Inflatable Education

I rambled my way through a discussion of grade inflation in my last post. Spurred by an article in the San Antonio Express News that argued our “consumer-based” culture has turned university classrooms into the proverbial easy A, I spent about 1000 words almost making a point. The issue, I argued, wasn’t necessarily economic so much as a pervasive cultural rhetoric where grades are so de-valued in favor of standardized testing that we might as well hand out A’s and avoid the hassle of upset students.

At least, that’s what I think I wanted to say.

As we hurtle toward another school year and I consider what I want my students to learn this semester, I necessarily have to think about how I will measure their success (or failure) by December. Grading, for better or worse, is always on my mind and I want to beat this dead horse one more time.

The data shows that grade inflation exists at the university level, although it is far worse at elite, private schools with high admission standards. Universities with lower admission standards and community colleges tend to show a slower grade creep, although we are seeing some inflation. My guess, and I haven’t delved into the data, is that we see grade inflation at the lower end of the scale at these schools. In other words, even in my own classes, I zealously guard the A, but I’ve probably loosened the reigns on the B and C some.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m an outlier, and my guess is we will start to see grade inflation increase (get bigger? blow up?) at public universities in the coming years with an increasingly high number of students receiving higher and higher GPAs. In many ways, the cultural trends I mentioned before will help fuel this grade inflation, but there are some other driving forces.

1. High school expectations will continue to make life difficult for college professors. Accountability and assessment have forced public school teachers to create rubrics, learning outcomes, and, in many ways, to oversimplify the skills and thinking we expect from students. I maintain that accreditation is the greatest threat to academic freedom we will see at any educational level, but the drive to create transparent grading expectations for students over-simplifies our ability to measure what students learn. My students arrive with a pre-conceived notion that an effective essay (a 3 or 4 on a state test) needs to include items that fit on a table/rubric. We’ve turned learning into a checklist of skills that discounts intangible, difficult to measure thinking and development. Common core goals, competency measures, and standardized learning treat intelligence as if it’s simply a dot on the data sheet. In much the same way that these efficiency measures rob teachers of opportunities to create and develop ideas, they encourage our students to see learning as something devoid of creativity and, in many ways, humanity. We might all have individual talents in this world, but, we seem to tell students, you better make sure your talents align with what everyone else can do.

2. Business and political leaders continue to push for college readiness for all high school students. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of students who, for all intents and purposes, see college as an extension of high school. College, what we once referred to as higher education, is a right, something that they think should be publicly funded and with the academic support that will ensure they both graduate and get a job in four years. Businesses that require a college degree for jobs that really don’t need such a degree or who demand a BA or BS for promotions drive this idea. Our growing cultural disdain for manual labor and skills-based “dirty” jobs doesn’t help. Too many high schools have eliminated Industrial Arts and Trade Programs in favor of Student Leadership and other such nonsense classes such that we not only push kids toward college, we create a culture of shame for those who don’t really want to spend four more years reading history books. Simply put, business leaders should begin creating paid internships and training programs instead of relying on colleges to help raise the next generation of workers.

3. I’ve written before about the trophy culture. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind giving every kid a ribbon if we also give those who perform at a higher level the biggest ribbon. But, there is no denying that our emphasis on rewards has re-defined excellence in American culture. Many of my students see a C as a failing grade. You can scale up from there. Essentially, failure is not an option or, in some respects, even a real concept for many students. They have never not known success in school. If they failed an exam or an essay, they had extra credit, revision, or a make up opportunity. Failure isn’t a challenge to improve; it’s a commentary, for many of them, on failed instruction or expectations.

4. Every time a college student fails, a faculty member gets raked over the coals by a politician. College completion rates have remained steady over the years but we are seeing more and more states tie funding to graduation and retention rates. The net result, of course, is that universities will become so focused on graduation rates and learning outcomes they will begin to deny access and opportunity to larger and larger segments of the population. Worse yet, the political discourse rarely holds students accountable for failure and they create a monetary reason to lower standards and increase pass rates.

Certainly, I’ve oversimplified the issue and I’m guilty of a reductive logic that might earn my students a C, but I do think that when we couple the four things above with a pervasive political hostility toward higher education, we create a generation of students who see college as a right and passing grades as something they deserve.

And, at the end of the semester, I’m not sure they will get what they deserve, but I do think they will start to get what they want more often than not.

Give Everyone an “A” and No One Gets Hurt

My second year of teaching as a graduate student, I had a student march to the front of the room after I returned their first essay of the semester. “You can’t,” he said with a barely masked measure of contempt in his voice, “give me this grade.” He held the essay toward my chest and lightly shook the paper. “I’ve never made a C in my life. My high school English teacher read this before I turned it in and she thought it was as good as anything I’ve written before.”

At the time, I was still full of idealistic good will. I offered to reconsider the grade. Perhaps, I told him, I read your essay late at night and missed some of the finer nuances of your style. I imagined that I was defusing the situation and also reinforcing the idea that the class was a place to share ideas, reconsider our initial thoughts, and recognize rhetoric was, in fact, a potential area of confusion and mis-communication.

Thank god I outgrew such naivete. Twenty-something years later, my first comment when a student accuses me of giving him a grade is to talk about the difference between earning grades and receiving them.

I did not, all those years ago, change the student’s grade. After re-reading the paper, I quickly realized that any areas of confusion and mis-communication were a direct result of the mish-mash of words and ideas he typed on the page. I also had strong doubts about either his high school English teacher’s competence or his honesty regarding her response to his essay.

The student complained to my supervisor, his mother called my office and the department chair, and, all in all, I spent more time on that one paper than I spent grading every other essay that semester. Combined.

The student, by the way, dropped my class.

Either way, I was, in many ways, fortunate when I started teaching. Our supervising professor and the director of first year writing classes was a man who steadfastly refused to let us inflate grades. Certainly, he would tell us, it’s possible 50% of your students are writing A essays, but it’s also possible 50% of you will all get rich as English professors. Learn the difference between possible and probable quickly, he said.

He held us to a fair standard and insisted that we do the same for our students. We must, he would tell us, maintain expectations of excellence and insist those earning a college degree meet those expectations. If not, we should sell diplomas in the back of magazines or on the street corner like counterfeit watches.

Despite his best efforts, though, grade inflation is “rampant” in America’s educational system according to Catherine Rampell (“Grade Inflation Rampant”). Rampell echoes data and information from Stuart Rojstaczer over at Grade Inflation.com, a scholar who notes that grade inflation is pervasive at private schools with high admission standards but not public universities with lower admissions standards.

As usual, such a distinction is important and begs us to ask Rampell if grade inflation is rampant at all universities or just the Ivy League schools, schools that only make up .4% of the undergraduate population in America but, it seems, 90% of the news related to higher education.

But enough about the chip on my shoulder when critics of higher education assume what goes on at Harvard goes on at Angelo State.

Either way, Rampell concludes, agreeing with Rojstaczer, that our “consumer-based culture” has helped fuel these rising grades. Essentially, as tuition has risen, students expect more bang for their buck and, in their minds, they are paying for high grades. Learning is secondary to the endeavor, and grades, Rampell says, have become currency in higher ed.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t dispute the data, and fully recognize that grades are inflated even at public universities with lower admission standards. I feel certain that average GPAs, especially in certain disciplines, are higher today than 25 (or 50) years ago, but I’m not necessarily buying the conclusion that our consumer-based culture is driving this increase. For the most part, student’s relative, real-time costs are stable because financial aid and student loans are also increasing. In other words, while the gross cost of tuition is up, the net cost remains the same.

To be fair to Rojstaczer and Rampart, both do recognize that the issue is complex, but like most criticisms of higher ed, neither includes the political and business climates that also impact students’ relationships with higher education.

In particular, we have seen a consistent barrage of criticism and a belittling of educators and teachers over the last 25 years. Our politicians decry the state of public education, throw money at charter schools, meddle in teacher training programs, and under-fund public schools. More important, the partisan disaster that is Washington has leaked onto our school boards and State Education Agencies such that we elect members to the State Board of Education based on their political affiliation and stance on abortion not their understanding of pedagogy or learning.

Students spend twelve years in schools where teachers feel increasingly excluded from the decision making process. Worse yet, accreditation and accountability requirements have created common course and discipline-wide teaching requirements that turn teachers into automatons parroting common-core goals and lessons. Teachers have simply become middle managers who exist to help students move from one standardized test to the next. Grades, those tools teachers use to measure student performance, matter less and less at the pre-college level because they have become meaningless.

In other words, our desire for efficiency and accountability has robbed teachers of spontaneity, creativity, and power.

Students, however, enter colleges empowered, pushed to become active learners, and, quite frankly, comfortable in their own intellectual superiority. They live in a world where we feel compelled to test them every year and trust the scantron instead of the teacher’s grade book. You don’t have to a valedictorian to realize where society places its values and upon whom our trust rests. If, a student might ask, I’m passing my standardized test, who are you to give me a low grade?

After all, my student from 20 years ago might say, “You can’t give me a C on this paper. I’ve never made below a 4 on my state mandated writing sample and my Facebook friends read the paper. They thought it was the best thing I had ever written.”

This time, though, I might just give him the “A” and grade the other essays.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Dish

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)