Confessions of a Grade Inflator

Getting schooled.
May 14 2014 11:57 AM

Confessions of a Grade Inflator

Between the grubbing and the blubbering, grading fairly is just not worth the fight.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In the classroom, I can be formidable: I’ve been known to drill-sergeant lethargic students out of their chairs and demand burpees; I am a master of the I’m Not Mad, I’m Just Disappointed scowl. And yet, when it comes to assigning an end-of-semester letter value to their results, I am a grade-A milquetoast. It’s grading time once again, and I’m a softie as usual: Of my current 33 students, 20 are getting either A’s or A-minuses.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

And I bet you anything the A-minuses are pissed.

It’s not that I just “give” students good grades. Each course I teach has a meticulous assessment breakdown, taking into account participation, homework, quizzes, and essays—and for the latter, I grade with a rubric, which both minimizes griping and allows me to be slightly fair. But even with all of these “hard-ass” measures, the ugly truth is that to get below a B+ in my class, you have to be a total screw-up. I’m still strict with my scale—it’s just that said scale now goes from “great” to “awesome.” It’s pathetic, I know. But when you see what professors today are up against, maybe you’ll understand.

If I graded truly fairly—as in, a C means actual average work—the “customers” would do their level best to ruin my life. Granted, there exist professors whose will to power out-powers grade-gripers. There are stalwarts who remain impervious to students’ tenacious complaints, which can be so single-minded that one wonders what would happen if they had applied one-fifteenth of that focus to their coursework. I admire and cherish those professors, but I am not one of them. You know why? Because otherwise, at the end of every semester, my life would become a 24-hour brigade of this:

My time is worth more than said bombardment. Everyone’s is. The other day, a friend of mine who teaches at a tony private university in the South messaged me in a huff: “I posted my grades at 10:00, and by 10:04 I had two hysterical complainers. OMG. I hate grades. #Hampshire,” she pined, wishing to work somewhere like proudly grade-free Hampshire College in Massachusetts. As she was typing, another complaint came in.

There are many categories of grade-grubber, and none of them are worth dealing with, so I’ve largely just acceded prematurely to their demands. Take, for example, the student who never comes to class or turns in any work—then, suddenly, two days before grades are due to the registrar, he’s sending 2,000-word diatribes:

Another classic is students who utter the phrase “med school” in conjunction with wanting a grade they did not earn, as if their inability to churn out an acceptably mediocre lit paper is all that stands between them and Johns Hopkins. I thought the purpose of easy gen-ed courses like mine was to weed out the people who should be too dumb for med school, but sure, here’s your A; now leave me alone (and I weep for your future patients).

My personal favorite was the student who, when I insisted upon ever-so-slightly dinging her participation grade because of copious absences for “migraines” that never came with a doctor’s note, seethed: “But I do my reading, and nobody who sits around me ever does!” Maybe, but at least they’re not tattletales.

Where did students get the gumption to treat a grade as the opening move in a set of negotiations? As a professor, there is little worse than spending an entire semester attempting to connect about a subject you find both interesting and important, only to have them ignore everything you do until the moment their GPA is affected. And then, of course, it’s war.

War, interestingly enough, is also probably to blame for grade inflation in the first place:

Apparently, it all started with a bunch of bleeding-heart flower profs trying to keep young men alive. Opinions differ as to why the bell couldn’t be unrung, but 50 years later, add a brutally competitive job market and the consumer model of higher education, and you’ve got colleges full of students who rarely see a curvy letter on a report card.

But it doesn’t start in college. Thanks to American K-12’s relentless culture of assessment and testing, everything our students have done since the age of 5 has been graded—but almost all of those grades have been “exceptional,” so the exception is now the norm. Now we’ve got high schools with 34 co-valedictorians—hell, why not just make everyone valedictorian, just for being alive?—et voila, students enter college having never gotten anything but an A for their entire lives.

That’s why it’s no fun to give a “bad” grade (by which I mean, of course, a B); I love my students, griping aside, and I, unlike them, think grades don’t matter even a little bit. I can’t handle being the person who causes their young faces to crumple at the sight of that B, or, egad, C, which they equate with abject failure. I don’t want them to think they failed, and stop trying altogether. I know there are professors out there who delight in being a student’s first earned C, but those professors have more intestinal fortitude than I do.

Or at any rate they are probably not adjuncts, whose popularity is the only thing that can keep them employed. Although exceptions exist, the trend in U.S. higher ed at the moment is precarious faculty, hired semester to semester or at best year to year, and rehired based almost solely on student evaluations—which, alas, are themselves often based on how “well” the student is doing in class. Adjuncts like me regularly admit to grade inflating, simply as a survival measure, but the consistency of nationwide trends means that even tenured and tenure-track faculty must be inflating grades, too. After all, a pissed-off student who goes all the way to the dean can impact their careers as well.

There’s no real solution here, short of a standardized, universal, scorched-Earth approach that brings back the curve—a real curve, where the average grade really is a C. But I cannot imagine the millions of parents of co-valedictorians, currently racking up six-figure debt so that their children can join frats and fall out of things, would stand for that. Some advocate going #Hampshire and ditching grades altogether, which makes tons of sense for literature courses like mine, but not so much for math, biology, or engineering—quantifiable subjects with, someday, lives at stake.

There’s nothing I can do about either the ubiquity of grades’ “importance” or the ubiquity of their inflation. I attempt, feebly, to change the culture in my own classroom by telling students that grades mean jack-diddley squat to me; that if they “need” a good grade, they should concentrate on actually learning (or at least convincingly pretending they want to), and the grade will fall into place. Sometimes this approach even works—though, obviously, on a scale from B+ to A, it’s a bit hard to tell.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

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