There has been tons of analysis and debate about whether the cultural move to everyone getting a trophy, ribbon, award, and so on for every event makes sense and has the intended effect of removing negative feelings associated with not winning (as opposed to the obvious impact of removing the positive feelings for actually excelling at something). But what happens when it happens to grades … particularly at the collegiate level?
Last month I was sitting at a college graduation for my alma mater watching my nephew graduate, and found that the number of people receiving Cum Laude and higher honors seemed unusually high compared to my memory. Of course, a quarter century ago there was much less pomp and celebration in our ceremony, in which undergrads were made to feel proud, but also that the graduate degrees were clearly more prestigious since those folks got to walk the stage.
Even back in the mid-80’s it was clear that certain majors graded on different curves than others. It didn’t mean that the courses were easier, just that the same effort that got a 2.5 in one program would end up with a 3.5 in another. The thought behind this was that those programs were more tailored for getting into graduate schools where they would be competing for entry with liberal arts schools that were notorious for higher grade scales. The discussion we had even a quarter century ago was that this attitude, confirmed by many people IN these programs, could only lead to grade inflation as more interdisciplinary programs emerged (Biomedical Engineering was a new field then).
That trend is represented in the chart above from the New York Times. Over at Mental Floss they point to some highlights from the report, saying:
A new Economix blog post by Catherine Rampell of the New York Times discusses a recent study on grade inflation at U.S. colleges since the 1940s. Apparently, college professors have been handing out A’s and B’s willy-nilly in recent decades, with a substantial increase in overly generous grading in the past decade. By the end of last decade, A’s and B’s accounted for 73% of all grades at public institutions, and 86% of all grades awarded at private institutions, a huge increase over past decades. The report takes a couple of ideological stabs at explaining this phenomenon—namely, an increase in the “consumer-based approach” to education. But the real answer is probably more involved than that, and certainly more complicated than “students just work super-duper hard now.”Do you think it’s noticeably easier to get “good grades” these days? I’m sure not many of you are lamenting the comparative loss/reduction of those cringe-inducing C’s, D’s, and F’s. Not that any flossers know what those look like. [More on the Study: Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009]
When I started discussing this with some folks their first thought was ‘who cares’. But since they are professional colleagues, I asked about the impact of our company rating system, and what would happen if everyone got a ‘5’ in every department in every organization. How would you know who gets what raise, what promotion, what honor? Their answer was that it would come from other factors.
In other worse, as I pointed out – the rating system (the grade) would no longer matter!
We already see this at the high school level. Top colleges ASSUME you are in the top 10% of your class, are in the top percentiles of SAT scores, and on and on. All of that stuff has become so routine that it seems each year there is a need for something new to differentiate one student from the next. It all started because there was a realization that Ivy League schools only wanted students with top grades … so the pressure to get – and give – all ‘A’s became intense, then became routine and now is assumed.
Which means that getting all As in high school no longer has any particular meaning. So then SAT scores mattered … until schools started pushing standardized test preparation as a core competency.
I don’t want to use a ‘in my day’ statement, but when I was an undergraduate, my college was notorious for being very stingy with high grades, so that graduate schools could be certain that anyone getting a 3.0 or higher had worked hard and done very well.
But looking at the curves and seeing that today’s college graduating classes will be expecting to see about 90% of students with greater than a 3.0, and upwards of 50% with very close to 4.0 average tells me something – the grades no longer matter. In fact, looking at what my nephew went through getting into graduate school, his grades seemed the least important thing. His research work, internship abroad on a particle accelerator, president of IFC and all of those supposed ‘extras’ that used to be minor factors now seemed to have a huge impact.
Because when everyone gets an A … getting an A is meaningless.
For more disturbing trends head to GradeInflation.com
Source: New York Times via Mental Floss