Needed: Smarter Students, Not Inflated Grades

struggling schoolgirlRecently, Vice-President Biden came to Ohio in support of President Obama’s efforts to make college tuition more affordable. Mr. Biden’s visit was reported in the January 13, 2012 issue of The Columbus Dispatch, in an article written by Joe Vardon, and headlined “Biden hits hot-button subject: college costs”.

Having been an academic most of my life, I have had several experiences that bear upon Mr.Biden’s “button”.

Let me begin with a twist on an old saying, “no one ever won a horse race without a good horse.” A small twist on that saying applies to global economic races: no one ever wins economic races without a well-educated workforce. And with this country’s students ranking only 16th among industrialized nations, it’s clear that we as a country have to work on more hot-button issues than just Mr. Biden’s “cost”.

To become competitive, we need smarter students. Neither more affordable diplomas nor inflated grades, inflated student egos, or inflated parental expectations will do. Furthermore, we can’t measure progress merely by counting how many “hoops” (whether substantive or procedural) we can help our students learn how to jump through. What counts in higher education is student’s learning how to jump through ever higher hoops.

And not just the hoops that we tell them to jump through, either. We need to help them learn how to question the “givens” that we ourselves and our leaders have learned how to take for granted, whether awaredly [sic] or tacitly. That takes courage and persistence, as well as living with little money and less security, the common measures of success in this world as people who have most of the power have made it.

I know personally of what I speak. In 1971, I earned a Bachelor’s in engineering from Case Western Reserve University, with a 3.19 accumulative Grade Point Average (GPA). I wondered whether my GPA meant I had done well, average, or poorly in my studies. Back in the mid-1980s, I had opportunity to find out. I asked an esteemed senior professor of engineering—he was named in “Who’s Who?” in his engineering field, and he taugtht for 30 years at a large Mid-Western, public university not located in the Eastern Time Zone. He told me, “In 1956 when I first taught here, the average GPA was 2.50. By 1971, the average GPA had risen to 2.85. And by [the mid-80’s], it had risen to 3.50…”, to which he quickly added, ” and today’s students aren’t nearly as good.”

To my great relief, he said, “You did well.” But he left me worrying about grade inflation, even back then. And that was 25+ years ago!

In the mid-1990s, after earning the PhD from Cornell University, I was teaching graduate-level public administration courses at a public university located in the Mid-West. I began the first session of every class by announcing that I was a hard grader and that students should be happy to earn a B-plus from me. I recounted earning an “A” from a Cornell professor who told me that it was the first full-A he had given in four years! Inevitably, fewer students would attend a second session.

robert letcherOther examples… I gave a rare “F” on a mid-term paper, and the student drove home to bring her Mother to argue her case for her (600 miles roundtrip!). At first, the Mother solidly supported her daughter; but, one of my questions won her over. She turned to her Daughter and asked, incredulously: “You wrote that?!” Another student, whom I later discovered had plagiarized a large portion of her final paper, took exception to my grade for her mid-term paper, saying: “I’ve got a 3.75 GPA… What’s this B-minus doing on my paper?” I told her that I couldn’t be responsible for other professor’s grades.

For these and other reasons, if we want to be more competitive in the globalized economy, we need to push Mr. Biden to push the “smarter students” hot-button, too. We no longer have the wherewithal to dictate to the rest of the world that in this high-stakes game of “[Economic] King of the Hill” which “Hill” we must compete on.

Robert Letcher


  1. Joe Weinstein says

    This comment too got computer-gremlinized on Sunday, so here it is, late:

    In my older-fashioned lingo, a person’s ‘smartness’ is an inherent quality of personal intelligence.

    Smartness of actions is something else, and depends on the intended goal of the actions.

    So in my book we DON’T need ‘smarter’ students – just students whose actions are smarter for society’s long-range needs.

    Students who act for good grades – even at ridiculous cost in personal growth or integrity – are in today’s and even yesterday’s USA society acting quite ‘smart’ – for their personal short-range aggrandizement.

    Grade inflation began a long time ago. In a prior part of my career I was a young math prof at UCLA during the Vietnam War. Various students tried to tear-jerk me into raising their grades so that they would not be drafted.

    Grade inflation will continue unless some measure is taken to de-emphasize subjective or in-person-negotiable grades. One approach is to replace such grades with grades which are applied more uniformly across large populations, e.g. by use of the same ‘standard’ tests in many places and times.

    That approach will continue to attract the more ‘mechanistic’ folk and to repel the more ‘humanistic’ folk. The former distinguish grading a specific kind of performance from grading an overall personality, whereas the latter tend to equate the two.

    • says

      Joe, thanks for commenting on my essay. I agree with you: “smart” is problematic. I used the term in a shorter version of this essay that I wrote for The Columbus Dispatch—and they did publish it, at 385 words! I used “smart” in an effort to triage between precision and inviting criticism of teachers. I also agree with you and Scott Fenton: institutional challenges are immense, perhaps insurmountable. I wrote as much back in the late 1990s when the so-called Boyer Commission released a report optimistically titled, “Reinventing Undergraduate Education”—if I find what I wrote, I’ll try to update it and put it out on LAP.

      Returning to the matter of “smart”… I think of people in terms of dispositions, like farm soil, capable of being “worked” to yield various crops, with some people’s disposition disposing them more toward some of those crops, other people’s to other crops. The “worked” matters greatly—cultivating enthusiasm can affect a person’s disposition toward particular yields. Which brings me around to the point of my original essay; namely, We can only fix problems (or overcome challenges) if we allow ourselves as a society to listen for indications that we are experiencing problems and to begin to look for ways to learn how to remedy them. Ignoring them won’t work..

    • bob letcher says

      Further thought on “smart”, and I hoping for feedback. I think i found a better, less demeaning and more faithful to my intention than “smart”. HOw about “better prepared”? One real advantage of this characterization is its provocativeness: it begs further question: “prepared, for what–and what makes that the appropriate dimension and direction for pursuing ‘better’–why; and how should we measure progress?”

  2. bob letcher says

    Thanks, Mr. Fenton, for replying. I agree: first, that i didn’t “get practical” about institutional, organizational, interpersonal, or simply personal challenges that such a deflation program would require. However, back in the late 1990s, in reaction to the Boyer Commission’s’ report, “Reinventing Undergraduate Education”, I develop a longer list of challenges facing the effort that report identified. My efforts were for naught, as were those of the Commission. If I find the my old files, i’ll try to get them put up here.

  3. says

    Thanks, Professor Brasch, for responding to my essay. I wrote a response yesterday, but some computer gremlins ate it—so I’m starting over, off-line…

    Let me begin by expressing my view that the goal of public education should be better citizens. In expressing this purpose, I do NOT intend to suggest that learning thing-events for the purpose of social steering and maintenance are inappropriate in public education. After all—rather, before all—people have to eat. For that reason, public education needs to help people both learn how to fish and learn how to help others learn how to fish—not necessarily to help anyone profit, but to help citizens make citizenship worthwhile. [By the way, I wrote thing-event above in an effort to expand space for mutual understanding, as Europeans, emphasizing Being, construct their world so around permanent forms while Chinese culture and Taoist culture more specifically emphasize Becoming and change, each better captured by “Event”.]

    Anyway, I also use “entitlement” to describe how I see students’ viewing the grades they anticipate their teachers giving them. And, while they may have succumbed to societal encouragement that allowed or even encouraged them to feel entitled to feel entitled, so to speak, they may simply be mimicking their bosses, who “may not always be right, but are always bosses”.

    I would suggest that there is something of an iron triangle operating here. Increased student body count justifies administrators hiring more overhead to service it, which through reverse trickle-down, supports higher salaries and better tee-times for higher-up administrators. Provided only that taxpayers can be convinced that ll tyr to hav loans are worthwhile—which is where professors giving inflated grades come in handy. No problems arises until students start graduating and can’t find jobs; can’t do jobs, either.

    I should add that I have clearly exempted my own performance at school from criticism that the professor I mentioned might have felt had he deflated my 1971 grades to 1956 terms.

    I had more written[ if it comes back to me, I’ll let you know, Professor.

    • bob letcher says

      Thank you, Mr. Huie, for responding.
      When you wrote, “we need a Federal /government that creates a Nation that our Children can have faith in”, what particulars of the kind of federal government did you envision. And, how did you envision going about making the Federal Government like that? Would you want some people to help you. What would you if no one else would? Also, what responsibility do you feel for bringing about this change? What wold you do to assure yourself that you are not being merely as assertive as the feds you don’t like? If there is a FIX that is somehow “in”, how would you get educate children to sense it? I agree that there isn’t much reason to be hopeful, but what might we do in the meantime while we await that FIX to land on us?

  4. Scott Fenton says

    The problem with implementation of this is that you need to have a large mass of universities behind reversing grade inflation. One or two colleges (unless it’s Harvard and Yale) won’t have the muscle to make a difference, as it is true that their students will suffer in the workplace. You can argue that college is not supposed to be solely about successfully entering the workforce, but try telling that to a 21-year old who now has a $40,000 albatross around her neck.

  5. William Huie says

    We also need a Federal Government that creates a Nation that our Children can have faith in. The major cause that I see of the lack of concern by our Children about their future is because they look at our world and see that the Fix is in against them and there is little opportunity for a job or a future. The Few who dominate the Federal Government have sucked the Life out of the Future. This needs to stop. There needs to be a Future that Our Children wish to Work For, and They Need to Feel That There Is A Future Worth All Of That Hard Work and Sacrifice.

    Also, as I perform in my business, businesses need to educate the work force.

    • bob letcher says

      Mr.Huie, i’d like to address your final comment: “businesses need to educate the work force.” That suggests that the purpose of public education is simply to facilitate private pursuit of profit. But, what if the primary goal of public education is to facilitate creation of a better citizens? of course, people gotta eat, so ppublic education would include an element of creating a better work force. The trouble for “business” with educating workers is that workers can take their employer-paid new knowledge to a competitor. And that is another advantage of socializing the cost of a great education system..

  6. says

    For 30 years, I was a professor at Bloomsburg University, a state university. I saw significant decline in student quality, desire to learn, and a huge increase in “entitlement.” They all expected high grades. With profesors giving high grades, it seemed logical. Many dept. averages were at 3.0 or better. The administration, ever eager to increase enrollment, showed significant lack of academic integrity and seldom backed up professors who issued grades that reflected what the student actrually earned. Fortunately, I had a core of students every semester who actually did want to work as hard as the football team, and who challenged and were challenged. But, the “bad money” often drove out the “good money” among students. And, I noticed many faculty more than willing to settle for mediocrity — among students, and among themselves. Dr. Letcher’s opinion column is “spot on.” Until the faculty reclaim the universities, and students develop a sense they need to excel at all levels, we will continue to be behind other countries.

    • bob letcher says

      Professor, Your succinct favorable reaction to my posting meant a lot to me, particularly your last two sentences: “Dr. Letcher’s opinion column is “spot on.” Until the faculty reclaim the universities, and students develop a sense they need to excel at all levels, we will continue to be behind other countries.”

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