Friday, May 27, 2016

Grade Inflation and Participation Trophies

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.

Business School, Haskell Murray, Law School, Teaching | Permalink



Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | May 27, 2016 6:18:19 AM

Also, it's important to learn to fail at things. Therefore, we need to keep some signal that a person is, in fact, failing to do well. Otherwise, it seems to me, they'll just be surprised later.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | May 27, 2016 6:20:14 AM

Agree that failure can be useful, Matthew.

As to the request to do away with Cs, I just shake my head....

Posted by: Haskell Murray | May 27, 2016 6:53:53 AM

Where do I start?

Thanks for this post, Haskell. Having just finished my grading (and having several students--even in my advanced courses--score in the C and (less frequently) D range, I will just endorse what your post makes clear: that that assessment must be meaningful to those receive and use it. The problem is that (as you indicate) grades, as assessment labels, serve many disparate functions. As a result, the conversation about them needs to be broad-based and involve multiple constituencies. Very tough to handle.

This topic deserves significantly more serious attention than it gets. Maybe we should consider having a forum on this in which professors, administrators, students, and employers all participate together . . . . I am not volunteering to organize it, but it's certainly something to consider.

Posted by: joanheminway | May 27, 2016 8:13:18 AM

Curious what roles are ideal for law students with a C-average these days, or should they drop out? In the past we heard "As make professor, Bs make judges, Cs make partner." What is the maxim now than grade inflation is the norm?

Posted by: Stephen | May 27, 2016 8:28:42 AM

Nice question, Stephen. Of course, the answer depends on a lot of things--paramount among them what school the student attended or is attending and the connections the student has. In my experience, a student with a number of Cs on his or her transcript is employable as long as he or she has established connections with folks who can offer (or channel the student toward folks who can offer) the student a job. But I have not worked with a student who has a C average.

Posted by: joanheminway | May 27, 2016 11:22:49 AM

Really “dug” this post. I appreciate and respect that you and Joan are far more compassionate than I am. Spoke with a retired 24 year Navy vet (college graduate) this morning in Celina, Tennessee, about this posting and he put it succinctly – “our world was based on choices and consequences. We’ve sought to remove the consequences for the choices made by this generation.”

Addressing the “participation trophy” mindset, my daughter played soccer in a recreational league and with it came – at the parent’s additional expense – a trophy at the conclusion of each soccer season (2 a year). We thought it would be a good way for her to learn the game (however, “soccer moms” are just as intense as “dance moms” who put other sports moms and dads to shame even when “just a recreational league”).

As we’ve discussed before, I feel that team athletics inculcates a special ethic. When I used to hire people for my manufacturing business, I knew within three days on the job whether someone had participated in team sports.

When my daughter turned 8, she put all those trophies in a box and was carrying them to the trash. When I ask her what she was doing, she replied, “Dad, these don’t mean anything. Everybody got one.” She got the participation trophy sham on her own! She also treated the Certificate of Dance received through her school with the same contempt. I would note, however, that her acceptance to the Duke Talent Identification Program, framed by her, hung on her wall until a couple of years ago. She earned that and took great pride in it. She knew her academic achievement garnered her entry.

As for grade inflation, this started a couple of decades ago – if not more – in the public school systems. At the brink of having been matriculated from high school almost 40 years, the way it used to be handled was you graduated and received a diploma or during the ceremony (allowing non-graduates to “walk”) you received a certificate of attendance. Now, because of all the purported “grants” and “scholarships” tied – understandably – to grade point average teachers (1) feel that if they don’t inflate, they are robbing otherwise disadvantaged children from a “shot” at a college education (despite almost guaranteeing a wretched freshman year in college) and (2) whether as part of the written or unwritten policies of school districts, there are base grades which teacher may not award below. We’ve built at least two generations who believe they should be awarded for simply “showing up.”

Except for public elementary and secondary school, every school I’ve attended operated on an attrition model. Universities knew who they were “suckering in” for first year tuition and build their model around it. If an incoming student was smart, they found an upper classman to get the “lay of the land” and determine which were the “flunk out” courses that departments used to maintain accreditations (or, if lucky like me your first academic advisor was a football coach who “aided you” in professor and class selection). In my law school class, I started with 142 and finished with 78 – with several of those students finally concluding from other prior starting classes. In my LL.M, we started with 87 and 34 of us received our diploma.

What I will state is that there are rare college professors who invest themselves in their students. My Dad (an engineer) had a drafting instructor who was more interested in the student “getting the material.” When my Dad would go to turn in a “plate,” if that instructor asked, “do you want me to grade this?” It meant, this is not an “A” and if you would like to do it again without error, you can earn an A. If the student (my Dad not being unwilling to work for the grade) said, “no.” The instructor would tear up the drawing. He allowed his students to do this until “they got the material.” Needless to say, my Dad got A’s.

As for me, I fortuitously had as my freshman and sophmore English instructor a young man and graduate of Sewanee doing his Master’s work. He offered all his classes the opportunity to meet with him after-hours and submit your written work, which he would mark-up as many times as the student was willing to “do the work” until the due date. I took full advantage; but, most did not. If I could find Fred Smith (not FedEx founder) today, I would still hug him! He taught me how to write.

In conclusion, I think about why the movie, “Rudy” is so inspiring. Through the parents association at my daughter’s middle school, I got to hear Rudy Ruettiger speak and had the opportunity to meet him. Rudy’s journey is what inspires. The hardships he overcame to achieve his goal. He was encouraged, but it was his work and dream that made his achievement inspirational. Nobody subsidized him or coddled him along his path of working to overcome being lack-luster athlete of nominal talent and poor high school student. He had to earn his tuition. Here is a kid who hung with Notre Dame football when it really was a “top of the pyramid” program (was on the team with Joe Montana) and was rewarded (the players making Devine let Rudy dress was fictional. Devine chose to let Rudy dress several days before without any theatrics) for his grit. In addition, he graduated from Notre Dame.

The story would be so different if his parents had “been sensitive and embraced his dream,” his high school teachers had “inflated his grades for entrance,” he felt he was entitled to “free tuition,” and the football team “accommodated” his physical disability of insufficient size or athletic talent.

Posted by: Tom N. | May 27, 2016 1:39:26 PM

This was a very very good post.

Posted by: Greg Day | May 29, 2016 4:24:11 AM

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