Good grades degraded when they're common

What others say

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Take out your pencils. Time for a quick Ivy League spelling quiz. The question: How many As in Princeton?

The answer: Too many. That's according to Princeton University, whose faculty will vote later this month to limit the number of As it awards to students in all academic departments.

Unfortunately, rationing out As like World War II gasoline isn't going to solve the problem they face.

At issue is grade inflation, a phenomenon that has been spotted at colleges nationwide, but nowhere more conspicuously than in the Ivy League. Harvard University raised eyebrows to match grade-point averages in 2001 when it was revealed that 90 percent of its students graduated with honors.

If some of those honor students took an intro to economics class, they might have come across this fact: Scarcity often makes something more valuable. What does that make their As?

So what causes grade inflation? Take your pick. Some say it's aggravated by educators' newfound emphasis on self-esteem. Kids, the reasoning goes, face a lot of pressures these days; feeling stupid shouldn't have to be one of them, right?

Others point to a sense of entitlement among students and their parents; if Mom and Dad are shelling out thousands a year in tuition money, they don't want their kids bringing home Cs.

Still others say some professors nervously play to the expectations of students, who want high grades to move on to graduate school or the competitive white-collar job market. What professor wants to be known by students as the one who could wreck their chances at a bright future?

Grade inflation needlessly forces professors to become social engineers, the arbiters not only of who earns an A, but who deserves an A. Earning something and deserving something are two very different things.

Many students think they earn and deserve As. Take 20-year-old Princeton student Robert Santoro: "People need to understand that we have one of the highest concentrations of brilliant young minds in the world. If 46 percent of us are getting As, it's because that many kids deserve that level of performance."

Or it's because these "brilliant young minds" aren't being suitably challenged. Grade-inflating professors should start demanding more of their students and stop cheapening the value of an A by making them as common as rocks. Teaching is a daunting and often thankless job, and educating our children to match their abilities should be professors' chief priority.

Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle - April 19

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