A professor decided to experiment with the grading of his political-philosophy course at Harvard. He gave each student two grades: one for the registrar and the public record, and the other in private. The official grades conformed with Harvard's inflated distribution, in which one-fourth of all grades given to undergraduates are now A's, and another fourth are A-'s. The private grades, from the course assistants and him, were less flattering. Those grades gave students a realistic, useful assessment of how well they did and where they stood in relation to others.
A longtime critic of grade inflation, he had seen his grades dragged gradually higher over the years, while still trailing the rising average. He could not ignore the pressure to meet student expectations that other faculty members had created and maintained, but he did not want just to go along silently. The two-grade device was a way to show his contempt for the present system, yet not punish students who take his course. His intent was to get attention and to provoke some new thinking. He certainly got attention. He was pleased at the degree of interest from around the country, both in the news media and from the general public. The grades that faculty members gave -- not only at Harvard but at many other elite universities -- deserved to be a scandal.
People often criticize elementary and secondary schools for demanding too little of students. But at Harvard, the supposed pinnacle of American education, professors are quite satisfied to bestow outlandishly high grades upon students. They even think those grades reflect well on them; they show how popular they are with bright students. And so they are quite satisfied with themselves, too. There is something inappropriate -- almost sick -- in the spectacle of mature adults showering young people with unbelievable praise. They are flattering their students in their eagerness to get their good opinion. That their students are promising makes it worse, for promise made complacent is easily spoilt. What's more, professors who give easy grades gain just a fleeting popularity, salted with disdain. In later life, students will forget those professors; they will remember the ones who posed a challenge.
In a healthy university, it would not be necessary to say what is wrong with grade inflation. But once the evil becomes routine, people can no longer see it for what it is. Even though educators should instinctively understand why grade inflation is a problem, one has to be explicit about it. Grade inflation compresses all grades at the top, making it difficult to discriminate the best from the very good, the very good from the good, the good from the mediocre. Surely a teacher wants to mark the few best students with a grade that distinguishes them from all the rest in the top quarter, but at Harvard that's not possible. Some of my colleagues say that all you have to do to interpret inflated grades is to recalibrate them in your mind so that a B+ equals a C, and so forth. But the compression at the top of the scale does not permit the gradation that you need to rate students accurately.
Moreover, everyone knows that C is an average grade, whereas a B+ is next to the top. Mere recalibration does not address the real problem: the raising of grades way beyond what students deserve. At Harvard, the notion of an average student is lost. By that it is meant a Harvard average, not a comparison with the high-school average that enabled the students to be admitted there. When bright students take a step up and find themselves with other bright students, they should face a new, higher standard of excellence. The loss of the notion of average shows that professors do not begin with their own criteria for the performance of students in their courses. Professors do not say to themselves, "This is what I can require; anything above that enters into excellence." No. With an eye to student course evaluations and confounded by the realization that they have somehow lost authority, professors begin from what they think students expect. American colleges used to set their own expectations. Now, increasingly, they react to student expectations -- even though, by contrast to stormy times in the past, students are very respectful.
Thus another evil of grade inflation is the loss of faculty morale that it reveals. It signifies that professors care less about their teaching. Anyone who cares a lot about something -- for example, a baseball fan -- is very critical in making judgments about it. Far from the opposite of caring, being critical is the very consequence of caring. It is difficult for students to work hard, or for the professor to get them to work hard, when they know that their chances of getting an A or A- are 50-50. Students today are still motivated to get good grades, but if they do not wish to work hard toward that end, they can always maneuver and bargain. Some say Harvard students are better these days and deserve higher grades. But if they are in some measures better, the proper response is to raise our standards and demand more of our students. Cars are better-made now than they used to be. So when buying a car, would you be satisfied with one that was as good as they used to be?
Besides, the evidence clearly undermines that argument. The Harvard University Extension School, taught mostly by Harvard faculty members, has about the same grading distribution as Harvard College, although exact figures on grades are difficult to come by. The school holds evening classes open to the public -- a mix of Ph.D.'s, college dropouts, and high-school students -- and is not reserved for the super-smart of America's youth. Yet the Harvard professors who teach those admirable, self-improving souls cannot restrain their own -- well, it's not generosity, because high grades cost professors nothing. Another point calls into question the claim that students are smarter now: Grades in humanities courses are notably higher than those in the social sciences, and both are higher than grades in the natural sciences. Yet would anyone say that Harvard's best students are in the humanities and its worst in the natural sciences? In fact, science students regularly do better in non-science courses than non-science students do in science courses. How did we get into this mess? Perhaps I should be asking how we should get out of it. But to answer that question, one needs to appreciate the strength of feeling behind grade inflation.