Friday, May 27, 2016
A few months ago, Inside Higher Ed ran a story that noted "that grades continue to rise and that A is the most common grade earned at all kinds of colleges." (emphasis added). This finding surprised me. I knew grade inflation was becoming more and more common, but I did not expect A to be the most common grade earned, especially in the undergraduate setting.
The article reported that A's accounted for "more than 42 percent of grades" and "A's are now three times more common than they were in 1960." (emphasis added).
This grade inflation trend is a mistake, in my opinion. And it is a trend that is impacting graduate schools as well. At the law school I attended, they moved from a 100-point scale and a 78-point mean when I attended, to letter grades and a much higher mean GPA. I understand why my alma mater made the move; they were very different than other law schools, even at the time, and a student with an 85% average had a tendency to be discounted by employers, even if that person was in the top 10% of her class. Business graduate schools may well have led the grade inflation charge, probably driven, at least in part, by employers who would only reimburse for a B or better in a class. Again, I think grade inflation is a mistake.
Is grade inflation simply an extension of the participation trophy phenomenon? "Entitled" might be the most common adjective I hear used to describe students today. "65% of Americans Say Millennials Are “Entitled,” 58% of Millennials Agree." And if these students grew up being rewarded for just showing up, why wouldn't they be entitled? For the most part, I agree with Pittsburg Steeler, James Harrison, who famously returned his children's participation trophies. To be clear, I think there is a place for team (and individual) achievement trophies and for most improved trophies, but trophies for just showing up seems to encourage mediocrity.
I also understand this mother's point of view, who argued in favor of participation trophies, given the situation of her "mildly intellectually disabled" son. She is concerned for "kids who don't have the chance to ever be the star athlete [or student] no matter how hard they work for it" and hopes for recognition "that not everyone is born with the same abilities." When teaching, my heart does go out to the C-student who appears to be doing his best, while a slacker gifted student may be able to get a B with minimal effort. We should encourage the determined C-student, but also teach him that achievement takes time and effort and is more difficult for some. I believe that former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden defined success well when he wrote: "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming." I want my children and my students to know that I care about them regardless of their relative achievement. I want them to know that doing their very best is all that can be rightly expected. But I do not want to shelter them from the reality of failure. And I want them to realize that life is not always fair. And I want to help them to find a career well-suited for them, which may be aided by comparison to others over time.
In light of all of this, how should we respond in our grading?
I think there has to be a discussion at the college and university level. Individual teachers are in a tough position. At most schools, a professor who believes that Cs are average, and As are only for true excellence, would be a significant outlier and could wreck individual student GPAs. Personally, I think colleges and universities need to establish a presumptive mean grade (and maybe some distribution requirements as well). The grade mean would have to have some flexibility, especially for smaller classes, where the high achieving students may be concentrated or absent from particular classes. I know there are some who find a required grade mean limiting, and an established mean is not without faults, but I think it is a more fair system and limits the race to grade inflation that is sure to occur if more flexibility is granted.
While effort should be recognized and encouraged, grades and trophies should represent relative achievement. Competition is a reality of business. You don't get clients just by trying hard; you get clients by being the best. Students and athletes need to learn to compete, push through failure, and at some point realize that it may be best to move on to a different area.