Discourse / Editorials / February 26, 2009

Thoughts from the Embers: Grade inflation

We figure the deans are probably right about the Dean’s List. When 40 percent of the Knox population makes it onto a list that is supposed to be reserved for recognizing exceptional work, it is almost mathematically impossible to feel special about it. As Larry Breitborde put it, “If Dean’s List is a distinction and an honor, it should be more exclusive.”

Though we don’t buy Xavier Romano’s tasty, tasty sound bite about how Knox has “every kind of student under the sun, except bad students,” we would agree with him that students have become savvier about what gets them an ‘A’ than they used to be, resulting in higher grades across the board.

But what does “savviness” mean? Surely it does not mean just trying harder: if getting ‘A’s was a matter of effort and skill alone, grade inflation wouldn’t be an issue. The way we understand it, savviness means prioritizing work by what portion of your grade it represents, not by how much you will learn from it. Savviness means avoiding a professor whose class you might love because he or she is a known grade inflation avenger and you want to go to grad school someday. Savviness means biting off your nose to spite your face: actually damaging your education to improve its appearance to outsiders.

This is a deeply flawed system. How many of you have gotten to the first day of class to hear your professor announce that they consider a ‘C’ to represent high-quality work and started wondering if you still had time to drop it? We can’t write little notes on our transcripts explaining that certain teachers understood letter grades to mean different things than others, and until such arbitrary distinctions stop having the potential to damage our chances at higher education, we will do what we have to do to protect it.

The problem here is not grade inflation, but grades. A person’s performance as a student cannot be summed up in one letter. Well-regarded liberal arts schools like Reed and Hampshire have done away with grades in favor of comprehensive evaluations. These evaluations allow teachers to explain fully the effort and skill students demonstrated in their class without forcing them to conform to an arbitrary system of letters, and prevents students from being able to calculate exactly how hard they need to try to get by.

Since we’re already talking about revamping the grading system at Knox, we would like the faculty to consider the idea of getting rid of grades altogether. A system of written evaluations would eliminate the problem of grade inflation while giving graduate schools a more accurate picture of a student’s performance. Steve Fineberg said, “People who want to know things will work hard to get that knowledge.” Let’s give them a chance to do that without hurting their academic future.

TKS Staff


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