Inflated Grades and Ethics

In a presentation to an ATHENA Roundtable sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, former Harvard President Larry Summers made a provoking comment, noting that grade inflation in our schools and colleges is a moral issue. “A society that tolerates the grade inflation of its students should not be surprised when it finds the inflation of corporate earnings in those students 20 years later.” Grade inflation is indeed a moral issue, because it is dishonest and disrespectful for teachers and professors to give students grades they don’t deserve. And the teachers and professors are shirking their responsibility.

There is no question that grade inflation is common in our academic communities and has been for some time. The data are compelling and need not be recounted here. But one glaring example is Columbia University Medical School which no longer gives preferential treatment to Harvard graduates because they all have an “A” average. I recall a few years ago when I was chairman of a large department and had access to copies of grade reports I saw that a number of my colleagues, especially in the education department, simply weren’t giving grades lower than A-. This is absurd. Worse, it is dishonest and, and as I say, disrespectful of the students. They deserve better: they deserve to be treated fairly.

When the lowest grade in a course with 30 students in it is an A- the student who has worked hard and has done really well gets what is essentially the same grade as everyone else. And when the poorer students who have been passed along with high grades graduate and go to work they are in for a shock. Employers are not likely to be so generous. In this regard, one could argue that giving a higher grade than the student deserves is not only disrespectful, but also mean, since it fuels the students’ illusion that he or she has a greater mastery of the material than is in fact the case.

We are fond of saying that the problems we have in the schools merely reflect the larger problems in society as a whole. This may actually be true in this case, though I doubt it as a general rule: some problems in the schools are peculiar to the academic world. But grade inflation is assuredly a symptom of our permissive society. We hate to say “no” to our kids for fear we will stunt their growth and development. That’s what we have been told for years by pop psychologists and we have taken it to heart — even though it is a lot of hogwash. Kids need to be told “no” when they make mistakes; it’s one of the first words they should be taught at home. Further, they can learn important lessons from their failures. That’s one of the most persuasive reasons to keep sports in the schools: sports are one of the few places left where kids are asked to do things they may not want to do and failure is a given. Not everyone can win. And not everyone should be given an A grade when their work is only average.

So what can be done? There’s a simple solution. And that is to record all of the students’ grades with a parenthesis after each grade noting the average grade in that class. Thus if Susan gets an A in biology and her report notes that the average grade in that class was a C- we know Susan did a great job. If Sarah gets a B in sociology where the average grade was B+ we know her performance was below par. The grades will start to mean something and faculty will be more inclined to give honest grades as the reports will reveal how “generous” they were in grading the students in the class. No one wants to be found out!

But in the end, we need to accept the fact that grade inflation is indeed a moral problem, as Larry Summers noted. And in doing so we need to consider what we can do about it instead of simply looking away with a shrug and saying “that’s a common problem; it’s just  the way things are.” It doesn’t have to be.


5 thoughts on “Inflated Grades and Ethics

  1. A serious problem for sure. I tend to think we’d be better off without grades, but as long as we have them the idea in your penultimate paragraph is a great one (had not heard it previously). Admirably creative thinking!

  2. Thanks, David. I worked at a university for 37 years that has an “optional” grading system that allows students to choose either Pass/Fail or a grade. I did a fairly extensive comparison between those in my logic and critical thinking classes and invariably those who worked for grades did much better. Those who chose P/F simply did enough to get by. It’s a conditioned response, I fear and we must make the best of it.

  3. I like that idea! There is no question that kids are faced with less constructive criticism than they used to be faced with and I think that is a problem. Of course, I am not a parent, so it is easy to judge from where I sit. I can imagine that parents want to help make things easy for their children, but I dont think that always does them a service.

    • I remember teaching a required Freshman course where we assigned “Brave New World” and some of the students had trouble reading the Cliffs Notes!

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