The idea of grade inflation is back in the news around here
when a local newspaper decided to put all of those computer-assisted reporting
classes to work and investigate the local university.Truth be told, I often
enjoy deeper pieces and if anything is going to help newspapers increase their
value (both financially and intellectually) it’s going to come in the form of
stuff like this.
The core of the story is the same as it always is: Grades
are going up, professors are doling out A’s like they’re Halloween candy and
dammit, why aren’t you using the Bell Curve to keep this stuff in check? The
narrative of spoiled children receiving unjust rewards is an easy sell and when
the data appear to support that supposition, it’s an even easier case to make.
The article cites Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke
professor and a national scholar who works on the topic of grade inflation. His
work has been cited in hundreds of publications over the years in which he
often argues that grades continue to rise over time and there is no data to
support the idea that students are getting smarter or better to account for
these increases in grades. To wit:
“Do you want to tell me that students
across the nation are getting smarter and performing better when there’s no
other data to support it? Professors are grading easier than ever before,”
I’m not going to argue with the data.
It’s a pointless exercise in that the work the newspaper did here demonstrates
that a lot of people are handing out a lot of A’s and B’s. I’m also not going
to argue that kids are inherently smarter or better than their predecessors. I
complain about whiny bastards all the time and quite frankly, I’ve dealt with
more parents than I wish I had over the more recent years. I will, however, note
that kids have much better access to much more powerful learning tools than
their predecessors, which might help even out the odds a bit. Even so, it can’t
possibly explain the whole phenomenon of seeing the average grades creep up
across the country.
That said, I hate pieces like this
because they often take the easy route to a predetermined conclusion. Here are
a few things that didn’t go discussed in the article that really should be
- I’m sure Rojstaczer is an expert, from
all I’ve read about him. In fact, the only negative thing I can find about him
out there is in reference to the Duke 88, who took an unpopular
(and eventually erroneous) stand in the Duke lacrosse case.
That said, he’s made his bones as the “grade inflation guy” and that can lead
to the idea that grades continue to inflate for no good reason. If you spend
enough time researching anything, using any theory, applying any method or
approaching any topic, you can pretty easily find what you’re looking for that
supports your claim. In addition, I’m sure this is a pretty good gig to have in
an era where writers, bloggers, radio hosts and the chicken dinner circuit are
looking for people to talk about this topic.
When you are a guy who makes his money selling fire places, every house looks
like it could use a fire place.
Am I impugning his integrity? No. Am I questioning whether he takes the “people
are doling out A’s like candy” as a reflex action? Yes.
- Research has indicated in a number of other
fields, including psychology and sociology, that there isn’t reflexive
quid-pro-quo approach to grades and faculty approval. In most cases, faculty
who satisfy the students needs for learning and growth, teach courses that
students feel are directly attached to their needs/major and who provide
adaptive and strengthening learning environment tend to get higher course
evaluations regardless of grades. In fact, research I’ve done has shown that
grades are not predictive of positive course evaluations, but rather can be an outcome
of positive classroom learning environments. In other words, “professors give
too many good grades to kids who don’t deserve them because they don’t want to
be disliked” is reductive at best and disingenuous at worst.
The Bell Curve. This is perhaps one of the
biggest sticking points between the “ass kicker” faculty members and the more
“new wave” faculty. In the Bell Curve way of thinking, only a few can get A’s.
Thus, we push students to participate in an academic version of the Hunger
Games to strive for that grade, by hook or by crook. I can understand the idea
in the most basic concept: if something is to be valuable, it needs to have
meaning and rarity. That’s why a T206 Honus Wagner is worth millions of dollars
while a 1984 Ron Kittle card is worth a couple cents.
The anti-Bell Curve thinking goes like this: If you have a class that has 20
students and only two can get A’s, what happens when you get a class that has
five or six amazingly talented people? Or, conversely, what happens when you have
a class of people who couldn’t find their ass with a searchlight and a posse?
Instead, why not establish standards that are based on what a student must do
in order to get a grade and then measure the students against the standards?
The curve is one of the more troubling parts of my academic life. I can’t think
of a lot of other aspects of life in which this would apply when you want to
properly measure people. (“I’m sorry sir, but your credit score can’t be 680 or
higher because we already have three people in that area. You are now
downgraded to 650.”) Then again, there are a number of “winner take all”
approaches in competition (World Series, Super Bowl) or in life (You can’t
marry my wife. We’re already married.)
That said, I was impacted at a really early stage of my career in this regard.
As a graduate instructor, I found that most of my grades tended to fit a “few
A’s, few F’s, lots of Cs” model. Then one year, word got around that I was
worth having as a teacher, so I had about four or five really good kids from
the two student newspapers taking my class. They had advanced training, were
really smart and they really wanted to out do each other. When I did the math
at the end of the year, my tradition of “just two A’s” wasn’t coming to
fruition. I had four kids who had done A work all the way through, so I
I met with the person who had hired me and discussed my dilemma, asking if I
needed to drop a kid or two out of the A range for fear of “inflating grades.”
She asked if all four kids actually earned A’s. I said they did. She asked if I
treated them any different than anyone else. I said I didn’t.
“Well, then,” she said. “Why should they be penalized for just happening to be
great kids in a class with other great kids? I’m sure you wouldn’t want to hear
that you earned an A, but the professor only had so many to give out for some
bullshit arbitrary reason. If they earned the grade, they earned it. Give it to
From that point on, I stopped worrying if I gave out A’s or not. Some years, I
gave out many. Other years, I didn’t give out one.
Do we want kids engaging in Thunderdome for
grades? This is the thing that kills me about this whole “grades are getting
out of control” argument. I teach a required class that has a lot of work and a
ton of what I call “punishment” in it. It’s a writing class, so I make kids
write. It’s a journalism class, so I make them write journalistically. I have
standards for both, so when kids start slathering on adjectives and adverbs
willy nilly or lacing their prose with fact errors, they get a kick directly in
the grading groin. Guess what? It really hurts them.
Here’s the rub, though. I’ve spent almost my entire academic life arguing
AGAINST the idea of grades. I HATE grades. If the only goal is to get the A,
kids will do whatever they have to in order to get that grade. This will
include things like not helping others during peer editing, because someone
else’s failure will improve their own likelihood of success. This will include
cheating, because if the grade is all that matters, you do what you have to if
you want that grade, ethics be damned. This will include decreasing their
desire to learn and increasing their desire to memorize. If the test matters
most, they have to cram their heads full of crap to get the grade, dump it out
on the Blue Book and then start over again for the next test.
None of these things indicates that learning matters. Sure, grades count for
stuff, but I’ve always found them to be bullshit demarcations of talent and
skill. Some of my best kids have failed my classes. Some of the kids I wouldn’t
trust to write a story on the Greater Oswego Valley Cat Fashion Show have
earned B’s or A’s.
I don’t want them trying to get A’s and B’s. I want them to get better.
Thus, in my writing classes, I pound the kids. I make them write something. We
go over it as a class. We rip it to shit. We argue about it. I send it back to
the kids for another draft. We do it again at that point for a grade. In other
words, they get a couple bites at the apple so they can improve once they see
what was wrong the first time. This is something those of us who are in
education call “learning” and it should be the outcome we are seeking.
I could really feed my ego if I wanted by being at total
dick. Set up the class so that Woodward and Bernstein are crying about how tough
it is. Give kids one shot at an assignment and grade it as harshly as possible.
Fail kids for the entire class who make a fact error (several colleagues I’ve
had do something like this).
However, what in the hell is the point of that? When I
punish you for something, it’s because I want it to hurt badly enough that
you’ll remember to never do that thing again but not so much that you’ll never
be able to recover from it.
Some classes (and even some disciplines) have much more of a
hardline because they have to. I don’t want my doctor to go to “Self Esteem
University” where she got A’s in everything just for showing up. However, I did
like the explanation the faculty member in nursing gave, which was, “Look, we
can’t turn out shitty grads, because they will become shitty nurses and likely
kill people. So, we have to do everything we can to make sure they’re not
shitty. In doing that, yes, they earn grades that aren’t shit.” (rough
The things I took with me from college weren’t grades. I
remember my first journalism teacher telling me when I was panicking about
perfection that, “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.” I use that at least
once a month on my kids.
The students who return to me rarely remember what their
grades were, unless they got a particularly horrible grade. In most cases, they
remember it like a badge-of-honor scar: “Hey, remember when you almost flunked
me out of school? You ever think I’d be your editor one day?” In most cases,
they remember the lessons I pounded into them like I was Shaq in his prime,
banging into the defenders in the post:
If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.
Get the hell out there and report.
Just tell me what happened and save the soap opera for your grandma.
Design in modular format.
Fucking up is normal, but learn something from it.
Don’t let someone bullshit you about something being an
“isolated incident.” When it happens more than twice, it’s probably a trend.
Just because a source isn’t happy, it doesn’t mean you did
your job poorly.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
This isn’t Burger King. You don’t get it your way.
Attributions go noun-verb, unless you want to sound like
And, of course, write in one-sentence paragraphs.
At the end of the day, most of my kids get good jobs, live
good lives and remember what I taught them. That’s probably what we should be
A life worthy of an A.