Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Summary and Response

On December 25, 2010, the online New York Times featured an article by Tamar Lewin, "A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean."  In the article, Lewin details efforts, primarily at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, to detail and combat grade inflation.  Grade inflation is the tendency of grades to creep up over time, which makes accurate assessment of what grades actually mean harder.  Grade inflation is perceived as a problem at a number of colleges and universities, though efforts to fight it are rare and not necessarily effective.

Lewin quotes Andrew Perrin, the sociologist on whose work the article focuses, as saying “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade....If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship.”  The idea behind the quote is one that shows up in my teaching.  That idea is that just showing up and turning in basic-level work is not worth a special reward.  It is an older idea, admittedly, and one that reflects a stricter view of what college work ought to be.

Employers, though, are not known to be forgiving, particularly in times of economic trouble.  They will demand high-quality work, and will lay off or fire people who do not perform it.  In light of this, is it necessarily a bad thing to grade "harshly," meaning that students who do base-line competent work will not get As but the Cs which are defined in college catalogs as "average?"  Then, too, there is the idea that if things are easy, students have no reason to get better; the point of any kind of education is to improve, so anything that takes away from the desire to improve is to be avoided.

Adequate /ăd'ǝ*kwǝt/ (adj.)- sufficient to the assigned task but not distinguished in any way; acceptable but not praiseworthy
Default /dǝ*fâlt'/ (adj.)- standard of comparison, status when not affected by outside influences, normal, base-line
Exemplary /ĕg*zĕm'plǝ*rē/ (adj.)- worthy of serving as an example, almost always a good one


  1. While I don't hand out As for C work, I do sometimes find myself grading the class "against itself" rather than against my standards. (This is the best student in the class, so s/he gets an A, even though s/he turns in B work.) I don't do this consciously, but I've had to come up with some nitpicky rubrics in order to minimize it.

  2. My rubrics tend to have the same sort of effect. I have ended up on more than one occasion turning in sets of grades in which no students earned As. Once, I had a class where none earned Bs.