Alan Ryan

May 14, 2004

Grade inflation makes no difference to the outside world, but academics need to believe in the absoluteness of the A

Among the hazards of teaching in an American university are the negotiations over grades that too often follow the end-of- semester exams.

It is hard not to sympathise with the students, no matter how embarrassing these occasions are. At one end of the spectrum are those who need to keep up a high grade-point average (the dreaded GPA) to get into law school, and at the other the students who need one more passing grade to avoid expulsion. These are not motives of the same urgency as 35 years ago, when a B average would preserve your draft deferment and keep you at a safe distance from Vietnam, but they are not bad reasons for lobbying your professor for an extra point or two.

But too much generosity and grade inflation breaks loose; the children are not just above average but superlative.

The Ivy League is having one of its periodic bouts of self-criticism.

Harvard University has already come in for stick for the number of its students graduating "with honours". Now Princeton University has decided that faculty has been handing out too many As.

The problem is what to do about it. The obvious solution is pretty disagreeable. Many faculty don't like "grading to a curve" - giving such and such a percentage of your class each of the grades from A to C-minus - because in anything other than an enormous class, it perpetrates injustices at the points students most mind about, such as the near-miss A and the not-quite B. The Virginia University Law School holds its faculty to awarding an average grade of B-plus, and the pain of trying to find someone to whom to give B-minus so as to be able to give someone else an A-minus has to be felt to be believed.

Oddly enough, grade inflation makes no difference to the outside world.

Just as in Britain, employers who mind about the educational attainments of their employees are capable of doing their own homework: and they know that getting into Harvard is the hard part, not getting a GPA of 3.86 rather than 3.84. They also know that different disciplines produce very different averages, and understand that someone with a B-plus in mathematics knows more about maths than someone with an A-minus in English. Sophisticated graduate schools and law schools have undergraduate institutions' averages in their hands and know whereabouts in the rank order a particular GPA will place you - and they also have rankings of the undergraduate institutions, so they know whereabouts you fall in the larger hierarchy as well.

In much of the US, grades have other consequences. One is that, with the rise in merit-based scholarships to public higher education, students have to maintain a B average to retain their scholarship money. The rise in merit-based scholarships is a curious piece of politics; it is one fragment of the response to the pressures on affirmative-action programmes. Where the federal courts have been active in striking down affirmative action, one seemingly attractive option is to offer financial support to badly off students, in effect relying on the overlap of class and race to achieve some of what race-based affirmative action would achieve.

Then, as usual, it becomes necessary to extend the benefits up the income scale to secure political support and to make the scholarships merit based to secure political support and avoid breaking the bank. By the time you finish, you have a system for giving modest amounts of money to young people who turn out to come from moderately prosperous families after all.

On the other hand, they aren't so well off that most professors will cheerfully give them a B-minus that costs them their scholarship.

But in the US as much as here, students complain that they are being condemned for their virtues. Their SAT scores are, on average, hundreds of points ahead of those of their parents and grandparents; they have five or six advanced placement courses - rather harder than A level - apiece; isn't it probable that 67 per cent of them work to a consistent A grade?

At this point we enter the realm of metaphysics. Like most academics, it is only with a great effort that I can stop myself believing in the absolute value of A: that an A grade does not just indicate that a student is at the top of a distribution of better and worse performance, but excellence, pure gold, the possession of the je ne sais quoi for whose sake we live and teach. It is quite dotty, but it is surprisingly hard to let go of the thought that intellectual life as we know it will collapse unless we all believe - very, very firmly - in the absoluteness of A.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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