Grade Inflation and Inclusive Language

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A colleague of mine where I teach is sort of a stickler for assigning grades according to the traditional but now completely obsolete approach whereby a C is average. He seeks to have the median student in the class earning grades in the C range, with an equal number of people in the D range as in the B range and as many failing as earning an A. His argument is that this is what these grades have always meant, and grade inflation is a violation of the meaning of the grades.

It struck me today that this argument is very similar to the argument language conservatives give against gender-inclusive language. The English language has changed since the time the ordinary English speaker could hear a sentence like "Surely every moral man must be appalled at the judicial execution of the innocent or at the punishment, torture, and killing of the innocent" and not wonder what the author thinks about moral women and children. (The sentence is from Kai Nielsen's "Against Moral Conservatism" from Ethics 82 (1972), which my students had to read this week.) Gone are the days when a sentence like that could make it into publication in a top philosophy journal.

So too have the standards changed when it comes to what letter grades mean. A grade of a C just doesn't indicate merely satisfactory anymore. Students know this. Most faculty know this. You can pound your fists and complain about this sorry state of affairs, and maybe you're right that it's regrettable (although I see no reason why we should have to stick with any particular arbitrary assignment of letters to standards). What I don't think will ultimately pass muster is sticking to your guns and giving people grades in a way that's wholly inconsistent with what the standards in fact are by basing it on some system of giving grades that hardly anyone follows anymore. Doing so means you're not giving people the grades you think you're giving them. This is why I can't in good conscience follow my colleague's policy.

This is not to say that college students today are as competent as in the past, which may well not be the case. It doesn't mean the work that now counts as satisfactory is what should count as satisfactory. Those are completely separate issues. All I'm saying is that the meaning of the letter grades has changed in a way that those who hold onto the traditianal system of assigning grades have been resisting to the point where the grades they assign are dishonest, even if not deliberately so. Grade inflation may be a problem in other ways, but one element of grade inflation is simply a fact, and resisting it in the way my colleague does seems to me to count as academic dishonesty.

4 Comments

OK. I'm, um...older. And I work in a high school. Can you explain to me what a C does mean now? It might be helpful if I knew what the students I work with are shooting for. High schools, at least the ones I know about, still follow the bell curve.

I don't know about high schools now, but C was definitely not average for the high school I went to. It was clearly sub-par. I do think it might be relevant that ethnic/racial groups often display different standards also. Asian parents in the U.S. tend to see a B as sub-par, and black parents in the U.S. often see a C as perfectly fine. But the largest group of parents in the U.S. is whites, and they generally see a B is satisfactory. I don't remember where this study was done, but it was measuring specific parental responses to grades, including disciplinary measures. This was not for college students, but I don't know what ages it did cover.

My general argument opposition to C as average (with a resulting scale) is that, if you've got good enough students, lowering the average to C devalues the students' work in a way just as bad as giving a B to sub-par work simply because the students in the class all did badly devalues the B. I don't think averages tell you all that much except when the students do so badly that it's a sign that the test is too hard or something like that, and even then you have to be sure that it isn't just a bad group of students.

I don't mind the kind of scale that takes the highest grade and makes it a 100, pulling everyone up the same amount. I also don't mind pulling everyone up a bit if the average indicates that the exam is harder than my exams tend to be, given that the same class does equally good work compared with other classes on other assignments, and I'll even allow some grades to go above 100 if that's what it takes. But curves just seem to me to be the kind of grade inflation that ignores absolute standards of any kind. Students receive relative grades as compared to the rest of their class, no matter how good or bad the class is compared with other classes and no matter how hard or easy the exam is compare with other exams other classes have received. Some of this is unavoidable when you've got different people teaching the same class, but it seems to me that bell curves exaggerate it.

There was a good discussion at In Socrates' Wake recently about some of these questions.

In my mind, people who resist grade inflation sound as ridiculous as people who resist monetary inflation. To insist that a "C" always has and must always mean "average" is like saying "I used to be able to buy a gallon of milk for 50 cents, so therefore you must sell me this gallon of milk today for that price."

Interesting, I did a course where I was told it was a matter of pride that people got low marks - apparently being a statement of the quality of the course. Meanwhile in other courses it appeared it was a way of inflating intake.

I presume the latter outweighs the former in general. One could say those who give good marks are in a sense being parasitic off of those who give lower marks (i.e. they up their intake by giving better marks at the expense of others).

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