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.