Grade Inflation

by Ben Kleinman

Last semester I took a class where the average grade was a 3.31. That's right, a B+ average. On the surface that looks wonderful. I can almost see the headlines now: "STUDENTS EXCEL DESPITE PRESSURES OF MODERN DAY." But this is not really newsworthy -- it's a continuing, chronic illness affecting education today. When more students receive A's than receive C's in one particular class it's an anomaly. When more students receive A's than receive C's in most classes it's an outrage. It's grade inflation.

What happened to the bell curve (aside from it becoming a book title)? When did the days of as many A's as F's go by? Why is it that when once a C meant 'average' it is now a harbinger of academic probation? Where have all the flowers gone?

This is not investigative reporting. I didn't consult with our VP for Academic Affairs or even talk to any professors. This is an editorial. If I'm lucky I'll make you think. If I'm good I'll make you laugh once or twice. Or even make you mad. At the very least I get published.

Are classes today easier than they were fifteen or twenty years ago? Did students in the 1850's have less work to do? If parents and history books can be trusted the answers are 'no.' Heck, we probably have less work to do than they did. A's can be had today with three hours of work during the week and two hours of studying before a test. It's not that class have gotten easier. Professor's have.

In this era of entitlements (which I'm all for, Ms. Metzinger) there is an underlying sentiment that we inherently deserve something above average. C's have become stigmatized. C bad, B OK, A good. But what are the repercussions of grade inflation? What's wrong with giving Cyndi an A for work that would have gotten her a 1940's C or Jamal a B for a 1950's D-? Some of the penalties are 'psychological' or 'logical' -- they are not tangible penalties.

Grade inflation strikes back! Since an A is as easy as a drunk (well, never mind) there is no incentive to learn, to push, to expand the mind. Isn't one of the purposes of this university to further research and learning (I think it comes right after football and buying video equipment for TSTV)? Why not encourage students to work and work hard? By stigmatizing C's while catering to the parents and students who demand good grades we are also cheapening Tulane. If I'm recruiting a Tulane grad and I find out his GPA was a 3.4 I'd be pretty impressed. Until I learned that the average GPA was a 3.2.

(not that it is -- I told you I did no research).

Some schools have abandoned grades completely to encourage the pursuit of knowledge without penalty. Wonderful concept, but a bit socialistic for Newt's fascist America. Why not just give out more C's D's and F's? Check this out: the more D's people get, the more used to getting them they are. If I know I didn't get the only D the professor has given in the last 15 years then I'm not going to be quite as suicidal as I might be. At the same time, an A becomes meaningful again and B's are respectful. C's aren't meant to be good or bad. That's the average grade of the class. If one would be upset by a C, I respectfully submit that one should commence studying and kissing up and not stop until diploma is in hand.

Take a step back for a second. Now a step forward. Back. Put your left foot in. Out. In. Shake it all about... Anyway, let's look at exactly what is being graded. Does a C denote the average grade in a class? Does it denote some mystical benchmark set by a professor? Is it cumulative -- should the professor keep track of grades from years past?

Allow me (as if you have a choice) to say, as a student, that I'd like to be assessed on objectives achieved. In the syllabus set out goals -- the purpose of the class. (This is probably a good idea anyway for some of our professors and a lot do it already). Here's the tricky part: design homework to aid in attaining the goals. Ensure that tests assess the accomplishments of the test takers. If you want the class to memorize the Aeniad, the test should consist of one part: Write the Aeniad. Play straight with us. If we're told that we should be familiar with photosynthesis, a person should be able to get a C without knowing how photosynthesis affects the temperature of a buggy Pentium chip in a computer in Bangkok. You could, however, use such a question to distinguish between A's and B's.

Problems with a just distribution of grades (what I lovingly and probably mistakenly refer to as the bell curve) are several. Most prominent is that some people will fail. Hello. Failure is not really a problem. It is a fact of life. Manufacturers eliminate failure by improving the design and creation process. Humanity can do the same thing. If you get an F you get shot. When we eliminate the failures in this crop, we distribute grades again and kill the new failures. Soon we'll have an amazingly book smart humanity. Or we could just realize that some people can't do certain things very well, let the failee try again, and then send him to some other class. Either he is just one of the dregs of humanity or he has some other aptitudes.

But what about classes with more than one section? If all the 'smart' people (read 'hard working and semi-intelligent') are in one section then is it fair for half of them to get C's, D's and F's while half of the 'dumb' people in the other section get A's and B's? So we should curve by class, right? Well, what if there are different teachers for each section? Students taught by one teacher get 70's on all their tests and students of the other teacher get 90's on all their tests. Curving all the sections together isn't going to be very just. (But is will be just very). And what if teachers cover different material?

Well, we curve by class -- lumping all the sections together. Teachers will just have to cooperate with each other. And if some teachers are simply bad, some teachers will simply have to be replaced. It might be a bitter pill for Tulane to swallow, but if we can afford the Buddy System for football then we can afford to higher teachers who can work together and work well.

Grade inflation is not solely the fault of professors. But it is professors and the administration that can put an end to it. Tulane may think itself a premier academic institution, but an A or B from Tulane does not mean all that much if there is no such thing as a C or D from Tulane. Getting by should not mean getting a B. The average student at Tulane should leave here with a GPA of about 2.0. We'd like to think we're all good students and all deserve A's or B's, but we can't justify that. The only people we can compare ourselves to are other people at Tulane. It may very well be that Tulane has the 6000 best students in the country. But some of them are better than others and some are worse. Every group has a worst. And the worst at Tulane -- no matter how good they may be -- deserve F's. Sure you could get an A from Kennesaw Community College, but an A from KCC will not get you what an A from Tulane will. ROLL WAVE ROLL.


Last modified: 1995-96 academic year?