Tarnishing the Honor Roll

FEW parents remain ignorant of the rising costs of college education - approaching $25,000 a year at prestigious schools, and still climbing.

Now parents are discovering that those A's and B's their children are bringing home on their report cards may be subject to another form of inflation: "grade inflation."

A check at Harvard University reveals that 25 years ago only a little more than a third of the undergraduates received B+ or higher. Today two out of three "earn" those honor grades.

At the punitive end of the scale the spread is even wider. Almost one in five undergraduates found C's (and lower) on their report cards a quarter of a century ago. Now the dunce element is less than 1 in 16.

What applies to Harvard applies to other prestigious schools - Princeton, Brown, Stanford - and to those not so prestigious. In just the last four years, the proportion of A's at Princeton has escalated from 33 percent to 40 percent of all grades.

What happens when, as in Lake Wobegon, all students are above average?

If the old meaningful distinctions based on talent and hard work are allowed to erode, grades become the latest case of false labeling; were these grade-A's applied to meat instead of students, the FDA would be investigating.

It is especially ironic that the rigorously rational standards on which academics pride themselves should turn into hyperbole, since the reputation of the A-giver suffers damage equal to the reputation of the A-receiver if an A possesses no more credibility than still another "Fabulous!" blurb from a film reviewer who never saw a movie he didn't like.

It should not be assumed that a little slipping and sliding in standards affects only those living behind ivy walls. There can be cruel consequences for the deception and self-deception when students become graduates.

Two of the favorite words of the `90s are "excellence" and "competitive." If the young now in school wish to be competitive in the real world, they're going to need all the very real excellence they can acquire.

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