If you followed the recent Harvard cheating scandal and thought, “dang! I could have gotten good grades at Harvard,” you were likely right. In fact, at pretty much any university in the U.S., your chances of getting A’s are pretty good — especially compared to the average grades of your kids’ grandparents.
A report out of the nonpartisan think tank the New American Foundation found that 43 percent of the grades given out as of 2008 were A’s. As in, average. Back in 1961, only 15 percent of the grades were A’s. As in, smart, hard-working, mastered the material.
This lowering of standards/increasing of rewards is called “grade inflation” and two-thirds of academic officers and provosts surveyed said it is a serious problem. “Either college graduates have become much, much smarter over time—a possibility contradicted by all available research—or the function of grades in meaningfully differentiating and rewarding student learning has badly eroded,” according to Business Insider quotes from the report. Employers haven’t seen crop after crop of smarty-pants filling their open positions either.
The report, which was actually looking into the history and necessity of the college “credit hour,” only looked at university-level coursework. But I’d be willing to bet grade inflation in college is the result of grade inflation in high school, which is likely the result of way too much importance being put on grades as a threshold for college entry or bragging rights or both. When I read about students having higher than 4.0 GPAs, I don’t swoon and neither should college entrance officers. All A’s might signal intelligence — even high intelligence — but it could also signal a lack of risk-taking due to an aversion to failure.
Grades are like prizes for meeting the minimum requirements, not for trying something new or testing the boundaries (or picking up the broken pieces when everything falls apart). Teachers know that: “do we have to know this for the test?” Grades are like high-stakes testing in that, instead of thinking about the world, exploring it and testing it, they become they become the goal. And those kinds of goals don’t seem to amount to much.
Is that what we want for our kids?