Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"A" is for Absolute Crap

Get Better - Mates of State (mp3)
Rise - Eddie Vedder (mp3)

My co-blogger and former teacher likes to opine that my high school class was probably the most intelligent to ever graduate from our school. While this claim is certainly debatable in a school that's more than a century old and full of plenty of amazing alums, it's also impossible to deny that my graduating Class of 1990 was up at the very top. If we weren't the best, we were at least in the race.

We had two students score perfect on the SAT. We had one student who left school a month before graduation to take a job in Silicon Valley. We had 23 National Merit Semifinalists -- over a fifth of our class and still a record for a single year -- and another dozen or so Commended Scholars.

This isn't bragging, because my class had plenty of flaws, particularly a load of hubris even larger than our brains, and the flaws didn't stop there. I'm the first to acknowledge that being of higher caliber academically didn't make us better or easier to manage or enjoy as students.

More often than not in the past 19 years, our school has struggled to tally more than 10 National Merit Semifinalists in a class, which is a great number in the South, but isn't all that impressive amongst high-priced independent schools nationwide. Since those two perfect SAT scores in 1990, the 19 years hence has produced maybe three, maybe four perfect SAT scores? Yet, I would bet a dollar to a dime that the GPA of a graduating class in the last five years is leap years ahead of the GPA of our class.

Even if we're splitting hairs here between the academic capabilities and work ethic of today's students versus those of 20 years ago, there's no justifiable way to explain the sharp rise in GPA, and it's not just at my school. It's at high schools and colleges across the nation. I rarely find myself nodding enthusiastically to anything Walter Williams writes, but his observations -- based on data, not mere conjecture -- on grade inflation leave me wondering if anyone cares. I mean, 91 percent of Harvard graduates leave "with honors." Shouldn't that bother, like, LOTS of people??

There's a reason people stopped giving a shit what Roger Ebert thought of a movie. That guy had his thumb up so often you woulda thought it got injured in a car accident or was a carpal tunnel reaction to sticking it up Siskel's butt too much. "At the Movies" suffered from the same kind of grade inflation. When movie critics start giving Two Thumbs Up!! to absolute shit, what's next? Well, then the guys had to start saying, "Two Thumbs WAY Up!" and "Two Thumbs Way WAY Up!"

If things were "right" with the world, shouldn't a 2.5 GPA student at Harvard be able to transfer to a less selective school and, putting forth the same effort and intensity, earn a much better GPA? As it stands, I have trouble believing an average Harvard student could drastically improve his or her grades by attending UT-Knoxville (yes, I'm besmirching UTK a little, but if that offends you, pretend I said "LSU").

Here's what's funny about the school where I work. If our teachers followed the rules they claim to follow, student GPAs would sink. They'd sink like the Titanic after it had cracked in half. According to our rule book, a paper is supposed to be reduced by a letter grade for every day it is late. If a paper is four days late, it would, in theory, automatically fail. Students can then re-write the paper and make up half the distance between the re-written grade and the late paper grade.

If all our teachers abided by this one single rule, I bet the average GPA across our school would drop by at least a point. A frightening number of students would fail and be incapable of earning a passing grade by the end of the first semester.

Here's the kicker. Guess what our teachers complain about? They complain that the students wait until the last minute to write papers. They complain that the students never turn shit in on time. I almost always ask them if they enforce the grade penalty on late assignments, and they either confess they don't, or they lay it at the feet of the administration, like they're just the foot soldiers of a dictatorship.

Teachers, you see, are world class hypocrites. They complain about lazy students, but they enable laziness. They complain about being micromanaged by their higher-ups but fail to take things into their own hands when the opportunities arise. They complain about inattentive and distracted students but are easily the most inattentive and distracted bunch of adults this side of a meeting of Cocaine Addicts Anonymous whenever you gather them together and ask them to pay attention to anything.

Grade inflation angers me not because grades are sacrosanct. They are mere symbols, but they are supposed to mean something: how deeply a student grasps the expected concepts and rigors of a particular class. Either teachers are a bunch of losers who expect far too little, or they're collectively being too kind to those in their care. I daresay most teachers hear about grade inflation, shrug their shoulders and wonder what the big deal is.

Let's either ditch the grades, reinvent another way of assessing our students, or get this shit in order before the entire academic bell curve nationwide is limited to the decimal places between 4.01 - 4.50.

I'd like to go back to the day when George W. Bush received "Gentleman's C's" rather than "Gentleman's A-minuses."

[NOTE: Speaking in broad generalizations requires that I acknowledge that, if you're a teacher reading this, I certainly wasn't talking about YOU. I meant those dorks and incompetent fools with whom you work.]

The Mates of State's latest album is The Re-Arranger and is sublime. "Rise" comes from the Into the Wild soundtrack. Both can be purchased on iTunes or Amazon.com.


Bob said...

Billy, I'm gonna beat your ass!


troutking said...

As a teacher, I take offense to...hey, is that a bird out my window?...anyway, what was I saying?...ehhh, this is too hard...whatever.

troutking said...

Actually, Billy, while one could argue you are guilty of painting with a broad brushstroke regarding teachers, perhaps your brushstroke actually isn't broad enough. Isn't this issue just one more example of our society's search for an easy way out? Lowering standards is easier for students, teachers, administrators and parents. We can all feel good about ourselves while our country falls further and further behind. See Bruce's "Girls in their Summer Clothes."

BeckEye said...


You had me at Vedder.

Aryl W said...

I really appreciate your essay here. I finished an MBA at a top 25 school & was incredibly frustrated with the grade inflation & the lack of basic understanding that it engendered. I asked professors about it & their rationalization was that if a student could get into graduate school, they deserved at least a B in any class. In our ethics class, I raised the question & we had a spirited discussion about it. It ended up that I caused the professor to have a final exam in the class. Didn't make me popular in that class.

As to grade inflation, it happens very early. I have a learning disabled son & I was always amazed at the faces of his teachers as they slid his grades across the table during parent teacher conferences. They expected me to berate them for my son's grades, but I was happy with C's. So sad. Another item that adds to the sense of entitlement for these kids.

Bob said...

It would be interesting to hear Troutking's perspective from the College Guidance side of things, for a number of reasons. With our own state school increasingly competitive due to the Hope Scholarship, are we doing our students a service to "toughen up" suddenly a la Billy? Also, don't colleges "level the playing field of grades," i.e. throw out AP bumps, etc.? When the same grade in a weaker course at a weaker school can count the same as a rigorous, perhaps AP course, we're in a potential bind. A private school that can't get its students into selective colleges will not have students for very long.

Tockstar said...

Intriguing. I hate grade inflation, but grades have such a collective property to them. It feels unethical to say "C = Average" when no one actually does that any more. I worry that being a one-person crusade against inflation is going to screw over perfectly capable, though not exceptional, students. Ultimately, I just end up being very stingy with the A's.

Billy said...

Trout -- Good points. Thanks. I even appreciated the Bruce reference.

Beck -- Good to know where you're vulnerable.

Aryl -- We're having similar concerns with our elementary school children, and part of my aggravation is knowing that grade inflation is only getting worse.

Bob -- Do you see where your very frightening reasoning leads? Or need I point it out? Ironically, the single most reliable means of determining one's success relative to one's classmates, "class rank," isn't even used anymore. Better to hide a student's deficiencies behind that over-inflated GPA.

Bob said...

I ain't reasonin' nuthin'. I just want to hear from the college guy.

Daytimerush said...

Good post. Good points.

troutking said...

Bob, you are correct that some colleges do refigure GPA's, but most all do take into account the level of difficulty of classes in some way. Also most colleges tell us that they don't treat the numbers on a universal basis. They know the academic reputation of a high school or figure it out from the school profile we send them with each application and account for that in their admissions process. For example, the average GPA of admitted students at UT is 3.7, while admitted students from here have an average GPA of 3.3 or so. There are some exceptions, generally the big state universities that are numbers driven. Auburn is a good example; if you have a 3.0 and 1100, you get in. If not, you don't. Doesn't matter what high school you go to. It is certainly an imperfect process but in general most of the decisions seem to make some sense.

I wonder if grade inflation is really the important argument here. To a certain degree aren't letter grades and even number grades somewhat arbitrary given the complex nature of what they supposedly measure? These grades are at best, what, proxies for the attainment of certain knowledge, skills and attitudes, all of which are difficult to measure, let alone represent with a single number or letter or establish meaningful standards across schools, districts, states or even countries.

Of course we can't just throw up our hands and say nothing can be done. At the same time, I don't think there was a golden age of grades we can look back to. In some ways, students aren't held to the same high standards as they used to be, but in other ways, students do much more sophisticated things today then they used to. I'm not sure what the answer is but I guess I think bemoaning grade inflation is focusing on a symptom rather than the real issues which pervade our culture and society.

Bob said...

I've gone back and changed the A- that Billy had in my class to a B.

troutking said...

Also, why should 91% of Harvard students graduate with Honors. They're all really f'in smart and motivated or they wouldn't have gotten into Harvard in the first place. I'm not surprised at all they do the work to earn honors. Back in the "golden age" G-Dumb and his cronies got into Yale and Harvard through connection to earn their Gentleman's C's. Now I don't think they'd get in. Thus, fewer C's.

Jason said...

Here in this side of the world, you get fired if you give a student anything less than an A- in most university jobs-even if the student attends you class once a semester.

That's only a start as well.

Cindy Gaston said...

I agree that grades are arbitrary. I went to a workshop on assessment a few years ago. The presenter gave us a sample of a student test with responses and asked us to individually assign points and come up with a grade. That kid "scored" a range from A - F. So if there is that much up subjectivity in grading one fact based test, it is even worse for an entire course. Especially if the reputation of an elite school is on the line or the immediate future of a bright kid.

The point of the exercise was that grades are meaningless and schools should come up with ways to truly assess and express what a student has learned and is able to do. This paradigm shift doesn't fit easily into GPA formulas.

Another thought on the SAT. Standardized tests have changed since you and I took them. There are even international standardized tests where you get some credit for one answer, but more credit for the answer that is "more correct." It is a brave new world of testing, and I pity the college admissions folks who have to wade through it all and make decisions.