Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri 4/15/2005 3:24 AM
Random Thought: Grade Inflation

I hear the darkness has returned and spread over the academic land. It has been doing this every now and then for the past century. It’s withering the crops and drying up the waters. It’s passing through locked doors and shut windows, getting into every nook and cranny. It’s stifling the air. It’s tormenting the very soul of academics. The Ivory Tower, once again, is being ravaged by an apocalyptic plague the proportions of which rival the Black Death. It’s threatening the very foundations of the Ivory Tower. We are in desperate need of a magical incantation to ward off this evil. And, evil it is, for this deadly, apparently incurable disease, rampaging at a full gallop as if it was one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, is: “Grade Inflation.”

The bestowing of undeserved higher grades, making easier grades available, and showering young people with unbelievable and undeserved praise is said to be “scandalous,” “a mess,” “inappropriate,” “irresponsible,” “corrosive,” “sick,” “odorous,” “evil,” “depressing,” “demoralizing,” etc, etc, etc. This spreading pernicious disease, this quest for popularity among students, this pandering to students’ self-esteem, this treating of students as customers, this flattering of students’ egos, this succumbing to student expectations is turning hard courses squishy, rotting standards, rewarding mediocrity, spreading counterfeit knowledge, eroding professorial authority, diminishing faculty image, and tarnishing faculty prestige. Why grade inflation is even attacking the very selective class structure of academia by confusing the distinction between the super-smart student, excellent student, good student, average student, mediocre student, and bad student.

“Ah, me,” so many academics groan with tortured breath, “where are the days of the good ole ‘F’ and ‘D?’”

Get out the sackcloth and ashes! Hand out the protesting posters. Go to the streets. Egalitarianism is nigh! Weeding out, selectivity, and exclusiveness are out. Nurturing and inclusiveness are upon us! The academic world is coming to an end! Help us O Lord: “Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes….”

And you know something, I agree. I agree with all these dark descriptions of the situation. Grade inflation is, to say the least, a pernicious a disease each of us has to admit exists, diagnose, and find a cure! We do need a new standard of achievement. We do need a new vantage point. We do need a determination to act! We do need leaders to lead! Grade inflation is an outrage and we do need commitment and determination to prick this ever increasing balloon. We do, we do, we do!

Surprise you? Think I’m out of character? Well, take it easy, when I talk of grade inflation I’m not talking about higher grades. I’m not referring to the proliferation of “As” and dearth of “Fs.” When I talk of “grade inflation,” I’m talking about the inflated value placed on the importance of grades, a value that’s rising faster than gasoline prices at the pump. In reality, I’m talking about deeply underlying philosophical issues dealing with the nature and purpose of an education.

What has gotten me thinking about grades once again? It’s that “ah me” time of the semester. All semester I’ve successfully dispensed with using any grading system. Now, I can’t avoid dealing with that awful academic addiction to grades. It’s the time I have to struggle against my better judgment and make judgments as I assign final grades. It comes close to driving me to drink.

Let me give you a few embodiments of why I think grades are probably the most uneducational part of education. First, I had a student “pop” into class bedecked in green from hat to shoes. He was getting extra credit in an English literature class for wearing St. Patrick’s Day décor to class! Second, I have a colleague on campus who rants and raves against grade inflation while he drops students’ lowest test score and then uses a perfect Bell Curve in his calculation of the final grade to insure that the grades fall into a “normal distribution.” Third, I have another colleague in another college on campus who prides himself with more than a hint of machismo and self-congratulations as a self-described weeder. That is, he is not committed to insuring that everyone in his class masters the material. To the contrary, he is dedicated to using the grade as a winnowing tool to separate the proverbial chaff from the wheat and to ferret out those who do not do well in his classes. Fourth, while I was at Reyes Point in California watching the migration of the whales, I got into a conversation with a man in his late ‘30s who was moving to Atlanta from Mississippi. “There are jobs there, better jobs than I’ve got.” he said. When he found out I was a university professor, he went on. “I was a straight ‘A’ student in college, busted my ass, got my business degree, went out into the real world, got downsized, and wound up slaving as a UPS driver. A lot of good my good grades did me in guaranteeing a good job.” Then there was the student who tried to butter me up at the beginning of the semester by introducing himself as an honors student who decided not to go into the honors program for fear of getting lower grades. Unimpressed, I asked him in reply, “But, are you an honors person?” He got this confused look in his eyes as if I had striped away his identity leaving him with nothing. And finally, there was the student I recently wrote about who compromised her integrity in pursuit of the Dean’s List.

As I told a group of professors, staff, and administrators as an aside during some workshops I was presenting, when students are focused on getting grades and when faculty are focused on giving grades, I have found from almost fifty years (gulp!) of personal and professional experience in the collegiate classroom on both sides of the podium, from reading countless studies, from reading even more countless student journal entries, from discussions with other academics, and from talking with students that at least twenty-three very uneducational--and unhealthy--things tend to happen to both students and academics: (1) academics usually grade with the false impression that the playing field is level and that everyone jumps off from the same starting line; (2) academics usually are deluded into believing that the grade is a non-judgmental, true, absolute, and objective assessment of student learning; (3) the grade creates the wrong impression that such a brief academic evaluation statement has a universal standard; (4) too many academics think that the grade is the “great extrinsic motivator;” but seldom wonder why it so often doesn’t motivate; (5) too many academics equate rigor and the height of the proverbial bar not with intellectual depth and value of their classes, but on the amount of work assigned and the rarity of assigning good grades; (6) students’ interest in learning takes more of a hit as their interest in grade getting increases; (7) the quality of student creativity, imagination, originality, and thinking in general drops; (8) students are generally instilled with a fear of failing rather than a courage to achieve; (9) grades tend to reduce students' preference for taking up challenging tasks; (10) students tend to take the easiest and quickest route while shunning the difficult road less traveled; (11) students tend to pander to what they think the teacher wants; (12) learning is reduced to grade getting and which sadly often doesn’t have much of a life after college life; (13) “importance” is degraded to something that’s going to be on the test and/or graded; (14) the grade doesn’t convey everything about the student’s transformation, achievement, and development; (15) the grade doesn’t convey what the teacher may want to say about a student; (16) the students define themselves and are defined by others according to their grades; (17) teachers too often define themselves and are defined by the grades they give; (18) too often academics ask of a technique or method only “how do you grade this” rather than “will they learn from it;” (19) too often the grade is elevated to the heights of a crystal ball as a predictor of things to come; (20) the grade confuses being judged and judging people with being educated and educating people; (21) the grade may indicate a one-day performance or a series of one-day performances, but does not tell anyone what material will be retained, that is, what a person supposedly knows at a moment has nothing to do with what a person will continue to know or learn to know in the moments to come; (22) the grade is often used as a punishing “stick” for students’ actions that have little to do with their classroom academic performance; and, worst of all, (23) because too often the grade becomes everything, the students will too often succumb to doing anything to get them.

In other words, I think the real problem is not with grades. The real problem is that most of us have made them into ritual fetish objects. We’ve become academic idolaters, laying ourselves prostrate before them in supplication. We’ve become so addicted to them that we need GA (graders anonymous) meetings on almost all of our campuses. Too many students, parents, faculty, administrators, legislators, et al put all their money into the basket of grades and think the point of going to school is merely getting the grade. Their interested is limited to a credentialism that will offer a good living. They pay only lip service, if that much, to the additional educational goal of transforming and being transformed into a better person and learning how to live the good life.

So, if you really want to cure the Ivory Tower of this pernicious disease of “grade inflation,” and put the joy and meaning of getting educated back into education, take out your pin, prick the balloon, and deflate the value of grades—if not eradicate them.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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