Scaling back inflated grades: the first step in education reform?


One-room school house, Kentucky, 1945. Grade inflation: not an issue here.  (Photo by Russell Lee, from National Archives and Records Administration, cleared for use in public domain)

One-room school house, Kentucky, 1945. Grade inflation: not an issue here. (Photo by Russell Lee, from National Archives and Records Administration, cleared for use in public domain)


I teach college classes regularly, and with each passing year I’m feeling more extinct as a result.

Part of this has to do with how much has been made over the last generation of the importance of self-esteem versus hard-earned grades – at all levels of our education system.

As someone who has taught as an adjunct, tutored, and watched my own child progress from elementary school through college, the de-emphasis of grading to standard specifically, or the rise of inflated grades, remains perplexing.

Not that students don’t care about grades; for the most part, that end of the equation hasn’t changed: a generation ago, I was no different.

Students who tell you they are only focusing on learning and not grades are, for the most part, as disingenuous as a pitcher who insists he didn’t know he had a no-hitter going through seven innings. It just doesn’t happen: Humans keep track, keep score, and keep an eye on how they measure up with respect to their peers. So be it.

This trend in grading causes an obfuscation of two major elements in academia: potential and performance. Each is different, but student expectations in the Digital Age have changed the playing field as to how they’re viewed.

Potential is rooted in past performance. It remains a hazy horizon, difficult to articulate to a generation used to instant gratification by tapping a smartphone’s screen.

But don’t let the scholar’s age fool you. In terms of grades, a former student of mine (in her mid-30s) illustrated the conundrum. She struggled to understand my grading standards and how they related to the output – or performance – that I required.

From the first day of class, she began references to past courses, past college professors (and yes, even high school teachers!), and the grades garnered from them.

Naturally, the scores she felt compelled to recount were stellar as opposed to my marks.

It became clear that the connection this student made to her past performance translated as a de facto condition of her sitting in a classroom – even if the ante had been upped in coursework difficultly.

What I further read between the lines was that the de-emphasis on performance to standard – i.e., receiving higher marks for lesser work – had contributed to how she perceived her own potential.

But while effort and ethic can absolutely be an intangible in determining marks, for the most part grades aren’t assigned for potential; rather, they are granted, or should be, for performance.

While there are many ways to assess knowledge and evaluate performance, everything comes back to some very basic things: requirements, conditions and standards.

As part of instruction, teachers place certain requirements on students under specified conditions to meet a given standard – which then results in a grade. Whether that’s an exam, an essay, or a hands-on evaluation is irrelevant. Its purpose is to measure performance.

And performance almost always means this: someone passes and someone fails.

However, a student used to a system where few if any actually fail will struggle when met with the challenge of actually having to get their A, B, C, D or F the old fashioned way: by earning it.

So maybe the first step in true education reform in the U.S. is not new fangled legislation or teaching the test or any other such distractions. I’ll leave the public policy fights at levels below higher education to luminaries far brighter than yours truly. And parents should absolutely do as they see fit for their own children.

But really, for teachers at every level: how about just start emphasizing grading to standard, if not for anything else than to begin correctly identifying actual student needs? This would keep from creating a false sense of achievement in those better served by remediation and extra attention.

Of course, each passing generation is convinced the next one is going up in flames. I get that. I also know that I sound more and more like my own parents and teachers with each passing day – and my loathing for some of them was no secret back in the day.

So I’ve always been open to the possibility that I’m a dinosaur whose time has passed him by, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about while my charges have all the answers.

And, lest hordes of millenials accuse me of ageism, consider that my classes are full of everything from high school students taking a college course for credit, to sexagenarians finally going back to complete a personal goal because life happened to them in the meantime.

What keeps me sane is that I still get plenty of students who, while caring about their grades, don’t argue over methods, and grind it out in the classroom. They make adjustments and perform well. They have their own minds but are still respectful of experience and qualifications – and know when they are being pushed to achieve their fullest, not just to settle for something less, yet brand it as excellent.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t been lost on me how much the other crowd has grown in the last 10-15 years.

So what to do? Returning to one-room schoolhouses as in the picture above, sitting in the corner for mischief, and rulers rapping knuckles are clearly passé. (Tempting….oh, so tempting…).

When I teach a college class these days, one irony never escapes me: that I was a major coaster as a student, right through graduate school. My students, who often view me as a martinet, don’t believe it.

But I assure them I always knew where I stood with my grades, and what I had to do to get them, even if that fossil standing in front of the class was clueless.




Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.