Grade inflation in America’s colleges and universities is a serious issue. It is also an issue in the nation’s elementary and high schools. The curious thing is that while the problem is the same, the causes contrast sharply.
The culprit in the colleges is a kind of emotional blackmail that students, aided and abetted by parents and university administrators, apply to professors, especially those who maintain high standards for student achievement. Indeed, students have found they can get top grades simply by demanding them and throwing tantrums should they fail to get their way.
The issue in high schools, however, is quite different. Perhaps the operative term is “misplaced” compassion, which leads teachers to feel sorry for students and then inflate the grades for a range of nonacademic considerations, such as class or race.
The results are disastrous for the students, the schools and the nation. However, the extent of the coming disaster is often obscured from the view of the people making the decisions.
Most teachers, no doubt, see themselves as good people interested in helping their students, and there are practical considerations that impact their decisions. There is also an often unseen but essential fact about school life. A school is only deemed successful if most students are promoted to the next grade at the end of the academic year. If too many students fail too many classes, it is problematic.
This message makes its way to the teachers. When more than a few students fail a class, the administrators do not ask the students why they have failed; instead, they ask their teachers why their methods fail so many students. Accordingly, teachers make their tests easier, explore “extra credit” options or devise other artful ways to make it seem that students can do tasks they have not mastered in the classroom.
The War Against Grades
Grade inflation is just the opening salvo in the war against grades, as there is a mounting drive to abolish the grading of students entirely. This campaign is waged on two fronts.
The first arises from “progressive” educators going back to the early twentieth century. According to these theorists, grading is an inherently arbitrary system far too subject to the whims of teachers. It is deemed an “artificial” process in which minuscule differences (like 60% versus 59% scores) can mean the difference between passing and failing. They also argue that grading tends to emphasize gaining teacher-devised skills, which they allege have little real-world value, a dubious proposition, to be sure. Therefore, schools should eliminate grades.
The second reflects attempts to eliminate achievement gaps between ethnic or racial groups, citing such discrepancies as proof that schools impose purported “systemic racism.”
Such pseudo-arguments may well have eliminated grading altogether had anyone figured out how to operate a school without grades. There have been several attempts over the years, most of them some version of “pass-fail” grading. The obstacle, however, is that many students are unwilling to work if it has no significant bearing on their promotion. There is nothing sinister in this. Education is difficult. However, no one—child or adult—wants to spend their energies on useless pursuits that are neither enjoyable nor profitable.
A “Cure” Worse than the Disease
A popular subterfuge is to establish a grading system in which the lowest possible grade is fifty percent, a form of grade inflation on steroids. This holds even if the student fails to turn in his work at all. In the standard grading system, sixty percent marks the line between passing and failing. Thus, students could pass a class if they turn in as few as one assignment out of five, provided they get a hundred percent on the one they do. Doing two assignments out of five may edge the student into “C” territory.
In this case, the “cure” is worse than the disease, as it only exacerbates the conditions used to rationalize it. It renders the grading system even more arbitrary and artificial, robbing it of any connection to the real world that students will encounter when their formal educations end. Can anyone imagine a scenario in which workers who failed to show up for work still got fifty percent of the salary they would have earned had they worked those hours? Would they even keep their jobs? It is an evident absurdity.
Another dire harm inflicted by grade inflation was aptly summed up in a headline from the trade journal of American educators, Education Week, “Grade Inflation Teaches Students We Don’t Mean What We Say.” The author states that when a teacher tells a class that a certain grade must be earned on a particular piece of work and then changes the grades so that failing students pass, this sends a message to their students that they are not telling them the truth. This, in turn, creates skepticism among students that carries over into other classes and across school years. Children won’t listen to teachers whom they believe are lying to them.
The Benefits of Stress
Contrary to many modern educational theorists, learning need not be fun. Mastering a complex task can be satisfying, but that is a different and more substantial perception. Even that, however, is called into question if the student who strives for success sees others who did not work receive the same high grade.
A recent essay from Education Next drives home this point, albeit in very different terms, referring to the stress students feel when trying to do well. When well-meaning teachers seek to remove such stress by adjusting grades upward, they cripple their students’ chances for success in later life.
“Excessive stress is bad, but moderate stress is beneficial, normal, and often better than no stress. ‘Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake,’ [Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal] writes. ‘You can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.’ Stress motivates action, can accelerate learning, and often leads to a ‘tend and befriend’ response that draws people together and builds community—which, in turn, helps to create wellbeing.”
All the Wrong Lessons
In an increasingly chaotic and disordered society, America’s youth need the well-being that order affords. Grade inflation teaches all the wrong lessons. Having failed to master material they find challenging, students may struggle to succeed in later life. Never having tasted the rewards of hard work, they may fall back on public assistance.
Such outcomes weaken and, over time, can demolish the foundations of a civilization. Witnessing the urban decay afflicting New York City, San Francisco, and numerous other once-great American cities is ready evidence of how far the societal dissolution has already progressed.
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