Posted on September 24, 2018


We all get graded, all the time. You may have thought of “grading” as something just to do with school and colleges. But grading is also a phenomenon across the spectrum of all our life.

Traditional grading goes, of course, from 0 to 100. Sometimes we reduce the scale from 0 to 10.

“On a scale of 1 to 10,” for example the doctor will ask you, “how painful is this?” Doctors and dentists, however, have largely expunged the word “pain” from their vocabulary and substituted the more modern and less pungent “uncomfortable.” When I hear a medical or dental supplier say something like, “this may be a bit uncomfortable,” my experience tells me that on the pain scale, be ready for a mind-stinging 9 or 10.

That’s kind of the same substitute in words we have done in the area of wrongs or errors. We no longer say, “that was wrong,” or “that was evil,” or “that was truly gross,” but instead use “inappropriate.” Like in when he told a whopper, we say “it was inappropriate” rather than “that was a monster lie and you know it!”

But, getting back to grades. Traditionally, they measure academic achievement or progress in any given subject. Grades are also used to determine, for example, ACT scores (American College Testing) which give colleges a way to determining how well their applicants are likely to succeed.

At the Univ. of Alabama 40 percent of UA’s freshman class scored 30 or higher on the SAT, whose scale is 1-36. That’s pretty good, although a better indicator would be the average ACT score of an incoming class, which is 27 at Alabama, which puts it into a “moderately competitive” category among colleges and universities. An average of 31 is “above average.”

The acceptance rate is also another “grade indicator” of sorts. A list of the top 100 colleges and universities with the lowest acceptance rates includes everyone from Harvard, of course, to William and Mary, near the bottom, Harvard’s being 6% and William and Mary’s 33 percent. Alabama’s is 54%, or 54 of every 100 applying is admitted. You can do your own research as to where that “grade” ranks Alabama in the overall scheme of things.

I am not writing to drub Alabama, but simply to use it as an example, of how important grades are. Some other Alabama statistics are noticeably good, like at least 36 percent had a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher. That’s not a typo. In our traditional grading system, a 4.0 was the highest-grade point average you could attain. How could you have higher?

I think it was that statistic that got me to pondering on grades which have gone through an inflation in the past century to make them almost meaningless. Until the era of the Vietnam War (1960s-early 1970s) C was the most common grade on college campuses. In the next fifty years grades rose dramatically, “As” becoming more common than Cs, Ds, or Fs. “As” were awarded twice as commonly as the early 1960s. I was born too early.

“Why did this happen?” many have asked, including Stuart Rojstaczer, an American musician, writer, and geophysicist who taught, among other places, at Duke and has devoted a lot of research and writing to the phenomenon of grade inflation.[1]

Hint number 1: “Faculty attitudes about teaching and grading underwent a profound shift that coincided with the Vietnam War,” Rojstaczer noted. Simply put, to avoid the draft, full time students were exempt. If they flunked out, good chances are they would end up as a soldier in Vietnam. Grades rose rapidly to keep students from the draft and so out of the war. The significance of this trend or statistic is for another column, and it is not a happy story, having to do with escaping the draft, escaping to Canada, and leaving the poor and uneducated at the college level to do the fighting.

Rojstaczer suggests that some professors, not all or even a majority, “became convinced that grades were not a useful tool for motivation, were not a valid means of evaluation and created a harmful authoritarian environment for learning.” Rojstaczer does not mention the rise of the civil rights movement which empowered African Americans politically, but still left the younger ones at risk—unprepared—to enter the mainstream of American higher education and survive.

Whatever the case, with the end of the Vietnam War, grade inflation ceased, and grades more or less returned to normal, albeit higher than they were before Vietnam, but not steadily rising. Then, in the early 1980s college grade began to rise again, “A’s” again leading the trend, going up about five or six percentage points per decade. Again, what was happening here?

Rojstaczer explains it this way. “During that time, there was something else new under the sun on college campuses.  A new ethos had developed among college leaders.  Students were no longer thought of as acolytes searching for knowledge.  Instead they were customers.  Phrases like “success rates” began to become buzz phrases among academic administrators.”

A former university chancellor from the University of Wisconsin, David Ward, summed up this change well in 2010: “That philosophy (the old approach to teaching) is no longer acceptable to the public or faculty or anyone else. . .. Today, our attitude is we do our screening of students at the time of admission. Once students have been admitted, we have said to them, “You have what it takes to succeed.” Then it’s our job to help them succeed.”

Or, in other words, students were now “customers,” and as the old adage goes, “customers are always right.” The trends and implications are extraordinary.

Students are not getting smarter. They are being kept happy by administrators and faculty who consider them customers and clients.

I can attest to this very candidly. Back in the 1990s we had to pull an instructor out of teaching the big western civilization class because too many of his students were earning Fs. He was just being honest, but the then Dean said it was unacceptable. I suspect I can extrapolate from the experiences of the History Department across campus, and, while we are it, across the U. S.

By 2013 GPAs at private colleges were on the average over 0.2 points higher than those at public schools. “If you paid more for a college education in the consumer era, then you of course get a higher grade.”

Among the bottom lines is that “mediocre students are getting higher and higher grades.” This trend goes across the public and private school dividing line.

Students, or clients, need to look good on paper so they can “succeed.” Everywhere grades are awash in “As.”

Rojstaczer writes that “America’s professors and college administrators have been promoting a fiction that college students routinely study long and hard, participate actively in class, write impressive papers, and ace their tests.  The truth is that, for a variety of reasons, professors today commonly make no distinctions between mediocre and excellent student performance and are doing so from Harvard to CSU-San Bernardino.”

The closing monologue for Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion were—remember?– “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

We have become Lake Wobegon in American higher education, a delightful fiction that all entertain but none truly believe.





Posted in: Education