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So grade inflation is probably up. What does that mean?

Lot of stories about grade inflation recently — see here, here and here — so I’ll add one too. Last year, I took a graduate-level business course (the topic of the specific class was mostly micro-economics). The professor used three tests, six short papers, and a final as the components of the grade. The six short papers were mostly jokes — if you hit the rubric check marks, you’d get a 10/10 or whatever and your ultimate paper score was out of 60 — but the three tests were legitimate, and often pretty hard. We got the third one back probably two weeks before the final — the papers were long since done, and most people had 60/60 — and this kid who sat in front of me, upon getting the third test back, starts screaming and banging his desk as others are exiting the room. The whole idea behind his rant was “This teacher doesn’t tell us exactly what’s on the test!” and “This is unfair! I don’t want to learn! I just want good grades!” (Actually said.) During the final, held on a Saturday morning, that same kid freaked out because the final was passed to the left side of the room first, and he was on the right. He even said, out loud, “The right better have the same time!” I saw him afterwards and he was telling everyone within a six-mile radius that he failed the test. For the class, he got an A-Minus. (In that same class, if you take away the 60/60 on the papers, my average was probably a 72. I got a B-Plus.)

Second story, which I promise to be shorter: I was the president of my grad program for the last year. As such, this August, I was a potential point of contact for new students into the program. I’d talk to them about learning, jobs, social life, etc… absolutely no one cared. The question I got about 17 times in a class of 60 or so? “What’s the curve like? How’s the grading? Is it hard? Could I fail?”

The best article I’ve ever seen on grade inflation — its historical trends and root causes — is here. If you’re a fan of graphs, don’t worry; that content is in there. If you just want to know why grades are seemingly more inflated nowadays, here’s the basic breakdown, in two historical chunks:

Rather, the researchers argue that grade inflation began picking in the 1960s and 1970s probably because professors were reluctant to give students D’s and F’s. After all, poor grades could land young men in Vietnam.

They then attribute the rapid rise in grade inflation in the last couple of decades to a more “consumer-based approach” to education, which they say “has created both external and internal incentives for the faculty to grade more generously.” More generous grading can produce better instructor reviews, for example, and can help students be more competitive candidates for graduate schools and the job market.

The authors argue that grading standards may become even looser in the coming years, making it increasingly more difficult for graduate schools and employers to distinguish between excellent, good and mediocre students.

Here’s the first thing I would say: the idea of “learning for learning’s sake,” at least at a university/grad school level, is most likely dead. (It is, for sure, where I’m at school right now.) This kind of sucks on 1.5 million different levels, but probably this one most of all: being curious is extremely important. In fact, I bet if you lined up 100 senior-level managers and asked them if they would rather have a curious 2.8 GPA or a straight-ahead 4.0 GPA, they’d probably take the 2.8. GPA is worthless for hiring, especially a couple of years out of undergrad, but being curious and wanting to learn more about an area never fades away — and that’s how you eventually develop a cross-functional workforce that can really be an asset. I’m not sure that’s happening anymore at the grad level, and a Masters is basically the new college degree, so … this is all a bit confounding. Now, if GPA is worthless for hiring (and I think it is; you will always hear stories about the dropouts who found the billion-dollar companies or that ‘3.0s run the world’), then why does grade inflation matter? It doesn’t, on surface. I don’t really care if an entire class of people get As, so long as the people learned something in the class, can apply that learning back to job/life/society, and did some work. The problem is that the latter elements of the equation aren’t happening. That’s a detriment.

The other problem is that we live in a world that, despite its technological innovation, may be getting stupider about hiring processes. Even though a respected company like Google is tossing out GPA, most companies are getting 1K+ applications for some of their jobs — and aren’t smart enough, or don’t have the resources, to whittle those down via a logical way. They want numbers they can easily use as a cut-off, and GPA is the shrine of those, especially for younger hires. But if everyone has a 3.5, how do you know who’s the best 3.5? And how can you cut your 600 resumes down to 300 and so on and so forth in this model? All it does is lead to grousing by HR/recruiters, which leads to more grousing from hiring managers (“We can’t get stuff done without people!”), which leads to intervention by senior managers (“Isn’t HR personnel? Why are they hiring?”), which leads to a rushed decision-making process where the wrong person gets the gig (“She had a 3.7 from Duke, which jumped off the page”). No one wins.

Final depressing thing: many inflate grades to avoid people complaining. I know a girl from school who haggled over a 97 — a ninety-seven — until the teacher made it a 98. (That’s the same letter grade.) This shit is ludicrous. A TA/professor is a position of responsibility — now granted, in the professor’s case, it isn’t usually their main thing (research is, which actually may be the case for the TA too). I understand the logic behind inflating grades to make everyone look better, which hopefully gets people jobs, which hopefully gets them fiscal security, which hopefully means they give back to the school that gave them the grades in the first place — but I don’t understand the logic behind inflating simply because of potential conflict/complaining. It’s annoying, but tons of shit in life is annoying. Grow a pair, y’all.

Is this going to stop at all anytime soon? Probably not. If anything, it will get worse before it gets better. You can propose a lot of things — cutoffs where only 25 percent of a class can get As, for example, is something you see a lot — but the broader thing we need to do (which is nearly impossible) is restructure the entire idea of education so that it’s not about the grades and the output at the individual level (it can still be about that at the school level, since parents will want to compare schools and schools need to be held to some broader accountability standard). Individual performance should be assessed differently than the A-F, 4.0 scale; it should honestly be more project-based than anything, since most jobs — from fast-food service to Fortune 50 corporations — will involve a good deal of working on a team to accomplish something. Your grade should be based on how everyone does (of course, this brings up “free rider” issues), and done so from an early age, so that we can shift the selfish focus of “What am going to get?” and “Will this be fair to me?” News flash: your grades don’t fucking matter, except to possibly your parents. If you get a C in a class but learn a ton in it, it may just mean that the class is poorly structured; it doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong, per se. It doesn’t mean you can’t take the knowledge and apply it somehow, or re-contextualize it and apply it. Too much of this whole sequence is “Bitch about process, bitch about grade, throw away paper with grade on it, bitch about something else, eventually smile and nod when getting a B-Plus.” That’s a great cycle and made for the Facebook age, but there’s no actual learning or application happening there. That’s where we’re falling behind: developing a context for what’s being learned, a curious nature about how it connects to other things, a chance to work in teams, a chance to re-apply the knowledge to different situations, etc. It’s not so much grade inflation that we need to fix, because on surface that’s not even a massive problem. We need to fix how people appreciate the information that’s leading to those grades, be they Bs or As.

Ted Bauer

2 Comments

  1. The only solution to this mess is to have large and highly desirable employers take the lead and demand quantitative measures such as:

    1. Student scores on 100 point scales
    2. Course medians per 100 point scale
    3. Median admission scores per college to clarify which schools are more selective from the get-go
    4. Some competence-based testing prior to hiring: “Can Johnny think his way through this real-life problem? If not, go back and learn something, Johnny… “)

    This proposed plan would create a natural market pull… Students at schools not providing such data would be automatically passed over by key employers — and the same students shown protesting in the Yale video will soon start demanding better behaviors/accountability from their professors and administrators. They are supposed to be preparing their students for the real world, are they not?

    Beauty contests sponsored by grade-inflating universities just don’t cut it when businesses are making incredibly important hiring decisions. Employees ultimately make-or-break a company based upon their smarts and work ethic. Poor hiring decisions are only rewarded with subpar ROI, mountains of pre-separation documentation, and some unfortunate odds of litigation when performance is really unacceptable and the employee is fired.

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