August 22, 1982

Accurate Grades Would Put Colleges Out of Business

By Myriam Miedzian Malinovich


I had never been surrounded by so much anger; out of a class of 25 students, I had-failed 14 at the first midterm exam. They were irate and all talking at once: “I deserve a C for attendance and tuition alone." “The readings in this class are much too hard." “How will I get into law school with a grade like this on my record?"

I hadn't taught in several years when I answered the ad for a part-time teaching position in a small private college that had low entrance requirements. I had read and heard about grade inflation and student illiteracy; experiencing it firsthand was something else.

When I met with some of the students who had failed the midterm, I advised one young woman who had not succeeded in writing one grammatically correct sentence in her exam to take a basic writing course. "I did last semester," she said in an irritated tone of voice. “I got a B in it." Another student was annoyed because I had taken points off her exam for placing Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, in the 17th Century and referring to him as a Christian. "Socrates lived long before Christ," I tried to explain. She remained adamant: "It doesn't matter when he lived. As long as you believe in God you’re a Christian."

When I spoke to one of the deans about my "grading problem" she was highly sympathetic, agreeing that many of the students were not able to read college-level material or write an essay exam. Nevertheless, the following week, I got a letter from the academic dean informing me that "unfortunately money is short" and things looked bad in terms of a teaching position for the fall. The letter was unnecessary - I had already decided to resign at the end of the semester.

“If my colleagues and I gave the students the grades they deserve, we'd all be out of jobs," my friend. Bill, who teaches at a small liberal arts college in the New York area, told me. I grade on a curve. If the top grade in the class is 55 per cent, that's an A; 45 per cent is a B. . . You would have to get less than 15 per cent to get an F."

However grudgingly, I have learned to inflate grades, for even at colleges with higher entrance requirements, some grade inflation is necessary to retain the student body and one's position. On a recent midterm I increased all letter grades one full level. Much has been written about universities adopting marketing techniques to attract students; what has not been publicized is that to keep the "customer" in a dwindling market and amid fierce competition, all but the best universities must inflate grades. And even the best are not completely immune. For while grade inflation has become an economic necessity for most colleges, it started as a response to the demands of the '60s student movement and as a protest of the war in Vietnam during which some faculty members gave high grades to all students in order to help young men avoid the draft.

Some elite universities appear to be reacting to this laxness by going back to more traditional grading standards. But at most colleges, while faculty and administrators are disturbed by grade inflation, they cannot afford to stop it. I shudder at the thought of the responsible positions that some of our college graduates hold now or will hold in the future.

An acquaintance who teaches in a nursing school agonizes over the fact that some of her students cannot do the basic arithmetic necessary to dispense medication. Yet they pass their courses and get their degrees. Enrollment is low and the school would fold if incompetent students were weeded out. It makes sense that departments having the most difficulty recruiting students are most prone to inflate grades.

It would be an injustice not to point out the role the public schools have played in grade inflation. The principle that every child must be promoted regardless of achievement combined with what appear to be inadequate teaching methods and curricula have led to a large population of "educationally handicapped" high school graduates, many of whom go on to college.

The reaction which seems to be setting in at the elementary and high school level is promising. Promotion based on merit is being reintroduced in some school systems, as in New York City where more than 55,000 children were not promoted in 1981.
If this reaction becomes a national trend soon - before the schools are swamped with teachers who are themselves educationally handicapped – it could lead eventually to a better pool of college applicants. This may be the only hope for stopping or at least cutting down on college grade inflation since it is unlikely that colleges will grade themselves out of existence.

Myriam Miedzian Malinovich has taught philosophy at a number of colleges and universities in the New York area.