Robert M. Thorson
6:00 PM EDT, May 1, 2013
Misquoting William Shakespeare: "Now is the spring of our discontent." Indeed, even as the daffodils blossom and the songbirds sing, my students at the University of Connecticut are stressing out from their end-of-semester quest for high grades.
Grades are only one factor contributing to seasonal stress syndrome, as every campus mental health counselor knows. But it's probably the most important, based on my experience. And contributing to grade-related stress is grade inflation: the clear quantitative evidence that grade-point averages have risen dramatically at the national, state and institutional levels during the past 20 years. There's a huge literature on this subject on the Internet.
When I began teaching in 1979, graduation seemed to be the most important threshold. Now it's whether a student's final grade-point average will be above 3.00 or not. That number, written with the precision of two decimal places, is the midpoint of the B range. For many students seeking professional careers, a B of any kind has become the new F. Similarly, a C used to mean average. Now a grade-point average in the mid-C range of 2.00 is a kiss of death.
Beyond the hyperinflation of grades at selective institutions is the more fundamental issue of what they measure in the first place. Strictly speaking, grades measure the integrated fit between the attributes of an individual student and the institutional requirements. In this case, the mental and physical health, time-management skills, self-discipline, work ethic, family culture and natural abilities against certain performance criteria.
Needless to say, grades for a required engineering course in fluid mechanics mean something different for those in a general elective on the anthropology of film. With so many variables and so few controls across such a broad range of subjects, the result for students nationwide is the anxiety of not knowing what it all means.
Some of my most creative or analytically capable students are also the most disorganized, and their grades suffer from it. Classroom leaders emerge spontaneously owing to their higher social IQs and self-confidence, and bearing little connection to test scores. Some of my favorite students are born ministers, devoted to helping others at the expense of their own study time.
Misquoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "How do I grade thee? Let me count the ways." More specifically: How can any teacher write a rubric to measure all that will be important in our future economy?
The answer is, you can't, in part because life is mostly dichotomous. You're alive or dead. Married or single. You got the interview or did not. You pass the class or did not.
Academia used to be a lot more like life. Despite its Latin root, "graduation" used to be a binary threshold separating those who fulfilled the requirements of high school and those who did not. Now it's become a rite of passage for every educational increment: from pre-school to public school, high school to college, undergraduate to graduate school, and graduate school to professional life. At each step, the real career challenges lie somewhere in the distant future, and they will be dichotomous.
This column was prompted by an interview I granted last week to a journalism student investigating grade inflation at UConn. "Did it exist?" she asked. I hemmed and hawed because I'm not aware of good, cross-campus data for this almost verboten subject, and because any campus-wide grade-point average conflates at least six major variables: rising student expectations; rising student quality; improved student performance; improved classroom pedagogy; different standards for different schools; and the seduction of institutional rankings.
In local and immediate situations, raising grades is a feel good exercise. Everybody gets the proverbial blue ribbon. Over the broad range, however, and over the long haul, grade inflation undermines institutional integrity and raises student anxiety.
No individual faculty member, department, school or institution can solve this problem. Top-down leadership is required. Princeton University led the way in 2004, and is now biting the bullet against fierce resistance. I suggest we follow its lead.
Editor's note: This has been revised from an earlier version, which had the midpoint of the ranges for grades B and C incorrectly defined.
Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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