Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri 12/19/2003 4:25 AM
Random Thought: More On The Cost of Grades Is Too High

Someone has been raking me over the coals about bringing up this issue of grades over and over and over again. I do so because this is obviously an issue that won't go away however we may want to turn away. I bring up the issue of grades, as I told some people already, because my intent is merely to get me and others to think about the extent we all are "grade-oholics," and the consequences of that affliction on our feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Talking of "grade-oholics," to paraphrase an old Hassidic saying, "Anyone who thinks grades can get him everything is likely to do anything to get them." That is especially true if there are the additional outside threatening social, political, professional, personal, and family pressures. For teachers, as scandals of teachers helping students to cheat on standardized tests surface and of school boards cooking retention and graduation books, that is especially true if grades are used by administrators and Boards of Education as a hovering and fearful productivity sword of Damocles in factory-like hiring, promotion, and firing practices. For students, that is especially true if cheating is modeled by their role models: parents, teachers, coaches, professors, and even collegiate administrators at the highest levels. So many people invest themselves, identify themselves by these grades. So many identify and value others by these grades. Grades are education's cocaine. Grade addiction is not much less than drug addiction. You got to have it and you'll come up with every excuse, rationale, explanation to do whatever it takes to get it because you got to have it. Like any addiction, you'll deny you have it and proclaim you can stop any time you want. And, like any addiction, the need is so powerful to make you feel so important and powerful that it has a powerful narcotic affect on all values.

Early this semester seizing as a teaching moment what most would call a "no big deal" incident in class, I deliberately made it a big deal in all the classes. I asked almost 200 students in the classes if they had ever cheated? Almost seventy five per cent admitted they had in one way or another, to some extent or another, at one time or another. Seventy-five per cent!! That's close to the 72% national average. Then I asked the all important question, why. Every one of them came up with every self-serving exonerating excuse, explanation, rationale in the book. It was as if they'd read the studies on cheating and had taken the defenses to heart. They pointed to their role models, to teachers whom they knew helped students cheat and had cooked the test score books. They mentioned corporate executives. They heard of coaches and professors and administrators who had compromised themselves. The mentioned parents who had written papers for them. The pointed to their peers with an incredulous look of "Hey, everyone is doing it." Everyone seemed to be telling them that the grade doth make the person.

I could easily have called their positions lame, illogical, immoral, unethical, contradictory, even hypocritical. That would be unfair. None of them had entered this world from their mothers' wombs with souls tainted by this academic original sin. It had been ingrained into them, it had been part of their education inside and outside school, it continues to be part of their education: grade-getting and achieving a high GPA are chips both students and teachers needed to play in this high stakes credentialing game. And, so many of us do so little to unlearn them. We'll self-righteously punish them, but few of us will unlearn and rehabilitate them. We talk so much about grade inflation and talk so little about character deflation. Instead we emphasize that grades might, just might, get them through the door, but we don't tell them the nasty little secret that grades won't keep them in the room.

In this blame game, we "supposed-to-know-better" educated adults no less than the malleable adolescents are Jabez Stones susceptible to the temptations of Mr. Scratch. Maybe the real tragedy is that every one of them, like most of us, blamed someone else or something else: society, "the system," the times, the culture, the, the, the, the. It was always someone else's fault. Someone or some thing always made them do it. Not one, NOT ONE, accepted the responsibility for his or her own actions. Not one, NOT ONE, accepted the responsibility for his or her cheating. No one, NOT ONE, admitted to flawed character. What they didn't realize was that in the quest of the holy grail of a grade they and we make ourselves so unholy; we all steal self-respect and integrity and responsibility from ourselves and others. No one makes his or her life better by avoiding responsibility. In fact, that lack of responsibility is a form of self-imposed servitude to all those to circumstances and other people. Responsibility, self-respect, and integrity are about our ability to respond to circumstances, to choose the attitudes, actions and reactions that shape our lives. It is a concept of power that puts us in the driver's seat.

Yet, almost all of us give grades so much power to cripple, shatter, corrode, destroy, kill, obstruct, limit, suppress, silence, invade, steal, and conquer us and others. We are all both the corrupted and corrupters. We all are both tempting Mr. Scratches and tempted Jabez Stones.

In the end, however, we shouldn't really be talking about grades. Grades are not the ultimate problem with grades. It not all grades! It's all people! We each are the real problem. We, the faculty and administrators, are complicit. And, I include myself. It is true that over the past few years I have banished all tests and grades from class. But, in the end at the end of the day and at the end of each term, I bow to others.

We--students, politicians, parents, faculty, administrators, et al-- tend to overvalue grades, to want them too much, to want to give them to much, to think they say too much, to think they will bring too much. We all seem to be a Tevye wishing "if I were....."

Sure, grades are the currency of the academy. Sure they're like oxygen: they're needed to exist, but they aren't the reason for our existence. But, in the long run they're not worth the paper the transcript is printed on compared to honesty, integrity, responsibility, accountability. Sure, grades may not be the root of educational evil, but the love of grades instilled in and accepted by most everyone, BY MOST EVERYONE, just may be.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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