good or merely fair, that faculty member has committed two faults. First, he/she has told a lie about the student’s work, misrepresenting the student’s achievements. How would we react if the misrepresentation went the other way – if the student had done excellent work, but the faculty member assigned a grade of B or even C? This would strike us all as dreadful, yet faculty members who assign falsely high grades are showing equally faulty judgment. Inaccurate grading is inaccurate grading, no matter which direction it takes.
(4) The second fault is that the faculty member has broken faith with all those who will be harmed by the dishonesty. Most obvious among these are the students who really did do excellent or good work. It is grossly unfair to students who earned real A’s or B’s if their accomplishments are devalued by the lax standards applied to others. To illustrate with an example from the workplace: would it be fair for two employees to receive the same raise when one had done excellent work and the other only mediocre?
(5) Grade inflation also harms anyone who must evaluate a student’s record, such as admissions officers at other universities and at professional schools. For instance, medical and law schools never have enough spaces for all applicants and hence must choose only the best qualified. When admissions officers evaluate the transcript of a student who received inflated grades as an under graduate, they get a false idea of that student’s past performance as well as his/her potential for future success in a rigorous professional curriculum. For a similar reason, potential employers are harmed when they are presented with an inflated academic transcript; faced with seemingly equal candidates, they may give a desirable position to a less deserving applicant because they had a false understanding of that person’s actual abilities.
(6) And finally, our society at large is harmed because grade inflation undermines the integrity of the universities, which is one of our greatest assets. If university faculty members cannot be trusted to give an honest evaluation of each student’s academic work, public disappointment will inevitably set in – and rightly so. The solution to the problem, though difficult, is simple: each faculty member should make a conscious decision to assign grades based on the actual quality of a student’s work, realizing that not every student will be able to earn the highest, or even the second highest, grade. One of my former students made the point very concisely in an essay that she wrote on grade inflation: “Let’s put the excellence back in the A.”
Author of article
Title of article
Let’s Put the Excellence Back in the A
Title of the book
Refining Composition Skills: Rhetoric and Grammar
Author of book
Reginal L. Smally, Mark K. Reutten and Joann R. Kozyrev
Heinle & Heinle
Choose one or more of the following questions to inspire your reader response paragraph.
1. How do the impressions of the audience change (or do they) after the second reading? Does the audience think any differently? Is the topic one that would make readers want to learn more? Why or why not? What is it that a reader would want to research for additional information?
2. Sometimes articles touch their audience, reminding them of their own life, as part of the larger human experience. Are there connections between the article and the audience’s own life? Or, does the article remind its audience of an event (or events) that happened to someone they know? Does the article have a connection to a previous book or article?
3. If you were the author, would you have changed anything in the article and ideas? Do you have a negative connotation associated with the idea? What would you chance?
4. Does the article leave the audience with questions they would like to ask? What are they? Would the audience like to direct their questions at a particular character or an idea? What questions would the audience like to ask the author of the article? Are they questions that the audience may be able to answer by reading more about the author’s life and/or works? What are the questions and how would they be answered?
5. Is there an idea in the book that makes the audience stop and think, or prompts questions? Identify the idea and explain the responses.
6. Has the article changed the reader in any way? The way you look at this theme or behave if you were to talk about this theme? What did you learn that you never knew before?
7. Capture what it is about the book that stands out (or doesn’t stand out).
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