Licking Grade Inflation

With less than lightning speed, the oldest education institution in the US is thundering toward what much of the education world has been grappling with for decades - grade inflation.

Harvard University has given its faculty until January to explain why grading practices have made it all too easy for students to graduate with honors - an unnatural 91 percent did just that last June.

Yes, even Harvard must now bow down to the accountability movement in American schools and make sure an A is an A and not just a paid-for right to a coveted sheepskin.

The Ivy league schools may attract the best and the brightest, but even they must not create false expectations that high achievers can avoid the stigma of earning a C. And besides, what's wrong with being average at a good school?

Teachers who push most students above a C grade only defeat the purpose of grades to motivate students to do better or to help parents and employers to distinguish abilities. Once graduates enter the job market, they discover they can't bank on those undeserved grades.

But like money inflation, grade inflation won't easily be licked. States mandating that high school students pass a minimun-skills test to graduate are forcing schools to change.

The University of Northern Colorado requires high school applicants to have an "index" score based on a combination of their grades and college entrance test scores.

At Dartmouth College and other schools, students see two grades in each class: the grade they earned, and the median grade made by the class as a whole. This gives students not only a sense of their individual performance, but a grasp on how well they're doing compared with their peers.

Grade inflation, however, first needs to be addressed in elementary and secondary schools. Young students should be taught that grades are not a source of self-esteem, but simply indicate a relative mastery of skills and facts.

If schools can return to using the full range of grades (Stanford University once dropped D's and F's, but then reinstated them), they can better provide a full accounting to students on what they need to do.

Administrators need to back up teachers who are tough graders. Professors get the message pretty quickly that "A" students give them good reviews that lead to tenure and raises - while the opposite occurs for tough graders. How administrations reward teachers is perhaps the strongest single influence on grade inflation. Everyone likes to be liked, professors included. But teachers still need to judge students in ways that help them learn. Harvard's rush to fix this problem can help set a better standard for schools nationwide.

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