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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The secret of joy in work is contained in one word - excellence.  To know how to do something well is to enjoy it."...  ...Pearl Buck.

Commentary of the Day - November 18, 2003:  Another Route to Grade Inflation.  Guest commentary by Tina Blue.

I try to maintain standards and to hold the line against grade inflation, I really do.

I am an adjunct faculty member, which means, of course, no tenure.  That also means that student evaluations play a significant role when it comes time for the department to decide on renewing my contract.  We adjuncts are always at risk of losing our jobs if we annoy too many students.

But idealist that I am, I still act as though teaching neat stuff in an engaging way will keep most students on my side.  I won't pretend that my standards are as rigorous as they were, say, twenty years ago, but I still do have standards, and I do try to stick to them, no matter how much pressure is applied or from what source.

What that means is that I can actually be caught marking C's on mediocre essays, even though I am all too uncomfortably aware that some of my colleagues would give the same papers B's or even A's.

So imagine my surprise when I glanced over my final grade sheets this past semester and discovered that I had only given three C's in one class and four in another!

Surely that wasn't possible.  I distinctly recalled marking quite a few C papers during the semester.  So I checked my final class rosters against my grade book.  I noticed one thing immediately: there at the end of the semester, my section enrollments were very small.  That fact had registered with me more or less as I marked finals and recorded final grades, but at the end of the semester my awareness of such details is swamped by the rush to get all my grading done and to turn in the grade sheets in by the deadline.

But the fact is, my classes have always been overenrolled. Like most teachers, I inevitably lose a few during the semester, but not all that many.

This past semester, though, my classes had shrunk significantly.  In each of my "Introduction to Poetry" sections, I had started out with 45 students. But by the end of the semester, I had only 22 in one class and 25 in the other.   That degree of shrinkage had never happened to me before.

As I compared my final rosters with the grade book, however, I discovered who it was that had dropped my course.

Almost every student who was getting a C in the course, or in danger of getting a C, had dropped out.  Even a few that looked as though they were likely to receive B's had dropped the course.

No wonder almost everyone who stayed through the entire course received either an A or a B final grade.  Nearly all the C students had abandoned ship.

The thing is, I know that many of the students who dropped my course were actually enjoying it.  But as I was told by one girl I ran into a couple of weeks after she dropped the class, a lot of them just don't feel they can risk getting a "bad" grade -- and in today's academic environment, a C is definitely a bad grade,  In fact, a B might even be low enough to seriously damage their records, cost them their scholarships, or hurt their chances of getting into their preferred major or into the graduate program of their choice.

I think this puts an intolerable burden on our shoulders.  We should be able to grade our students fairly, without worrying that giving out anything less than A's will destroy some kid's life.

A lot of schools and majors effectively "redline" their applicants at a certain outrageously high GPA.  For example, students who want to major in physical therapy, social welfare, education, or any one of a number of other popular majors here at KU are told that they need to maintain a certain GPA to be considered.  Often that GPA seems to be set quite reasonably -- usually at 2.5, sometimes at 3.0

But in reality, students with less than a 3.5 GPA are not likely even to be considered for admission to their chosen fields.  Their applications are tossed as soon as their ordinary GPA is noted.

And since the pool of applicants often includes a large number of students with perfect or near-perfect GPA's, even a student with, say, a 3.5 GPA, might not have that great a chance of being admitted.

But a lot of those stellar GPA's are achieved and maintained by the decidedly weasel-like expedient of dropping out of every single course that is in any way challenging, and diligently shopping for "pud" courses and for instructors known to give easy grades.  You can't really blame students for doing this when the majors and professional schools encourage grade shopping.  If all that matters is grades, then all that will matter to students is grades.

Unfortunately, even as I give a student an honest C -- sometimes even a rather generous C -- I know that he or she will be competing with students who are getting much higher grades for the same quality of work.

And as soon as he realizes it, he will probably drop my course and switch to the instructor who is giving that other guy such lovely grades.

©2003 Tina Blue
Tina Blue is a lecturer in English at the University of Kansas. She also publishes the "Teacher, Teacher" web site.

The IP comments: Tina Blue's observations are absolutely correct as far as they go.  However, she does not focus on the underlying cause.  Course withdrawal policies at most American colleges and universities have eroded over the years to the point where students can drop a class almost up to the date of the final exam for the flimsiest of reasons.  When the IP was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the "dark ages", a student had 10 class days at the beginning of the semester to drop and add courses.  After that, getting out of the course for anything short of a major medical crisis was just about impossible.  The ever more generous deadlines for withdrawing from courses has encouraged the kind of behavior Tina observes in her classes, and makes it even more difficult for those of us who still believe that grades should mean something to hold the line on grade inflation.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.