The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Grades are intended to be an objective -- though not perfect -- index of the degree of academic mastery of a subject.  As such, grades serve multiple purposes.  They inform students about how well or how poorly they understand the content of their courses.  They inform
students of their strengths, weaknesses, and areas of talent."....  ...Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley, Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing? (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2002)

Commentary of the Day - February 11, 2002:  Grade Inflation and Me - Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

[Ed. note: The following is the companion piece to yesterday's article on grade inflation.  Sanford Pinkser is the Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.]

A recent study of grade inflation at Harvard reveals that most undergraduates can expect either an A or an A- in their courses.  That, apparently, is the range, and that is the reason why nearly everybody ends up earning "Honors."  It is a dubious distinction, one hardly worth writing home about.  And in the ways that the academic world works, I can imagine disappointed students bitching about the A- some stinker of a professor gave them.

Other colleges suffer from the ripple effect that grade inflation inevitably creates.  At my college, for example, something like 1,100 students made the Dean's List -- this in a student body numbering l,700.  My suggestion (not especially appreciated I'm sorry to announce) was that, as a paper saving device, we print the names of those who did NOT make the Dean's List.  Furthermore, I thought it might be a nice touch if the non-Dean's List students were made to wear a tee-shirt with "Dean's List" in the center surrounded by a circle and a line running diagonally through the middle, and that their parents receive a bumper sticker reading, "We are the proud parents of an F&M student who did NOT make Dean's List."  As one administrator told me, this "dunce cap" strategy is a dog that won't hunt.

He's probably right.  Besides, the people who should be wearing dunce caps are those members of the faculty who can't recognize excellence -- and its opposite -- when they see them.  Grade inflation is yet another topic akin to the weather: people talk about it but there's nothing they can do to change things.  Still, a part of me keeps insisting that rampant grade inflation can be reversed.  I suppose that deans can help, although I would much prefer that faculty members air out the issue themselves.

For starters, we need some agreement about what grades mean.  Let me suggest the following formula: an A demonstrates excellence; a B suggests excellence; a C demonstrates competence; a D suggests incompetence; and an F demonstrates incompetence.

That said, faculty members must be convinced that evaluating students in an appropriate, which is to say, professional, manner is more important, more "career enhancing," as it were, than the approval ratings they receive on student evaluations.  There are probably many reasons for the grade inflation pickle, but I suspect that student evaluations have driven many to "go easy" with the people who will be filling out questionnaires at the end of the term.  For such folk, it's important to be likable, flexible (unlike the sort who insist that "deadlines" mean precisely that), and most of all, handing out grades that won't cause students to beat a path to the chairperson's door.  I have yet to hear of a student who complained about an A.  Therefore, the message too many faculty members hear is, "Want to avoid grief?  Become acquainted with the A."

Inflated grades are, finally, a disservice to all students because they cheat those who have earned their  marks and lie to those who haven't.  Grade inflation is,  in short, a sham.  Deans with sufficient clout can say this, and it may well have a temporary effect, but any attempt to write "fire insurance" into the complicated factors that go into setting grades is ultimately doomed to failure.  Instead, I would prefer to have faculty members discuss grading in ways that make it clear that only those actually in the classroom can assess the level of work being done there.  Granted, it won't hurt if word gets around that evaluating student evaluations requires more, much more, than simply glancing at the raw numbers.  Some popular teachers genuinely deserve their popularity; others do not.  The same thing, I hasten to add, is true to those who do poorly on student evaluations.  Some deserve the brickbats heaved their way; others do not.  In a kinder, gentler world, one's grading standards should not be part of this arithmetic.  In truth, however, grades matter -- but they won't mean much if every student sports a transcript filled with unrealistic, and undeserved, A's.  Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, tried to make this point and soon found himself  in hot soup when Cornel West took offense and then raced off to the media bristling with threats.  One can wish Summers well, but he will have an uphill struggle.  So, too, will any faculty member with the courage to says the simple word, "Enough!"

A final word about those who argue, especially at the elites, that the current  crop of students is smarter and that economic pressures cause them to work harder.  To twist a line from Hemingway, "It would be pretty to think so," but the truth of the matter is that this generation of students is pretty much like the generation before them, and the generation before that one.  As a dean I very much respected told me, "When people ask me how many students attend Franklin and Marshall College, I tell them l,705.  What I don't tell them is the real answer: about 1 in 10.  That's as true for Harvard as it is for East Overshoe State.  All of which makes rampant grade inflation an expedience, a bit of "social construction," if you will.  And like anything socially constructed, it can, I am told, be deconstructed.  Let's hope that my theory-heavy colleagues can get behind this cutting-edge idea and give Johnny the C or C- (or even D, for God's sake) he often richly deserves.

©2002, Sanford Pinsker


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.