What’s in an A? Academic Culture and the Rise of Grade Inflation

by Eric Meckley

This past semester, I taught for the first time. It was an introductory course designed to help students improve their writing skills and prepare them to write well for the rest of their college classes. After submitting grades, I said to my wife: “It’s not the work that will drive me out of this profession, it’s the grading.” Evaluating student work is a daunting task, particularly in the early stages of one’s career (although I would wager that things don’t get much easier as you go along). I struggled not only with the difficulty of determining the slender nuances between B+ and A- work, but also with the fact that my students are under tremendous pressure to succeed, excel, and get the GPA that will eventually lead to their “dream” job. Evaluating final portfolios, I had to determine the quality of their writing and grade their work accordingly. But I also felt pressure not to be too harsh and give a grade that might prove detrimental to a student’s college career and future.

The stresses of grading, and the recently revived (and related) debate about grade inflation has me thinking that these issues deserve renewed and concerted attention. In December, The Harvard Crimson published a piece that revealed “the median grade at Harvard College is an A-, and the most frequently awarded mark is an A.” Allison Schrager, a Harvard economics grad student, wrote a responding article about why she inflated grades. She rightly points to the problems that come with this constricted scale, and indeed, it becomes nearly impossible to give grades that accurately reflect the quality of students’ work in relation to their peers. Universities––particularly prestigious private and public universities like Harvard and UNC––need to have a serious and open conversation about this issue that includes adjunct professors, as well as graduate teaching assistants and instructors, who are more vulnerable to student ire and dependent upon the results of course evaluations. We need to take collective action or reevaluate how we grade and what the grading scale indicates.inflation_large

In 2004, Princeton attempted to address grade inflation by establishing a cap on the number of A’s that should be given in a course. While I applaud their efforts, such quotas seem to me overly draconian and restrictive. Perhaps instead of quotas, universities should begin to weight their grades. Surely an A in my introductory writing course is (or perhaps should be?) easier to achieve than an A in a seminar taught by a senior faculty member in her field of expertise. If higher course numbers indicate advancement in a field, shouldn’t those with the higher numerical values be weighted more heavily? I would also consider weighting grades not only by the level of the course, but also by the year of the student, so that courses taken as a senior would weigh more heavily on a transcript than those taken while a freshman. While at least some of these things may be implied, institutional delineation of these standards would allow students space to take courses that are challenging and out of their comfort zone without feeling like their entire identity hinges upon the letter grade they receive. As Jennifer Ho suggested, we can foster greater intellectual curiosity and freedom, while possibly engendering better mental health in those we teach, by creating safe spaces for students to “embrace failure” through measures attentive to student development and cognizant of the process of learning in college.

I learned about grade inflation during one of my early prospective student visits to what would become my alma mater, the University of Chicago. A place that is as pompous as it is self-deprecating, I remember being told multiple times that “a Chicago B is worth a Harvard A.” Because at the time I too had no dearth of self-assurance, I believed them. While I am now loath to make such proclamations, adopting that mindset was liberating for me. I earned my very first C during my first year in Russian 101, and throughout my four years collected marks from across the grading spectrum with reckless abandon. My several As (and a couple more Cs) were surrounded by enough Bs to make any over-achieving Harvard or UNC undergraduate cringe. Even if it was hubris that gave me the freedom to take risks intellectually, academically, and––hard as it may be to believe––socially, I am thankful for a mindset that freed me to focus less on my GPA and more on what I was learning. As teachers and administrators, we owe it to our students to cultivate an environment where they feel empowered and allowed to do the same.

 

Eric Meckley is a PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a husband, and a father of two. He focuses on nineteenth and early twentieth-century American literature, and is especially interested in the relationship between race and religion. 

One Comment

  1. Eric,
    Thank you for this. I sometimes feel that grades/grading is the bane of our academic existence. At the same time, I know that I need to be able to evaluate the work that my students do–to provide them feedback that will help them push themselves further in their scholastic lives. But I do worry that the stakes have gotten so high–that intellectual curiosity and adventure has been replaced by specialization and getting an “A” at all costs. Not sure what to do–I do emphasize to students in my own classes that I don’t care about the grade that they achieve–I care about what they learn and the two may or may not be commensurate. I suppose that is the rub–how do we measure what they’ve learned accurately–are grades the best way to do that?

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