It’s a troublesome question: in a given college class, how many students should be able to get “A’s”? Or, as the New York Times asks in the introduction to a recent article, “If everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean?”
According to Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at UNC Chapel Hill, “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade. If everyone gets an A for adequate completion of tasks, it cripples our ability to recognize exemplary scholarship.”
Perrin is on a committee which has been tasked with the difficult job of clarifying just what a grade in any given class means. The committee may recommend including median grades on transcripts, and giving professors information about how their grading compares to their colleagues’. Other schools, including Dartmouth and Columbia, have taken such measures, and Reed College, where last year’s graduating class had an average GPA of 3.20, includes an explanatory card.
Princeton, where I’m a senior, has perhaps the most controversial method of addressing grade inflation, a policy implemented in 2004 that stipulates that no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades should be A’s. This policy, known as “grade deflation,” mostly affects students in large lecture classes, and worries some who claim that in a tough job market, professors should be free to give as many A’s as they feel are deserved. They feel that the letter explaining grade deflation that accompanies every transcript is not sufficient for employers who may not know that an A at Princeton is more difficult to achieve. Other students say that they are deterred from taking more difficult classes because they don’t want to deal with the competition for a set number of high grades.
As a religion major who takes mostly seminars (where grade deflation tends not to apply), I can’t say I’ve ever felt that I’ve been affected by grade deflation, or that I’ve been given a grade I didn’t deserve. At the same time, I can understand the frustrations of students who work hard in classes where they know they have a lower chance of receiving the highest possible grade. But ultimately, I think grade deflation is a good idea, even if Princeton’s implementation isn’t perfect – after all, A’s do become meaningless when they are given to most of the students, and not all students deserve A’s, even if they felt they’ve done A work. I wonder, though, if including median grades isn’t the best way to solve the problem – it places the grade in context, rather than imposing a blanket restriction that angers students and confuses or frustrates professors.
What do you think? Is it better to include median grades, or apply a policy like grade deflation? Are there other, better ways for universities to handle grade inflation?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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