“The Goldilocks Principle Of Grading,” Ctd

Last weekend, we highlighted Heidi Tworek’s proposed fix for grade inflation – adopting a three-tiered grading system. A high school history teacher nods along:

I think a move to a British-style system with only three grades, as advocated by Tworek, would be easier than it seems. We would just call our grades A, B, and C, rather than 1, 2, and 3. In fact, we’re already using a version of that system.

I teach high school history at a high-achieving public school in Massachusetts. Whenever I see grade inflation in the news, frankly, I’m a little baffled. The problem would disappear if we redefined what each grade represents. Traditionally, an F represents failing, a D represents below average, a C represents average, a B represents above average, and an A represents excellent. What if, as a society, we agreed that a C represents needs improvement, a B represents satisfactory, and an A represents excellent? In that scenario, we would ditch the D, and anything below a C- would be failing. This would simplify the system for everyone involved.

The reality is that today, a grade of a D is meant to be a warning – turn things around or you will fail. It is rarely given. Students who receive Cs are not average – they are students who struggle with the material or are students who are lazy and need to work harder. To recalibrate my grading scale to a traditional bell curve, where the majority of students received Cs, would result in serious pushback from my administration and from parents, and honestly, would be confusing to my students.

It’s time we made the de facto grading system de jure – B is the new C. Accept that, and the grade inflation problem, at the high school level anyway, ceases to be a problem.

That teacher offers a caveat: “I don’t mean this as a response to grade inflation in certain courses at certain colleges and universities where every student receives an A or an A-.” And another reader, who teaches history at the college level, dismisses Tworek’s proposal:

Heidi Tworek writes: “There are also fewer incentives for professors to assign higher grades if students recognize that the majority of them will receive the same mark.” Perhaps. But students respond to incentives (or the lack thereof), too. If there’s effectively no difference between a B and a D (which is how I’m defining that second tier), then the student capable of B work is probably only going to do C or D work, because it’s all the same to them. That’s a rational response. Under the current system, I have students earning a C or C+ at mid-semester who will work harder and learn more to get that B. That’s also a rational response.

Grade inflation is a recipe for mediocrity. So is this proposal.

My solution is simple. I pay no attention to any alleged “incentives” for grade inflation. An A grade goes to an exceptional student, not the norm. Sure, there’s a price to be paid. Students don’t rush to sign up first for my classes. They don’t barrage me with ego-inflating requests for overrides to get into my classes should they fill. I am not beloved the way some of my colleagues – the ones who hand out As like candy on Halloween – are. But I have, I suspect, the respect of at least some of my students (especially the ones who truly deserve As who bristle at the way their less committed peers get the same grade for far less work). And most importantly, I have some self-respect.

With the exception of adjuncts (which is a whole other problem), professors could easily solve the “problem” of grade inflation without any systemic change: show some backbone and enforce some standards. Stop caring about being loved and start caring about truly educating.

On a related note, philosophy professor Emrys Westacott is concerned that a constant focus on grading and assessment in general “chokes out healthier, more idealistic, more creative attitudes among both teachers and students, especially in our high schools”:

On one occasion I asked my daughter’s AP biology teacher if she would be taking the students outside at all during the year to examine nature in the raw. Her answer: she’d love to, but she couldn’t spare the time given the need to cover everything on the AP syllabus. Inevitably, the AP exam would be the guiding star that the class steered by: not love of nature, appreciation of natural forms, or delight in fathoming how living things function, but whatever needs to be known to do well on the test. Success on the test is the “measurable outcome” by which students are judged—and teachers, and principals, and schools, and, ultimately, entire education systems.

Students naturally soak up this message. … Most teachers dislike students trying to haggle over grades, but this behavior is a predictable response to the educational environment students find themselves in. If appearances seem to matter more than reality—grades on a transcript more than less easily measured values like holistic grasp of a subject, appreciation of beauty, intellectual excitement, insight, or wisdom—we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter such strategizing.