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.

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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.

2 Responses to Inflatable Education

  1. karicalcote says:

    Reblogged this on More Coffee Please! and commented:
    Good Read!

  2. Kevin says:

    Excellent post. I enjoyed it.

    Seems to me that your primary concern is the push for efficiency at all levels of education. When a society buys into the simple narrative that education = success (of an individual, a culture, a nation, but mainly in a job), then the answer is to insure that everyone is educated. It’s never going to happen, of course, because not everyone wants to be told that the shadows on the wall are not real, much less dragged out of the cave an into the light. But more importantly, your four points reveal what happens when we push such a simplistic logic at all levels of education: we end up with tools (rubrics, standardized tests) to make education more efficient and to keep fewer students “behind”; businesses push for more college diplomas, regardless of whether their employees need one; teachers give all students a ribbon and a superiority complex, but without ever really challenging them; politicians focus on graduation and retention rates.

    I agree with you that this push is problematic – it has the net impact of devaluing education. College degrees are ubiquitous. Students learn only enough to pass a test. Complex patterns of thinking – philosophical, critical, skeptical, rhetorical, rational, creative, scientific, historical – are reduced to formulas rather than given years of careful study. And the biggest problem is that everyone with a college degree ends up thinking they are smarter than they actually are because they all are 3.X GPA students.

    I wonder, though, if part of the solution is to rethink the problem. That is, grades are necessary, but they are, to me, possibly one of the least important parts of what happens in a class. Grades are a component of an efficient system. Students care about grades. Politicians and administrators care about grades. Parents care about grades. So if we, as teachers, also care about grades then I worry that we legitimize that narrative that grades are part of the students’ quest for success. By jealously guarding the coveted “A,” aren’t we suggesting to students that the grades, and the search for social success, is actually more meaningful than the content knowledge and the patterns of thinking that we want our students to embrace?

    If so, then the reverse might be true: if everyone gets an “A,” then the grade loses some of its value. For me, then, the question becomes how educators can live within the social search for efficiency, while also subverting those cultural narratives. That is, a grade of “A” on a student presentation might give the student some fleeting feeling of success; however, I’m more concerned with the question of what did the student actually learn – did they overcome nerves? Did they learn that no one else in the class actually was paying attention, thus devaluing their speech? Did they learn that they suck as a communicator when a student asks the “dumb question” that was already in the presentation? Which will end up defining the presenter more: the “A” or the person falling asleep during the speech?

    For me, the challenge, then, becomes to find other ways to create learning moments that are never measured or recorded in the “official” grade book. This challenge is even more difficult in courses that I teach – i.e. technical writing – where the narrative of efficient science, technology, and careers begets my very existence. I do agree that we should try to minimize grade inflation, but I don’t worry quite as much as I used to about the final letter grade when the numerical score is 89.X.

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