Grade Inflation, Academic Standards, and the Common Wisdom I

Jonathan Bellman

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This is a midsummer reflection on an academic obsession. Originally intended for a publication that didn’t want it (thanks anyway; we generally commission our stuff), I’m dividing it into two parts and putting it on Dial M.—JB
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The closely related issues of grade inflation and declining standards are ever-present topics of discussion in academic circles. I personally have been hearing about it virtually my entire life; my father, who was an English professor in California for upwards of forty years, taught numerous sections of Freshman Composition, and his jeremiads about student illiteracy and administrative unwillingness to enforce standards were one of the constants of my youth. One memorable low point was when it was suggested that my father begin to “grade on ideas” rather than on the more basic spelling and grammar issues he felt needed to be addressed in first-year English classes. This relaxed approach to assessment seemed to be deeply of its time, the 1960s and 70s, in its fashionable anti-authoritarianism. In retrospect, it would also seem prophetic of the 1980s and 90s in its don’t-aggravate-the-consumer value system. Above all, though, the message seemed clearly to be anti-faculty and anti-education. As our household’s running narrative had it, The Standards were no longer being upheld, colleges were going to the dogs, and so on. O Tempora, O Mores. Contemporary reports from the wider academic world suggest that this same conversation is still going on.
Grade inflation as the unavoidable result of ever-lowering standards is such a familiar trope of academic culture that faculty accounts of it—however third-hand or anecdotal—go unquestioned, and are granted the status of fact. The most familiar causes include, among other, students’ sense of entitlement and inflated self-esteem, a pervasive consumer culture, and standardized examinations at the primary and secondary levels that crush initiative and curiosity. Hands are wrung, resolutions are made, eyes are rolled, but for all the spilled ink, the phenomenon itself is remarkably underscrutinized.
Student entitlement is usually understood to be the belief among many undergraduates that they are owed decent grades because they show up, sometimes, and money is being spent on their behalf. Of course, in this simplest of forms it is silly and not to be tolerated: academic expectations should be clearly stated, made as airtight as possible, and enforced. In some ways, though, perceived student self-importance hints at a deeper issue, and may be an over-correction to the situation years ago—before my time—when professors could be all-powerful and students had no recourse: not for capricious grading, unprofessional behavior, sexual harassment, nothing. Few of us have not heard, for example, disturbing stories from female colleagues and friends about suggestive remarks, unwarranted attention, the wandering hands of male professors who assumed there was a kind of plantation system at work. I would argue that unjustified entitlement was an issue then also, but it never seems to enter the conversation when we complain about student entitlement. 

Also highly relevant but oddly absent in these discussions is the Gentleman’s C, the former practice of granting the scions of important, and often generous, families passing grades and college degrees for efforts spent largely at socializing and school spirit. Nor do we hear about mickey-mouse courses, a venerable tradition in the very best institutions (as reported in a Time magazine article of 1963, which names names). It is not that standards were uniformly high then or are now; it is, rather, that complaints about standards might better take the tone of plus ça change than of How The Mighty Have Fallen. Without question, students still turn in substandard work, they seek to skirt requirements, to get by with less work and more excuses…and they should be unflinchingly evaluated for doing so. Inconveniently enough, though, faculty—likewise human—do the same thing. Think of the last time you served on an evaluation committee tasked with looking at colleagues’ records of professional activity. Any decline in standards there, or were they simply never that high—or consistently enforced—at all? Any academic veteran knows how unevenly standards can be applied, and for which capricious reasons they can be adjusted: personal proximity to the Chair, fashionable specialty, desire to keep antisocial personalities away from certain kinds of committee work, and so forth. The fact is that many faculty underachieve in certain areas of responsibility, and are poorly situated to judge others for a similar offense, I think. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and so on. In any case, there is a much untidier history of academic standards in our cherished, golden past than we would like to admit, and indeed most of us are implicated in it, one way or the other. The context for the much-decried student entitlement is, in other words, far broader than is usually assumed, and it is limited neither to recent times nor to students.
A wider view of the standardized tests that lead to university work may also be helpful. The usual feeling is that they encourage conformity in teaching and learning and flatten creativity and individualism. It cannot be denied, though, that such in-class exams’ terminus points and on-the-spot performance standards lend a sense of real-world urgency to the learning process. I suppose that the spirit of free inquiry, of intellectual quests without limits and so forth may be constrained by the structure of the standardized-exam model, but since when was the soaring mind the responsibility of the institution rather than of the individual? The academy lays the groundwork, but it is the student’s energy that makes his or her imagination take wing; the academy provides the launching pad only. My personal recollections, at least, do not suggest that pre-standardized exam pedagogy was superior, and it would be hard to deny that such tests up the ante on mastering a prescribed group of skills and knowledge areas better than a sort of bland “freedom” might do.
Grade inflation per se is often blamed on the so-called business model, which supposedly misconstrues the college student as a customer to be pleased and coddled. One demonstration of such a misconception of the student’s role is the use of student evaluations to bludgeon and discipline faculty—usually part-time and contingent faculty, our most precarious academic citizens. Another corrupt practice is that of inflating grades for administrative purposes, such as reporting “success rates,” or overlooking the widely reported academic irregularities of international students—“different cultural norms” with regard to plagiarism is one such—who are paying full tuition. This kind of bald administrative malfeasance is simply unacceptable, when it occurs, and faculty facing such pressures should quietly and patiently document and, if necessary, report. If really necessary, they should litigate; what is at stake is basic academic integrity. But vivid though accounts of such situations may be, it is unclear how widespread they are, and how much the rumor mill has intensified their threat. It is also unclear how much real resistance tenured faculty offer in such circumstances; a litany of muttered complaints while engaging in full compliance hardly qualifies. We blame administration for interference, and we all testify to the value of tenure as a guarantee of academic freedom, but do we stand our ground when threatened? It is by no means clear that all such practices would continue if we did.
The first conclusion has to be that the issue of grade inflation is more involved than it usually appears to be. Discussion of it produces much heat, less light, and a never-ending supply of blame. Contributing causes can often be better considered in light of preexistent abuses, entrenched misunderstandings, or a murkiness of data. Above all, it seems high time to move to a new phase of the discussion.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Grade Inflation, Academic Standards, and the Common Wisdom I

  1. glen says:

    Nice post Jonathan. I wonder how much of this conflict comes down to an inherent inability to truly “grade” a person’s learning? It’s easy to say that a teacher can set up clear expectations and then measure whether or not a student meets them – but I think anyone who has done some teaching knows that it’s not that simple, especially in a field like music. If you have a constantly fluctuating point on a continuum, representing a student and their absorption of “knowledge” (I’m trying to avoid the even more treacherous pothole of epistemology here) and you also have another point on a possibly dissimilar continuum representing the teacher’s expectations…what are the odds that they will be perceived by the academic community at large (nevermind the general public) as being consistent? Doesn’t it always come down to an arbitrary judgement by someone at some point?

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks, Glen. I agree with what you say, and your points also highlight another can’t-win in the whole equation: the more we *try* to be consistent and to require what is nonarbitrarily measurable, the more we flatten the whole business into two-dimensional multiple-choice material. In short, when you take out the risky gray areas and intellectual room to move around, you face an ever-shrinking amount of “material,” which not only contributes to lowered expectations of students, it SHOULD do so because you’re giving them less and less of worth to try to learn.
    Not sure that made any sense, but I have to run!

  3. Sara says:

    You have first hand experience with my “entitled student” woes, so no need to go on about that here. I do want to bring up a related issue, and that concerns the student with developmental disabilities. Every semester I have a History of Rock and Roll student that is developmentally disabled. This typically means that the students have ADHD, dyslexia, or some other learning disability. These students are not typically physically disabled.
    These students sometimes (not always) use the letter from the Disability Support Services as a “get out of jail free” card. I currently have two students with DSS letters in the on-line class and both have argued that their disability should excuse them from their inability to read and follow instructions.
    I found “Professor X’s” essay in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” compelling. Do we dare say that perhaps college/university isn’t for everyone?

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