Monday, October 17, 2011

Grades: an Illusion of Value?

Princeton University students are upset. Their alma mater has decided to fight back against grade inflation by putting a cap on the number of A’s students can be given. But students feel they are being deprived of what they are entitled to. (New York Times Metropolitan Section, Sunday, January 31, 2010)

In many disciplines academic grades have little significance because professors in those fields cannot themselves agree on what standards should be. How much knowledge a student has acquired may play only a small part in the process of chasing a grade. No small factor is how the student capitulates in the face of faculty demands for deference. In many institutions of “higher learning” it is not reasoned argument and factual knowledge that wins the grade, but rather, -- to bypass more obvious, vulgar expressions – obsequiousness.

Students have learned to expect a certain quid pro quo: they will give rambling, incoherent college teachers good reviews on the grounds they are “nice people.” In return the students expect to be rewarded with A’s and B’s despite their ignorance and low levels of production, for having been “enthusiastic.”

If they care at all, prospective employers may use an applicant’s academic grades as an inexpensive selection method. Using grades to screen new employees helps those making hiring decisions cover their "assets." No one gets criticized for hiring a bad employee if that employee came in with a sterling transcript! And transcript review is a lot cheaper than an apprenticeship.

To examine these issues further, see The Teacher as Technician: Will Technology Improve Schooling?