Grade Inflation

Spring Break, that time of year in Central NY when spring remains broken and frozen beneath a foot or more of snow, and a 150-year old institution’s fancy turns toward … that’s right, grade inflation.

So one of the "great" things about databases is that you can compare average grades between faculty in  a given course. What you will find, of course, is that the average grade can vary quite widely. But what does this mean? If you just do one semester, you can’t really tell. You might have two writing intensive classes, with 20 students in each, taught by two different professors. In one class the average is a B (3.0). In other other class, three students flake out and fail b/c they don’t hand in the final paper. Otherwise, all the other students that the professor actually graded average to a 3.0, just like the first professor. However the second professor’s "GPA" is 2.55. Is one a tougher grader than the other?

I have no idea what grading is actually like at SUNY-Cortland, but here’s my guess, at least for Arts and Sciences. The most commonly given grade is a B. The number of F’s remains proportionally the same, especially with departments or types of courses (e.g. general education courses). The primary difference lies in the number of C’s given versus the number of A’s.  That is, some faculty give out primarily’s A’s and B’s with a few C’s. Other’s give out B’s and C’s with a few A’s.

I’m not exactly sure what the big deal is. The Ivy’s give out almost all A’s (after all, they admit "A" students). In graduate school basically every one  get’s A’s too (b/c they are "A" students). I guess that means at Cortland we’ve got B students. But here’s the thing. Graduate schools evaluating Cortland students are going to value them generally lower than undergrads from Cornell (wouldn’t you?). So how much worse does this become for our students when everyone at Cornell has a 3.5 or higher GPA and we are insisting on keeping our GPA’s down?

Who is benefiting from holding back grade inflation? To turn on my cynic for a moment, if I give out higher grades in my classes, I will likely get better student evaluations (which will improve my chances of getting a raise) AND I will make it more likely that students will take my classes and major in my program (thus meeting the demand to put asses in seats). I don’t see a massive incentive for me to give out all A’s, but in material terms the system certainly is not structured to encourage me to be a "tough grader."

There is only one type of student who might complain. In most classes I encounter one or two truly exceptional students who really work hard and acheive as well. Maybe it isn’t fair to them that they are getting the same A as some other students who do less work.

Maybe, but I say that if you’re doing this for the grade then you’re doing it for the wrong reason.

And this is where I come into this. As I’ve discussed here before, in my view grading is arbitrary and largely bogus. Even in a discipline where "mastery of knowledge" is a functioning principle and one might legitimately test for knowledge of discrete pieces of information, the testing process, IMHO, is questionable. Can  you really say that a student who graduates from such a program with a 3.5 has a better understanding and will make a better professional than the one who graduates with a 3.0? Can you really say they know the material better because they performed better on tests over a few years?

If not, then what does the grade mean?

Anyway, this isn’t even the case for me. I grade writing, which is subject to significant variety in interpretation, and by some bizarre fit of imagination, educational institutions believe it is valid to hold a student responsible for my interpretation of his/her writing. But I don’t. So, no, I don’t place a great deal of value on grading and in Hippocratic-like style, I vow not to be punitive with it.

As my courses are not about "mastery" but rather about experimentation, invention, and exploration, I need to encourage my students to take risks. They cannot learn, in my class, without taking risks. As such, I cannot penalize students when their experiments fail. In fact, I encourage them to greater failures. Much can be learned from a great failure. But how should I compare the student whose project, on my prompting, is a grand failure with the student who’s project is a modest success? Should I penalize the second student for not risking more?  That doesn’t seem appropriate either.

So here is the basic deal in my classes. If you show up, participate in class, participate in online discussion, and complete the assignments, you will get a B. If you fail to do one or more of these things you will get a C or lower. If you demonstrate particular engagement with the issues and take risks in your assignments, you have a good chance of getting an A.

And I have to say, I’m not interested in changing my grading policy. It is integral to my teaching practice. That said, if everyone wants to grade like I do, I am all for creating some consistency.

One thought on “Grade Inflation

  1. Anthony Nigro

    well said. througout my college career I battled with this idea of grade inflation and never made much sense of it. some teachers liked my writing and I got A’s. some teachers didn’t and I got B’s.
    and the most terrible thing came when the teacher would say “I’m only allowed to give out a certain number of A’s…so some of you who should of, just didn’t”
    Anyway, I applaud your “risk-taking” philosophy. I mean…that’s what life encompasses anyway, right? Decision after decision, with a few risks thrown in…imagine if we took a risk everytime?

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