November 04, 2002

Grade Inflation and the Hot

Grade Inflation and the Hot Air it Inspires

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (free section, so you can read it yourself!) which purports to debunk the whole grade inflation myth. Couple o' relevant paragraphs for you:

However, even where grades are higher now as compared with then -- which may well be true in the most selective institutions -- that does not constitute proof that they are inflated. The burden rests with critics to demonstrate that those higher grades are undeserved, and one can cite any number of alternative explanations. Maybe students are turning in better assignments. Maybe instructors used to be too stingy with their marks and have become more reasonable. Maybe the concept of assessment itself has evolved, so that today it is more a means for allowing students to demonstrate what they know rather than for sorting them or "catching them out." (The real question, then, is why we spent so many years trying to make good students look bad.) Maybe students aren't forced to take as many courses outside their primary areas of interest in which they didn't fare as well. Maybe struggling students are now able to withdraw from a course before a poor grade appears on their transcripts. (Say what you will about that practice, it challenges the hypothesis that the grades students receive in the courses they complete are inflated.) I have a problem with his statement that lower grades are an "attempt to make good students look bad." The myth of the evil professor out to destroy your soul by refusing to give out A's like candy is just that--a myth. It is also telling that he's invoking the old "concept of assessment has evolved" idea. In public high schools during the 70's, assessment "evolved" to the point where spelling and grammar became secondary to self-expression, to the detriment of communication everywhere. Perhaps THAT'S the sort of evolution we're seeing here?

The bottom line: No one has ever demonstrated that students today get A's for the same work that used to receive B's or C's. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim. Actually, funny you should mention that. I can climb up to my attic and retrieve my TA training kit, in which we were able to practice grading standards for freshman comp. In prior decades, the grading scale for the grammatical content was like this: every grammatical flaw = one letter grade lower. By the time we got there, we had a "holistic" approach which largely disregarded grammar. In FRESHMAN COMP. I can show you essays that received B's or C's that were largely illiterate, which I graded according to the set standards, and which would have been grounds for repeating the the course in years past. Other interesting aside--students here have a "free pass" for Comp if they get a D or below their first try. They can retake the course and the first grade won't appear on their transcript. So basically you have a free do-over and much more lenient grading sanctioned by the department. Nope, no proof of inflation here! Carry on...

But here, buried halfway down a very lengthy article, is the writer's point:

To understand grade inflation in its proper context, we must acknowledge a truth that is rarely named: The crusade against it is led by conservative individuals and organizations who regard it as analogous -- or even related -- to such favorite whipping boys as multicultural education, the alleged radicalism of academe, "political correctness" (a label that permits the denigration of anything one doesn't like without having to offer a reasoned objection), and too much concern about students' self-esteem. Mainstream media outlets and college administrators have allowed themselves to be put on the defensive by accusations about grade inflation, as can be witnessed when deans at Harvard plead nolo contendere and dutifully tighten their grading policies. Damn. I should have known. It's those eeeeevvviiiil conservatives again, determined to oppress the masses! Dood, we just, like, wanna educate people, maaaan! Grades are totally the tools of The Man! Fight the power!

The rest of the article explains in detail why competition is bad, and why grade inflation is a lie. Look, here's reality, at least as I experienced it as a lowly instructor: universities need cash, so they're letting kids in who really cannot hack college life. But if they flunk, the university must replace that tuition, so it makes sense to try and keep them in as long as possible. So, we tweak the standards to do it. A cynical view? You betcha! But you didn't have to read the dreck I got from these "college level" students who could not identitfy thesis statements, much less create them, in classes designed to hone argument skills and prepare them for writing in the collegiate milieu.

Ultimately, universities must work with what public education sends them. To me, the grade inflation controversy in colleges points to ills in grammar school. Railing against the idea that "grades just don't mean what they used to" in order to villify the "other side" is an amazing example of how adept we've gotten at ignoring the elephant in the classroom. Did I mention that the elephant can't read? Not that it matters, since we're all ignoring it...

Posted by Big Arm Woman at November 4, 2002 07:21 AM