A Better Grade
by Christian Perticone - Wednesday, June 19th, 2013 Collegiate Success

How can students earn a degree that represents real value not just on the job market, but also on the job? According to Robert Zarestky’s recent opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education,What’s at Stake with Grade Inflation?”, complicit teachers and students have compromised the true value of a college degree by accepting that good grades no longer have to reflect improved performance. Zarestky’s article recalls a utopian past where good grades still evinced a student’s ability to express clear thinking in writing. These days, he says, students pass on without improving. The blame belongs with both the system and the teacher-student relationship. However the consequences don’t hit the fan until students enter the workforce ill-equipped to demonstrate the sort of clear thinking that will free them from unpaid internships and the entry-level.

Before I get to the good news, bear with me while I outline the student’s dilemma.

The problem of collegiate grade inflation is endemic, and has its roots in a failed high school system. Zarestky cites the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress as a measure of systemic failure, and relays the fact that “Less than a quarter of high-school students performed at a proficient level of writing; only 3 percent rose to an advanced level.” Zarestky believes these numbers mean high schools should focus less on testing and more on developing critical thinking skills.  Whether or not he’s right about the direction educational policy should follow is secondary; it is unethical to pass unqualified students, to allow them the delusion that they are capable when they are not. Nevertheless, incapable students arrive en masse at college where the situation only gets worse.

The magnitude of grade inflation at public and private universities over the last seventy years was best described in a 2011 New York Times article “A History of College Grade Inflation” by Catherine Rampell. The article synthesizes data from an extensive study done by grade inflation experts, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. Compiling data from over 200 colleges and universities on the history of their grades awarded, a study published in The Teachers College Record showed that “Most recently, about 43 percent of all letter grades given were A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988.” The study also shows that private schools award easier A’s than do public schools. Really, the data is disappointing no matter how you spin it. As Rampell points out, grade inflation leads to less motivated students, diminished learning outcomes, and a diluted job market. When everyone gets A’s and B’s, it’s hard to know who’s the best candidate for the job, or the graduate school.

Students may read this and reasonably conclude that college is easier than ever, which is good?

Zarestky begins his piece with a personal testament of failure. As a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, he tries to teach his students better writing as part of his upper-level history classes. In fact, he prioritizes clear expression of thought as a learning outcome, saying to students at the beginning of every semester, “the most important thing I could teach them in 15 weeks was not the nature of the French revolutionary tradition, but instead to be better writers.” Yet, despite rigorously instructive grading, his students mostly write at the same level from the first day of class to the last day. Whether or not their writing improves, he admits, their grades creep higher. Those outlier students who become better writers put in extra effort. They submit optional rough drafts for his feedback, and they discover he is “generous with corrections and suggestions.” Of course, it’s possible that Zarestky could try harder to teach writing. But in fairness, he’s probably right when he says he can’t do more, “Short of transforming my upper-level history classes into writing-composition courses”. In the end, the nature of his failure is less interesting than the admission itself. In coming forward, he publicly admits to a systemic problem that many teachers prefer to discuss privately, and/or generally.

My personal experience in the field of writing and composition, as a teaching assistant at Arizona State University and Mesa Community College, aligns with Zarestky’s testament of failure. With one or two notable exceptions, most of the TAs I knew (myself included) were disappointed in their students’ inability to improve as writers. By the end of the semester, we felt that they had expanded worldviews, but little by way of writing performance to prove it. The grades we assigned correlated with what they learned, not what they didn’t. Were the department, the administration, the teachers, or the students at fault for the A’s that should have been B’s, and the B’s that should have been C’s? We all were. The reasons are multitude, and unimportant for those concerned with personal success. Instead of focusing on what not to do, students need to be proactive with their professors. Go to office hours, and ask teachers to mark every single thing that can be improved in a paper. Ask for suggestions on supplementary reading. Ask teachers who they consider to be good writers. Be an outlier.

Robert Zaretsky frets over grade inflation because he sees it as a betrayal of truth. This high-minded sentiment is unsurprising in the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life and the forthcoming Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Yet beyond, or beneath, the philosophical implications of grade inflation, a more utilitarian consequence awaits: students are getting less for more, because they aren’t asking for more intense feedback on their work. Ultimately, good and bad grades don’t matter anywhere near as much as the quality of education one receives. Fortunately, persistent students can have both. Most professors would be only too happy to give an A to a student who comes to office hours, asks for feedback before an assignment is due, and then implements the suggestions he or she receives. This approach to learning empowers its practitioners. You will win job interviews, and ace performance reviews, if you can skillfully rearticulate what you are asked, and provide a response that demonstrates clear thinking.


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  1. Today, at least in the United States, every child has the right to an education. As early as fifty-years ago that wasn’t the case and not everyone was given the equal opportunity to go to school. It is a notable step up for education, but how much weight does the education you receive carry? Disregarding private institutions with accelerated curriculums, our public education system is getting by on crutches, because of a number of reasons.
    The first issue our educational system faces is its budget. Money keeps getting cut out from under schools and institutions so they can’t do much to improve education. An example might be: not being able to afford the most up-to-date version of textbooks.
    Because, generally teachers are underpaid and underappreciated I would feel safe to assume that many just start to feel less of an obligation to give the best effort they can to teach the material. Most classes have become more focused on the tests and grades rather than how well students understand the material. There is not enough effort on either the student or the administration’s part to improve the quality of the education students receive.
    Finally, more and more students per teacher forces classes to be much less catered to the individual’s academic needs. We can see this with doctors, having to see a patient every fifteen minutes all day, everyday can become extremely tedious and special attention to the patient is usually assumed to be lost.
    I am a victim of the de-valuing of grades and so is every one else especially at larger universities. With so many students registered for the same classes, grades and individual assignments become less important and carrying less weight.
    I don’t claim to fully understand grade inflation, however I do believe that if it exists we should consider it a problem. The loss of individual attention in classes is on the students, but is made almost impossible by an increasingly busy schedule for teachers who can spare little to no time for one-on-one tutoring

  2. Cailee O'Connell says:

    Grade inflation is when a professor boosts the grade percentages of students, so the students have a better outcome or higher GPA. Grade inflation can be a wonderful thing for students who try their hardest, and receive a higher grade than they would have for all of the hard work they put in. It can also be a great thing for students who are failing because they do not understand the material, and the grade inflation boosts the percentage to a passing mark. However, grade inflation can be bad because it can give students an unrealistic sense of accomplishment, making them believe they can do that well, but in reality, it sets them up for failure. This causes students to get into great schools and programs based on their grades, and then fail because they weren’t properly prepared for the next level of education. Grade inflation also isn’t fair because it allows students who don’t try hard or put a decent amount of effort in to receive a passing grade, and the students who tried their hardest do not receive as much credit as they should have. In my personal experience, grade inflation has only had positive affects on my grades (that I know of). I have been able to relax when finals came around because my grade was good and the final was curved to the point where I didn’t need to stress to receive the grade I worked so hard for throughout the year. In situations like this, I believe grade inflations are beneficial, because a hard working student who knows the material and tries their hardest through an entire class should be able to confidently go into a final knowing that their hard work paid off. Finals are very stressful, and sometimes the stress alone can cause a student to mess up, when in reality they should’ve received a good grade. I believe grade inflation is good for students who try hard. For those students who don’t, it will take more than grade inflation to help them. However, if a student does not try hard, odds are, the inflation wouldn’t be enough to help the student anyways. For example, if a student bombs a test, a couple percentage will not make them receive a passing grade. In this case, the students who try hard are rewarded with a higher grade, and the student who doesn’t is fully aware of how poorly they are doing, and are not rewarded. But if a student is on a bad road already, taking away grade inflation will not punish them, it will only push them more towards that road. What these students need is somebody to reach out and show that they care and that the student is worth something; they do not need just another person throwing a bad grade in their face and telling them why they are bad. There is a much deeper level of need for students in those situations, a need to which grade inflation will have nothing to do with.

  3. Rigoberto says:

    Does the use of student csruoe evaluations contribute to grade inflation? At UW, csruoe evaluation medians are reported in two ways, once using raw scores and the other as "adjusted medians" which are supposed to, in part, re-normalize things based on students’ expected grades in a csruoe. (Other parts of the adjustment include whether the csruoe is required or optional.) I have no idea what formula they use but it is really easy to see how a tough midterm increases the gap between the adjusted scores and the raw ones. And do you think the complaints you are getting, even if you deny the appeals, are likely to push up your grade curve next time around?No. I have been using the same grade distributions since my first or second year teaching. My typical median is a little below the median of our students’ GPAs overall. The median grade goes up or down a little bit based on how well I think the class as a whole has done relative to previous classes. Because we have restricted admission to our major, the student population is more homogeneous in ability and we seem to get relatively few complaints about grades. One other way that I may get reduced complaints is that I tend to give a relatively easier midterm and a relatively more difficult final. Students may be less likely to complain when the raw score on their final exam is low. (My goal on the midterm is to be able to identify those students who are struggling relative to the others and on the final to identify those at the top end (though the very bottom students are also identified).

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