Why Grades Still Matter

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By Jeff Gentry

Just before the fall semester began, an essay in The Chronicle, "Why I’m Easy: On Giving Lots of As," stirred up faculty ire. I’m going to offer a different perspective: Rigorous, differential grading is still relevant.

The phenomenon of "easy versus hard" professors probably dates back to Socrates. Gary Laderman, a professor at Emory University, offered a fresh angle in his "Why I’m Easy" essay. He loves "giving A’s to students" in his religion classes, he wrote, and relishes being an "easy teacher." His goal in teaching his students, most of whom are pre-law, pre-med, or pre-business majors, is to open up their intellectual lives — and resist reducing learning into "quantifiable tidbits."

His refreshing candor contrasts with professors around the country who attribute rampant grade inflation to special circumstances. They say things like, "My students happened to be superior last term" (every term), or "I’m that good at what I do." They often mention their "perfect" student-evaluation scores in the same breath. At least Laderman was honest.

I respect his aims of self-awareness, human growth, and even entertainment as part of the classroom experience. Being an easy grader works for him. But without differential grading standards, most of the rest of us would have a difficult time ensuring them. As a newish dean and a 30-year faculty veteran in rhetoric, I have to speak for the dinosaurs who still think grades matter.

Neither evil nor easy. As an avowed easy grader, Laderman contrasts his "love and empathy" for students with the "contempt and derision" he sees in some tough graders. But that suggests a false dichotomy. My adherence to traditional grading standards — the average grade in my courses is 2.8 on a 4.0 scale — does not mean I take a dim view of my students or their abilities.

Grading standards and faculty expectations about our students should not be conflated. Professors can register high on both fronts, low on both, or mixed:

  • The least-effective attitude is a faculty member with both low grading standards and low expectations: the "whatever" professor. After years of good-faith teaching that educator may be burned out — now retired-in-place.
  • Then there is the contemptuous elite professor who holds similarly low expectations of student performance but maintains high grading standards. Laudable rigor but negativity toward students predicts a lack of effort in effective teaching: "Weed out the barbarians." The only thing fed here is the professor’s ego.
  • The Pollyanna instructor holds a positive, almost affectionate, view of students but cares more about their happiness today than preparing them for the challenges of life after college. Such faculty members set the bar low to ensure their students’ immediate success, and to help them feel good about themselves. But without true achievement such confidence is illusory. Unrealistic assessments set them up for failure after college.
  • Finally we have the "intentional" educator, who maintains both high academic standards and high expectations of student learning. These professors expect more of themselves as teachers and more of their students as learners. Think Jaime Escalante, the ambitious calculus teacher profiled in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. They focus more on students’ long-term best interests than short-term satisfaction.

Plenty of education theory supports the claim that teacher expectations are positively associated with student achievement. This is not elitism but a philosophy of value-added instruction.

Intentional teaching means putting in the extra work and encouragement needed to help students attain difficult goals. Perhaps elite private institutions — filled with students who have high test scores and good academic preparation — are less in need of effective teaching. But how compassionate is it to charge a student thousands of dollars for an "easy A" class?

I expect college-level work, even as students work through issues of identify, self-worth, and direction. In my experience, students rise to the standards placed before them. The result is not a slew of Fs but advancing excellence. As an analogy, when states passed laws requiring children to be restrained in safety seats, they weren’t out to get parents, but to protect kids. Are thousands of parents written up for safety violations? No, they adhere to requirements, and children are safer. The same goes for grading rigor.

High standards coupled with high expectations — including encouragement, not derision — create real student success. That approach helps students emerge from higher education with the confidence that they can achieve challenging goals. Easy-A instructors sponge off of the tough-but-compassionate educators — making others do the work of holding students to college-level standards while they enjoy immediate popularity.

Who is the customer? To his credit, Laderman acknowledges that we live in an era of grade inflation. The consumer model of higher education has twisted our priorities at every level. It isn’t even a good consumer model, which can work well if the right consumer is served.

A student once me asked why I didn’t consider him my customer. If he paid his tuition shouldn’t I supply his demand for a degree? I replied, "Yes, you are my customer — but not the you of today. My customer is the you 10 years from now, who is going to thank me for upholding college-level standards." I made that claim based on years of hearing and reading such comments from former students, thanking me for, as one of them put it, "holding my feet to the fire."

Too often in U.S. higher education today, no one is incentivized to uphold high classroom standards — certainly not the 19-year-old students. Still young, they need a faculty member to test their mettle and press them to realize their potential.

Instructors are similarly incentivized to be lax. Where faculty retention is based largely on end-of-semester student evaluations, average grades will naturally rise. This is especially true in general-education courses, taught largely by vulnerable adjuncts and graduate students. In 30 years of faculty meetings, I have never heard anyone (myself included) say, "You know, we need to keep our grade averages from rising too high."

As for administrators, we’re worried about enrollment and persistence. The only time I’ve known administrators to express much concern about grades was to accost science professors for weeding out too many students.

No one in the academic system needs to care about grade inflation so there is no check on it.

My humble question is why? Why should we aspire to lead the league in nosebleed-inducing grade averages? Is it because objective measures of educational attainment keep rising? (They haven’t.) Is it because the United States dominates the world economy like never before? (It doesn’t.) Or because the current generation of college graduates is widely surpassing their parents in either prosperity or life satisfaction? (They aren’t.)

I can only see reasons to raise standards, not diminish them. Our graduates deserve the tools and confidence to compete.

Regional-comprehensive universities, where I’ve spent my career, are here to develop our students, not just certify them. John F. Kennedy was president when both Laderman and I were born. In 1962 Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." For the tuition we charge, shouldn’t we provide added value?

Students are born to excel. When we demand more of them, coupled with a positive teaching attitude, they achieve more. Conversely, if I set the bar low it is unrealistic to think they will greatly surpass those minimal expectations. I’m no elitist, just someone who quietly maintains college-level standards and watches students rise to the occasion.

Jeff Gentry is dean of the College of Fine Arts and a professor of communication at Eastern New Mexico University.


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