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Grade Inflation By Manipulation Of Letter Grades

An Essay Critique On Why Letter Grades At Universities Do Not Seem To Matter Anymore
By Roy D. Follendore III
Copyright (c) 2003 By RDFollendoreIII 
 
 
I have recently come across, read, and have come to fully understand the kinds of statements from top notch universities that say such things as "Our Academic Policies Committee recommends that we change to the undergraduate grading system: The C- grade is now to be considered to be "Unsatisfactory." I also have read such committees recommended reasons why they say they want this.  But also fully understood the nature of the troublesome issue that is at the heart of this problem at many universities.  I write this paper not to condemn but to offer positive and constructive criticisms and to provide a voice for the justification of keeping grading systems simple and understandable. In fact, as a fellow academic I do not omit myself from my own criticism of sometimes being a member of a group of like minded, well meaning, academics with nothing better to do but screw up perfectly valid and useful standardsWith all of the very best of intentions I have been there, done that, and made similar mistakes elsewhere. In this paper, I am simply offering an outside opinion and a productive argument with the good faith that honest, intelligent, fair minded people might just choose to listen.
 
February 7, 2003
 
Before I step up onto my soapbox, I should first say that I am sure that many of you who have kids in college and read this and have gained real world experience may be qualified to teach at an undergraduate university level. Many of the degrees that kids get these days are in areas of knowledge that parents have been swimming in with their career paths for decades.  The premise of this essay is that if you are such a parent or even a student in college, you should not allow others with uppity degrees to demean or patronize you on the issues of letter grades and association to grade point averages.  This particular issue of grading systems is not brain surgery.  It really does not take much to recognize why a GPA process can be set to fail the students, Professors, and universities if standards are allowed to be manipulated. 

The bottom line is that grading systems at universities get screwed up because committees made up of otherwise intelligent and educated people have for some time been fiddling with the underlying values of the letter grades with the brilliant idea that by doing so the quality of the academics being taught will somehow be raised. This not the first time such a thing has occurred in an educational institutions of higher learning, and it will definitely not be the last. 

 
It is easy to comprehend what are essentially performance test and measurement metrics, the crazy ideas that some people have about metrics and how some foolish letter grade "quality points" value relationship become mistakenly established. People simply forget that the original reason for mnemonic letter grades was simply to represent five symbolic classes of numeric grades from A to F.  What we have been seeing are foolish attempts to subvert a simple system into a complex one by changing the underlying statistical values that determine these letter grades.  The whole problem starts with the idea of moving the border of satisfactory performance from the symbolic value of the letter D into the symbolic value of the letter C.
 
What I am communicating is that, if as some academic committees would have it, a C- now represents a 1.67, and that standard is numerically too low, then the issue on the table should be to proportionately and appropriately raise its value to an appropriate level of acceptability. This does not seriously affect the GPA of students and doing so has absolutely nothing to do with lowering the academic standards of the university. I am frankly shocked that this problem was not recognized and handled properly when the policies were first implemented.  All students and parents of students attending universities who are affected should be shocked as well. 
 
The justifications for this are clear. Grades represent degrees of freedom for communicating student performance.  I am communicating that from C- to A+, there are 9 possible incremental grade values that a Professor should be able to give for a successful student. If a C- is not one of them then there are 8. I am simply stating that a reduction in the number of possible successful increments in no way induces higher student academic success, rather it just places tighter constraints on the Professors evaluations of performance. Since as a Professor I would rather have more potential increments, and therefore more degrees of freedom rather than less.  Therefore, my conclusion, is that any loss of grading increments represents a slippery slope. In many colleges and universities the slope is therefore already slippery. 
 
The current graduate requirement of maintaining a minimum 3.0 is an equivalent issue.  At first glance it sounds good that students maintain that level of academic proficiency but truthful bottom line is that the policy simply eliminates three potential increments for grading students. Currently a 3.0 is a borderline student in graduate school. An average graduate student maintains a 3.5 and the higher performing graduate student maintains a higher grade.  Students realize this inflation for what it is, and some openly challenge Professors to give them an "average" grade.  The issue at hand for graduate schools who use a 3.0 minimum is exactly the same foolishness. 
 
I shall extend this perspective further by stating the obvious fact that an undergraduate student with a C- across the board should be fully qualified to graduate.  The justification is that a C is a C.  To symbolically represent a C as something else makes a university undergraduate grading system functionally irrational and unnecessarily complex. The only thing that is accomplished by making a C- unsatisfactory is to force the Professor to evaluate borderline students with a letter grade C.
 
Academicians are biased elitists when we ignore the fact that often the best and most creative minds challenge conventional ideas and perceptions so that they are not necessarily graded well. We are also biased when we ignore the fact that there are also many intelligent students who come to places of higher learning from situations so that they must continue to struggle to get a C-.  I would therefore argue that universities should not discriminate against either of these types of students, because when we do so we are throwing away the opportunities of many of our best.  These are the students who know first hand the hardships of adversity and they are the very kind who would be destined to make a difference for the knowledge of humanity. 
 
I furthermore would expect that most if not all of you enlightened readers know as well as I do that there is no such thing as a uniform standard class grade.  A "C" in one class is not the same as another.  Such a blindness to the lack of grade conformity on the part of academic administrations fails exceptional thinking students in all fields of endeavor.  No field, including mathematics is excluded.  Even mankind's best mathematicians have received poor grades because their work is different or off scale. 

The truth is that we Professors who create exams can make any subject just as difficult or as hard as we want. In most subjects being taught, it isn't the subject but the teacher. Moreover, a Professor can select the individual students who will make a top grade.  This is not an earth shaking concept.  Teaching has always been that way.  The teacher is in a powerful position of trust when he does his work.  Trust has always been an important part of the relationship between the Professor and the student.  But, by this I am also stating in a different way the fact that grade based elitism is a sorry excuse for ignoring quality education. As Professors of institutions of higher learning, it is we who represent the academic system that creates the myth of a GPA golden ring, but by our focusing on delivering grades to the exclusion of reaching the full range of academic knowledge potential for our students, we too easily delude ourselves that such a statistical result is actually meaningful. 

 
As I now step down from my soapbox, this is just one voice saying plainly but loudly to all of the sophisticated academic committees out there; There is a reason for the old saying, "Keep it  simple, stupid."  There is a blue horizon through which we can not measure the true value of the human minds thrust to know of the brilliant light of knowledge.
 
 

 

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