Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Discussion About Grades Returns

What is an academic grade? In 1950 a C meant 'average'. By today's standards, a C means 'failing'. In 1950 an A meant 'superb', 'excellent', 'exceptional'. Today an A means 'passing'.

Today's grade inflation is another incidence of the 'Lake Woebegone Effect', the syndrome where everyone's "children are above average". Thank you Garrison Keillor, for giving us the name.

Do we, as teachers, give everyone an A? Or do we give a student with average talent and performance a C and risk the wrath of the student and his/her parents? Does 'working hard' deserve an A even though the 'product' or 'outcome' is mediocre or even poor? Perhaps these are some questions that we need to ask ourselves.

If my banker 'tried' but made an error on my account, costing me money, I would complain to the supervisor and find a new bank if there continued to be errors. If the chef at my favorite restaurant tried 'really hard' but burned my steak all the same, I'd send it back. If the Verizon manager, try as she might, thought that there was no difference between two-thousandth of a dollar and two-thousandth of a cent, and then be idiotic enough to tell me that understanding this difference was 'a matter of opinion', I'd find another service provider.

I ponder and shudder: What are we doing, for the sake of our community, by telling our children they are always wonderful when they are not? Why would a student bother to try to be better when he or she is already great (but not)?

Currently, 60% of our students earning PHds are foreign born students, educated in other countries, many in Southeast Asia, where students are required to memorize their times tables and periodic tables. In 10 years that figure will be 75%.

For some more perspective on the issue of grade inflation see Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes and an editorial response ‘A’ Is for Achievement, ‘E’ Is for Effort .

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