Grade Inflation Exists, It Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Lose Our A’s

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Thus explains the “type A+ student” paradox that affects elite universities. Unless you’re in serious denial, Stanford and its counterparts have some serious grade inflation issues. And most of us, in theory, want it to go away: after all, with grade inflation, the A’s we do deserve have their value diminished.
But there’s a problem–as the New York Times found at Princeton, us type A+ students are pretty attached to our A’s. When it comes to actually putting a cap on grade inflation, we realize that it means our transcripts are going to be adorned with other, strange letters, and we don’t want that. As the Daily Princetonian rationalizes:
The psychological influence of this knowledge on students when in a precept or seminar can lead to increased competition and tensions among peers. Many take it into account when choosing courses, affecting their willingness to pursue challenging classes. [...And] we also suspect that the policy is hurting the prospects of Princetonians in both the job market and graduate school admissions.
Maybe the only answer, then, is to just ignore the problem and accept the fact that everyone can get good grades.


Don_Kennedy.jpgDon Kennedy, former president of Stanford, wrote a 1994 op-ed in the New York Times, saying:
Part of it is that Stanford and other leading universities are doing what their critics have demanded: offering more seminars and independent-study courses for advanced students, in which higher grades are always more prevalent.

Kennedy’s conclusion? The grades themselves don’t matter–what’s important is the academic quality. This conclusion, which I agree with, underscores the real disease in the system: grades mean way too much. People are not at Stanford to learn, they are there to get good grades. I, too, am guilty of this: for many classes, I simply do the bare minimum work to get the grade I want, and all of the work I do is in an attempt to achieve this. This is a fundamental flaw in our academic culture, and the academic culture of our fellow elite institutions, and it means that no matter the academic quality Stanford purports to or wants to deliver, it will inherently be hindered.
So what’s to be done? Short of eliminating grades, probably nothing. While grade inflation might be aggravating and disconcerting, we care too much about grades to change the system in any way. And hopefully we can somehow convince ourselves to participate in class discussions not for the participation points but for the value of intellectual engagement, and not value our grades in relations to our peers.
Chances are, though, I’ll still be motivated by the desire for my A no matter what–and so will everyone else.

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4 Responses to “Grade Inflation Exists, It Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Lose Our A’s”

  1. Observer says:

    You seem to argue for the elimination of grades. But as you note, right now you are motivated to work because of grades:
    “I, too, am guilty of this: for many classes, I simply do the bare minimum work to get the grade I want, and all of the work I do is in an attempt to achieve this.”
    I think you have ask yourself how much you would actually work if grades were eliminated entirely. Also your statement above indicates that you’d work harder in the current environment if grading was tougher.
    You say that you are doing the bare minimum. That’s really a sad admission. What if President Hennessy was to openly admit, “You know I’m doing the bare minimum to keep Stanford going as a research school?” You’d be p.o.’d wouldn’t you?
    It’s worth noting that your parents are shelling out about 50K a year for your education. Don’t you think you should do more than the bare minimum? Sorry, I had to get that parent thing in there.
    You quote Donald Kennedy, but if you read his book (which was printed five years after your quote), he admits that grade inflation is a problem and says:
    “Society has a right to expect that colleges and universities will provide it with a reasonably accurate reflection of its students’ abilities.”
    Donald Kennedy’s thoughts about grading evolved. I hope that yours do too.

  2. Josh says:

    Observer,
    I mentioned that I do the bare minimum in some classes, and this is true. For me, personally, this only applies to those classes that I have limited interest in; for those in which I care about the material, I work far harder than the bare minimum. But even in these classes, I have a lingering feeling that every piece of work or every comment I say in class is not for learning’s sake but rather because I want to have someone recognize that I am smart enough/have done enough work to get an A. I just think this is the wrong motivation.
    In regards to Kennedy’s evolution of views, I agree that, with grades, people should be graded accurately. But this doesn’t seem feasible: at this point, nobody is willing to give up their grades. If the standards were to suddenly be raised at Stanford, there would be an outcry just as at Princeton–because there is no standard across all colleges, people at Stanford would feel screwed over. And, on the one hand, that would translate into new applicants, who feel they deserve A’s, to choose school X over Stanford–which is exactly what Stanford or any similar institution doesn’t want.
    If students work hard enough to get A’s by normal standard, awarding them C’s would make sense if everybody’s standards were raised. However, since this is never the case, it will only serve to make students feel stupid and frustrated. Whether or not we should have changed standards, I am not sure there is an equitable way to do so.

  3. Alex says:

    I think another issue to consider when discussing the merits of grade inflation/deflation is what our grades represent. Do A’s represent outstanding work or simply above average work? What exactly is the difference between an A and an A- or a B+? For example, in the article on Princeton’s grade deflation it mentions a professor saying, “I wanted to give 10 of you A’s, but because of the policy, I could only give five A’s.” That, for me, is a problem because if a student deserves an A due to their outstanding work in the class, they should receive it regardless of whether a 94 is the median grade. Classes should be graded on how much you understand not because the class needs to have a certain average. Likewise, I can say from personal experience that grade inflation has the same issues. This fall during CME 100 I barely understood any of the material, got a 54 raw score on my midterm and god knows what on my final and guess what? My midterm was curved to a 98, and I ended up with an A+ in the class! I honestly felt like I didn’t deserve that grade because I didn’t understand much of the class’ material, but relative to my peers I apparently understood a hell of a lot more. The whole issue of inflation/deflation is hard to resolve, but I think before we can resolve it we have to figure out what exactly our grades mean in the first place.

  4. John says:

    Thank God I went to Santa Clara. BS Physics, Class of 1987

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