Traditionally, grades have been interpreted as C means average, B means above average, A means excelling, D means below average, and F means failing. Yet no student of mine in fourteen years of teaching believes this. My students view B as average, A as above average, C as below average and D/F as failing.
Furthermore, I’m unsure whether most students know what it means to excel. Most are accustomed to earning As for simply following instructions. It’s not uncommon for a student to ask me why an essay was scored a B, when they listed all the requested information. I’ll reply yes, you listed the information, but you didn’t explain the information, support the information, demonstrate that you truly understand the information. In other words, you met the minimum criteria, but you didn’t surpass them. Often I receive a blank stare in response.
It seems that our students are receiving increasingly better grades, and not necessarily working harder or smarter to earn them. A 2005 study by the organization that administers the ACT test concluded, after analyzing the GPAs and ACT test scores of 800,000 students per year over 13 years, that grades had inflated over 12% over that time period, meaning a student that scored a 20 on the ACT in 2003 had a 12% higher GPA than a student that scored a 20 on the ACT in 1991.
If grade inflation exists, if we instructors are assigning students ever higher grades, then we may be doing them a disservice. They may be learning that top marks are not hard to come by, and that’s certainly not going to motivate them to become the next great innovators and problem solvers our world needs.
I’m not suggesting teachers simply need to grade students harder. In truth, I wish we didn’t have to “grade” students at all. I wish, instead, that we could simply provide students and their families meaningful qualitative information and data to monitor and promote learning and growth. But as long as we do have grades — as long as colleges and communities look to grades, regrettably, as the sole barometers of student achievement — then we owe it to students to hold them accountable to solid standards and evaluate their work accordingly, and resist pressure from students, parents and administrations to grant favorable grades. That means when a student and/or parent asks for extra credit assignments at the end of a semester for the sole purpose of boosting scores, we should reply no, and let scores reflect actual performance.