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, 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.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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