Grade Deflation

by Tina Blue
June 14, 2001

          We deplore grade inflation, but we seldom admit that some teachers commit grade deflation, and that their transgressions are, in their own way, equally destructive.

          When my son Michael was a sophomore here at Kansas University, he wanted to take a three-credit course in Greek and Roman mythology.  The course wasn't offered that semester, so he took it the only way he could, through KU's Continuing Education department (that's right--a correspondence course). 

          He submitted his first paper a couple of weeks after enrolling.  He had ten months to complete the course, but hoped to finish it up within a single semester, if the instructor was able to turn his papers around quickly enough.  He was delighted when the graded essay was returned just two weeks later.

          That is, he was delighted until he saw that he had gotten a "B".  He studied the instructor's comments, but was puzzled that she seemed to expect him to know a number of obscure things that could hardly be expected of students in a 100-level survey course.  Certainly nothing of the sort was found in any of the required readings he had done for the class, nor even in the suggested readings, which he had also diligently studied before writing his essay.

          He showed me the paper, the comments, and the grade.  I was quite surprised.  I'm a tough grader myself, but I couldn't figure out what this instructor was lowering his grade for.  It was a remarkably good essay, especially for that level of course.  I would have given it an "A", and I don't give that grade easily.  He was right about her comments, too.  They presupposed an advanced understanding of the subject--one more appropriate to a graduate seminar than to a low-level survey course.  What could this instructor have been thinking?

          "Who is this maniac?" I said, as I checked the envelope for a name.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the instructor was a woman who had been a grad student in my (then) husband's department when we first came to KU in 1970.  Her husband was a grad student in my department at the same time I was, and the four of us had been good friends for a few years, until life got in the way and we unintentionally drifted apart.  I knew her to be an intelligent, sensible woman, so I was astonished that it was she who had given what seemed an inappropriately low grade to my son's essay.

          Michael continued to turn in his papers, trying desperately to make them perfect.  He got a "B+", then an "A-".  On his fourth paper, he got an "A-", and another "B+" on his fifth paper.  Finally, on his sixth and last paper, he got an unqualified "A".

          Only the final exam remained.  But as he studied the requirements for the final, Michael began to get a sinking feeling.  Fifty percent of the grade on the final would be determined by two essays, one short and one long.  That should have pleased him.  He's a good writer, and he knew the material extremely well. Under normal circumstances he would expect to ace the essays.  He had no doubt at all that he would ace the short-answer and multiple-choice questions.,

          But he did have doubt about the essays.  Considering his grades thus far, he worried that he might get "B's" on the exam essays.  If that happened, he would end up with a "B" in the course.  He had been maintaining a 4.0 average since starting college, and he didn't want to ruin it over an elective, so at the last minute he dropped the course, regretfully sacrificing the $300 fee, as well as all the hours he had put into reading the texts, writing essays, and studying for the final.

          A couple of weeks after Michael had dropped the course, I ran into the instructor in the hallway near my office.  "Tina," she asked, "what happened to Michael?  He was doing great in the mythology course, but then he dropped out at the last minute."

          I told her about his fear that she would grade him low on the final essays, ruining his 4.0 GPA.

          She was horrified to hear this.  "There's no way he could have gotten less than an 'A' in that course," she told me.  "He knows the material, and he's the best writer I've ever had in
of my classes."

          "Well," I said, "he was going into that final with a borderline average, and if he had gotten the sort of grades on the final essays that he was getting on half of his regular essays, he would have gotten a 'B' in the course."

          That's when she admitted to me that those "B" essays were actually "A" essays.  The reason she had given him a "B" on three of them, especially the two first ones, was that he was such an excellent student that she wanted to "motivate" him to work even harder.  "I always grade the best students that way," she said, "so that they won't think they can just coast to an 'A'."

          While I agree that we don't want bright students coasting to their grades, I don't think that assigning unfairly low grades is the way to motivate them.  Besides, it is manifestly unfair.  The same standards should be applied to all students.  

          I remember when my extremely talented daughter Becky was being given "C's" on her projects for a tenth-grade ceramics class, while everyone else in the class was getting "A's".  But her work seemed awfully good to me, so I went to see the teacher, to find out what she was doing wrong that everyone else was doing right.  He showed me the work he was giving "A's" to.  Some of it was pretty good, but much of it was--well, it was crap.

          So he enlightened me.  Becky was by far the best student in the class, but her work was so good, that he had decided to judge her by professional standards.  He figured a "C" would motivate a straight-A student like Becky to scramble to do even better.

          "Let me get this straight," I snarled.  "You think you have a right to give her a 'C' and ruin her perfect GPA just because she is producing such excellent work?  Are you out of your mind?"

          After our little talk, he began to grade her properly.

          I complain all the time about parents who pressure teachers to give their children higher grades than they deserve, but sometimes teachers really do give students unfairly low grades.  And every time I have seen that happen, the teacher has justified the those grades by claiming that he wants to "motivate" the best students to work even harder.

          How dumb is that?  It just teaches students that if they start off doing unusually good work, they will get worse grades than students whose work is of much lower quality.  That sure wouldn't motivate me.  First, it would make me furious.  And then it would make me give up. 

          No smart student would want to produce excellent work if he knew it would hurt his grade.

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