Thursday, March 10, 2016

Grade Inflation, or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Bomb

by Worth Weller

I have a dirty little secret.

No, it is nothing about my sex life or drinking habits.

It’s a lot more tawdry than that: I’m thrilled when a student in my class gets a C.

Not that such an occurrence actually happens a lot – I’m even surprised when a student gets a B – but I am elated to see at least one middling grade when I export my Blackboard grades to my spreadsheet for double checking, because otherwise I feel a sense of embarrassment that nearly every student in the class got an A.

I write this blog post now to reveal this secret shame because in just a few weeks the halls of my department will be filled with lecturers and professors dashing from their windowless cubicles to the department office with reams of smudged papers and worried looks on their faces, as the almost palpable gloom of the “grading season” takes over in the final days before administrating class evaluations and turning grades in to the Registrar.

The gloom, of course, is not just attributable to the fatigue of grading – it’s also a manifestation of the fear of, of, gasp, no, not “Jeb!”! It’s much worse than that. It’s the demon that lurks in all our nightmares: “Grade Inflation!”!

Two recent articles in the mainstream media and twittersphere have prompted my renewed attention to this reoccurring, primordial scream. The first, which mysteriously showed up recently in my Twitter feed, is a blog post by Jason Mittel, media and film critic at Middlebury College. Titled “Rethinking Grading: An In-progress Experiment,” Mittel’s blog post describes his distaste for grading and his fear that grades “often work as an obstruction for learning, rather than a motivation, reward, or neutral assessment.” I’ll leave it to you to analyze the article and his remedy, but whether you agree or are aghast with his solution, (he provides a detailed syllabus), his approach is particularly thought–provoking and timely now that the Washington Post just this month came out with a front page article (above the fold!) dissecting recent trends to the grade curve and in a truly Munchenesque twist, arguing that grade inflation may not be such a bad thing.

With a title guaranteed to get your attention – “There’s nothing wrong with grade inflation: Grades Don’t matter anyway. Here’s why” – Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative argues that employers aren’t looking at grades or GPAs anyhow. In fact, he stipulates that most students at schools like Yale, Duke and Harvard are going to do A level work no matter what approach is taken to assessment, as that level of engagement is what got them into those schools in the first place. “For years, I feared that a world of only A’s would mean the end of meaningful grades; today I’m certain of it,” admits Oppenheimer. “But what’s so bad about that?” he asks.

I don’t have an answer to this question (although both articles make a good case for the authors’ own answers), but I can describe here how I’ve learned to quit worrying and love the bomb, so to speak. I grade with rubrics, which I explain in great detail ahead of each assignment. And I try to keep these rubrics fairly simple and to the point. Writing assignments are boiled down to paragraph focus, development and support (all of which imply a certain degree of critical thinking) along with an introduction that guides the essay and a conclusion that sums it up. Visual Communications assignments are slimmed down to technique, clarity and display of content that shows mastery of the specific concepts. I also don’t spend a lot of time on late penalties (I teach English, not math) and give students the benefit of the doubt about family matters, work and illness, until I lose my patience or the semester gets alarmingly close to the end. (Yes, some students do take advantage, and they are the ones who wind up with that guilty C!)

If a student shows mastery of the concepts I’ve set out and clarified for each assignment, if they have spent the time necessary to prove to me they have reached my own teaching goals, then who am I to say they don’t deserve an A? So if the vast majority of my students get A’s, I am learning (finally) to quit second-guessing myself and enjoy the breaks between classes, feeling good that I have met my own expectations for the semester.

Mittle, Jason. “Rethinking Grading: An In-Progress Experiment.” Just TV, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 6 March 2016.

Oppenheimer, Mark. “There’s nothing wrong with grade inflation: Grades Don’t matter anyway. Here’s why.” Washington Post 6 March 2016 Web. 6 March 2016.

Worth Weller is a Continuing Lecturer for the Department of English and Linguistics and also teaches Visual Communications for the Department of Communication. He has taught face to face and online courses for IPFW for 16 years.

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