Archive for Friday, February 7, 2003

Grade inflation

February 7, 2003


Why do so many teachers and schools make things so easy for undeserving students?

Many people involved in the hiring process for businesses and industries have long contended that they are interested in the academic grades of the college people to whom they talk. Some will say that grades are only part of the evaluation of a potential employee, but almost all will admit they take a hard look at classroom performance.

But what about a current disturbing trend of grade inflation, a situation recently discussed at length by John Merrow, who produces documentaries for the Public Broadcasting System and has written a book, "Choosing Excellence."

Comments Merrow in a recent USA Today article, " ... it seems as if nearly everyone in college is receiving A's and graduating with honors these days -- even though college students in general are taking more remedial courses and spending fewer hours studying.

"As the Higher Education Research Institute noted last week, this year's college freshmen have the worst study habits measured in the 15 years it has surveyed first-year students. But these ill-prepared freshmen have little to fear. Their college grades probably will be as good as -- or better than -- those of their predecessors."

In a study for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former Harvard Dean Harvey Rosovsky found that in 1950 about 15 percent of Harvard students got a B-plus or better. Today, it's nearly 70 percent. Last year, half the grades at Harvard were either A or A-minus, up from 22 percent in 1966 and 91 percent of seniors graduated with honors. Half of Columbia University students are making the deans' lists.

During the Vietnam War, when many young men faced being drafted into military service, it was common knowledge that a number of teachers inflated grades. They wanted to make sure their students did not risk losing their academic deferments, even if some of them had poor performances in class.

That trend, for whatever reason, not only has been extended but amplified. And that's bad, particularly for people eager to hire "the best and brightest."

Students increasingly tend to enroll in "softer" courses to get by more easily and court higher grades.

At least Harvard seems to want to do something about all this. In October, the university announced it would review its undergraduate curriculum for the first time in nearly 30 years and tighten the requirements for graduating with honors. But, says Merrow, that is likely to lead to lawsuits from angry seniors who fall just under that arbitrary cutoff than it is to put the issue to rest. Today, there's always the litigious climate to consider.

Job interviewers still consider grades in their studies of potential newcomers, and they are sure to continue to do so. But they should travel that route aware that what they see may not reflect what they are getting in terms of accomplished and highly motivated people.

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