American gripes about grades

August 11, 1995

Murray Lee Eiland looks at a case of campus consumer fraud with grade A and B rewards given for C and D work

One of the explanations offered for the United States's remarkably durable economic success in this increasingly competitive world is that its undergraduates, in their struggle for grades, are subjected to a peculiarly draconian kind of educational Darwinism.

Just as the Battle of Waterloo is said to have been won on the playing fields of Eton, so the struggle for scientific and economic supremacy in the West may be seen as taking place in the classrooms of Stanford and Yale. How, indeed, could the British, poor things, possibly hope to compete when their two big universities do not even give grades?

Only the classification of final degrees indicates whether a student has spent his or her university years in a drunken stupor or grinding out works of scholarship. In the US, however, competition is not diminished within the academic environment.

All this has now changed - indicative perhaps of the US's decline, or possibly the cause of it. During the 1950s there was a general understanding at the main US universities that no more than about 7 per cent of a given class should receive As, while about 17 per cent could be awarded Bs. This meant that the C grade represented an perhaps 70 per cent of the class, while the remainder were stuck with Ds (passing, but barely) or even the dreaded F for total failure.

This was serious business when one's admission to a professional school or graduate studies depended upon a grade-point average. Lives hung in the balance.

The new reality, however, is described by the quaint term "grade inflation". What has happened is well exemplified by Stanford University in California, where Ds and Fs were abolished in 1970, and the average grade has now become an A minus. There, fewer than 10 per cent of the students receive anything below a B grade, and students have been allowed to drop a class with no penalty right up to the day of the final exam.

The Stanford faculty has recently decided to tighten these procedures, but the worst grade will now become an NP (no pass), a more Politically Correct version of the old F for failure.

Duke University, where 24 per cent of the grades were As in 1970, reports that last year As accounted for 42 per cent of the grades. The change at Princeton between the late 1960s and last year was 17 per cent to 40 per cent, and the trend seems to have accelerated at other schools as well.

A Harvard senior is quoted as saying: "In some classes, 'A' stands for average." Honours at graduation are similarly brought within reach of all. In 1993, 83.6 per cent of Harvard seniors graduated with honours.

Obviously the movement toward Political Correctness has been at work here, with its insistence on "relativism" and the concept that everything - including art, novels, cultures, religions, politicians, and people - is about the same. There is no such thing as better or best.

As Harvard instructor William Cole is quoted: "There's a general conception in the literary-academic world that holding things to high standards - like logic, argument, having an interesting thesis - is patriarchal, Eurocentric, and conservative. If you say, 'this paper is no good because you don't support your argument,' that's almost like being racist and sexist."

Thus, in an environment where all standards are seen as artificial, culture-dependent, and authoritarian, people have the right to feel good about themselves, which may require good grades.

When these rewards are not forthcoming, it would seem only natural that the student and their parents complain. After all, they are paying good money for a process intended to enhance status. Ultimately, of course, they will go to court to get a grade raised. Few professors, however, are willing to endure this process and are more than willing to co-operate.

How can the "American University" afford to alienate anyone with such abuse? While there is enormous competition for places at Harvard, Princeton, and the like, most private US universities are under-utilised and, of necessity, expensive. With tuition and maintenance hovering around $30,000 a year, which parents are going to send children to an institution where they will be labelled as average? If the private institutions ease their grading standards, will the state-financed schools be far behind?

What this means for the student seeking a place in medical or law school is that even though he has managed the challenges of university life with a straight A average, he is now competing for a limited number of positions with a shockingly large number of others with similarly good grades.

There are some who charge that this is the real but hidden purpose of grade inflation, as it allows for social engineering. Under the old system in which perhaps 5 per cent of the applicants would have an A average, another 5 per cent an A minus, and about 70 per cent some variety of C average, the medical schools could scarcely avoid taking those with the highest grades and ignoring those at the bottom. Ordinarily this meant that a disproportionate number of Asians got places as professional students, and a tiny number of some other minority groups were accepted.

However, if essentially everyone has a 3.7 average (based on a system where an A is 4 points and a D 1 point), and the admissions committee decides that everyone with over a 3.6 grade point average is eligible - but not necessary selected - for admission, it gives the decision makers complete freedom to choose exactly which individuals and which percentage of a given ethnic group they would like to select.

It evens the playing field, so to speak, almost as if there had been no grades at all. A straight A average simply means that the student has so managed his or her university career as to have had no unpleasant surprises.

The US press has reacted unfavorably to revelations of these reduced standards on campus. Newsweek recently printed an article by a professor of English at San Diego State University, who explained, facetiously, that she has decided to guarantee each student an A, no matter how poor the quality of the work. "Why not?" she asks. "They have good looks and self-esteem. What more could anyone ever want in life?" As US News and World Report asks, in an article describing how the grading system has become a game of let's pretend: "What happens when the students join the real world where A and B rewards are rarely given for C and D work?" Newsweek, in contemplating the guaranteed B for classwork, asks bluntly: "This is the spirit that made America great?"

The same article, titled, "Give me an A, or Give Me Death," concludes with the rejoinder that, "Consumer fraud can take many forms".

Murray Lee Eiland is a graduate student at Wolfson College, Oxford.

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