American college students are getting more A's than ever, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The trend by universities in the United States to award their students grades well beyond what they deserve has been discussed and debated in scores of articles and reports, the latest, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The AAAS says the last thirty years have seen a four-fold increase in A's, the highest mark, and a dramatic decrease in the number of C's, which denotes average. And it warns the fabric of a democratic society is threatened because this trend will breed injustice.
The term "grade inflation" began to appear in the American media in the 1960's, during the height of the Vietnam War. It referred to a trend by U.S. college professors to award higher marks to help students stay in college and avoid being drafted into the military. Arthur Levine, president of the Columbia Teachers College in New York, says after that, the process took on a life of its own.
Mr. Levine, whose study of grade inflation is quoted in the AAAS report, says students treat universities the way they would department stores, where the customer is always right. Mr. Levine says, "They're likely to walk into an office and say 'I pay a lot of money for my education and I expect to be treated very, very nicely. I expect you will treat me as if my wishes are your commands, and therefore if I think I deserve a higher grade you'd be more likely to give it to me.'"
Mr. Levine says student demands for better marks sometimes are backed by the threat of court action. "America is a rather litigious society," he says. "What I mean by that is lots of issues end up going to court that might not go to court in other countries. As a result, differences of opinion about what grade a student has earned, as opposed to being settled by a professor saying you've earned grade X, are more likely to go to a court outside of a university, to be settled by a judge and a jury."
On the Columbia University campus, however, students downplayed the possibility of legal action, although Tarigh Yusufi pointed out possible financial consequences for a school that does not inflate grades. "Getting an A suggests that there is merit behind it and it's worthwhile," he says. "If you are paying $32,000 [a year for tuition] and you find out that your son or child is getting a D in a class, you're not particularly going to be keen to pay for the next semester's tuition. I think that's why there is a lot of pressure, not just on the students to do well, but on the faculty to make sure that the students do well, to just perpetuate that system."
Some professors don't appear to put much thought into grades, as Columbia student Ben Berman recalls. "A teacher of mine once said that he always gave A's or B's because the best way to devalue a currency is to inflate it like that, and so he felt like they were worthless anyway, so why not just hand out A's and B's," he says.
Why not? Henry Rosovsky, former acting president of Harvard University and co-author of the AAAS report, says one reason is that if grades lose their meaning, employers will base hiring practices not on formal evaluation, but on personal relationships. "The result of these informal systems is unfairness because it will work to the advantage of the most established and the people with the most connections, when we want a system that is much more objective," he says.
But objectivity is hard to come by when many professors feel they're being judged by the grades they give students. John Neuhauser, vice-president of Boston College, says there's a second grading system in college classrooms. "Ever since the late 1960s there has been a movement in this country where students essentially rate the quality of the instructors," he says. "There is good reason to think that there is an unholy cabal here. One cynical professor once told me that the new social contract, at least in higher education, is I won't tell anybody that you're not learning anything if you won't tell anybody that I am not teaching anything."
Around the Columbia University campus in New York City, students agree that the ratings students give professors often reflect the grades they receive.
Student 1: "There are people that get bad grades who probably deserve them, who don't do any work, and then get frustrated with poor marks, and then write scathing teacher evaluations, I guess just to vent their frustration."
Student 2: "I think those who get bad marks probably give teachers bad recommendations because they don't feel that the teacher is very effective in their teaching method and that's why they got the bad marks."
Student 3: "If they grade hard and they're a good professor then we give them good evaluations. If they grade hard and are bad professors that's probably when we give them the nastiest evaluations. So if they're a bad professor they should probably grade easy and there's an incentive to do that, I suppose."
Of course, there are two sides to every argument, even the wisdom of grade inflation.
Student 4: "I don't think that it's detrimental to our education. I think that it actually helps boost our morale and self-esteem because it's tough being a student here and if you're getting poor grades then you're going to have lower morale, and students are not going to want to do as well."
Student 5: "Giving the students better grades helps the teachers, it makes them look better to the students, it helps the students because it makes them look better to wherever they're applying in terms of jobs or schools, it helps the school because if the student looks better, then he'll go to a better school, the faculty will look better, everyone will be just happier, everyone benefits."
The AAAS report suggests special courses for professors on grading techniques, but few in the university world are optimistic this will bring results. At the root of the problem, they say, are vested interests - students, teachers, even administrators - who all have their own reasons for encouraging undeserved high grades.