I often wonder what the public thinks when reading the periodic headlines about grade inflation at Ivy League universities - like last week's Princeton faculty decision to limit the number of A's it gives undergraduates. After all, these elite schools attract the top 1 percent of the general college-bound population - could so many high grades really be that scandalous? Why would these heartless administrators want to punish their students by suggesting they don't deserve their grades?
But something important has happened throughout higher education in the past generation. Students at all academic institutions have come to expect high grades as an entitlement. I even had a student who had received an A- ask what she'd done "wrong."
There are many theories about when and why this jump in grade expectations occurred. Some credit college draft deferments during the Vietnam War.
Faculty felt both pressure and sympathy for students who might get drafted if their grades fell too low. Even now, many corporations withhold tuition reimbursement for employees who receive grades below a specified threshold.
A misguided sense of student consumer power also plays a role in inflating grades: Faculty fear that students will retaliate for low grades on their course evaluations.
The insidious aspect of grade inflation is the perception among faculty and others that this is a victimless crime. After all, no students ever complain that their grades are too high. Grade inflation reduces end-of-semester traffic from those questioning their final grades. Everyone seems to win.
But the truly outstanding and industrious student is wronged. Grading is about fundamental fairness. Not everyone performs exceptionally well and should not be deceived into thinking they have. Nobody's achievements should be cheapened by a leveling of grades.
The public that reviews a graduate's record is also wronged. Grading is about honesty and integrity. Professors are responsible for providing feedback, differentiating performance, and maintaining the credibility of their institution and themselves. Grade inflation distorts the very essence of the evaluative process.
Grade inflation is often symptomatic of deeper problems - laxness, low standards, lack of evaluative tools in a class, and even a lack of familiarity with one's students. High grades might signal poor teaching.