Josh Hock: Average Joes or Average Einsteins?

In the long-standing tradition of modern academics, the letters “A, B, C, D and F” have seemed to hold greater meaning alone than composing words. Yet, the phenomenon of “grade inflation” has forced some to question the value of letter grades and thus the merit of students’ academic records.

Consistent and widespread reports featured in various news sources have detailed the increasingly common practice defined as handing out grades higher than they might have been in the past for the same levels of academic achievement. Because of this practice, the poignancy and distinctiveness of letter grades will likely be eroded, making obsolete the classical five-point grading system that has been the most widely used method of academic ranking in the United States.

In a 2002 editorial, USA Today suggested that grade inflation might not be something to worry about, reasoning that the high marks are probably deserved. After all, students who get into college have already distinguished themselves through their secondary school academic records. For what reason should they find themselves in the middle of the bell curve when, for their first eighteen years, they found themselves at its right end? Furthermore, the piece contends that the high marks foster increased academic participation, especially for populations who might be discouraged by low grades.

However, I disagree. This country, I thought, was supposed to be a meritocracy, accepting as true the frightful reality that some people are just more skilled than others. It seems rather illogical to believe that every straight-A high school student develops into a straight-A college student. Indeed, it is more logical to assume that a new bell curve develops within the “academic elite” enrolled at college. In other words, college students should be reevaluated. While they may have been superior in high school, they might be less so in college. It would make more sense for professors to widen the scope of evaluation and to assess a student’s work based on how it compares to that of his or her peers and consistently base this scale on a publicized class average.

I suppose that this method is much more transparent than what most Americans are willing to accept. Similarly, most colleges will probably oppose such a measure that could possibly lower their own academic records and rankings.

Nonetheless, institutions such as Princeton University have tackled the issue by altering faculty grading policies and by issuing a school-wide – instead of department-focused – initiative to curb rising grades. According to the Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s Dean of College Nancy Malkiel noted in 2007 that “. the A grade had come to cover a spectrum from work that marginally exceeds expectations to truly superior work; the B grade had come to signify work that was barely acceptable” (“U. walks lonely road with grading policy,” Daily Princetonian April 27 2009).

Two years ago, The Hatchet reported that the average GPA of GW’s graduating undergraduates rose to 3.25 (B+) in 2002 from 3.03 (B) in 1983. This phenomenon suggests that, assuming the increase has been maintained, at least half of GW students graduated this year with a cumulative average falling above a B+.

The grades for the 2009 spring semester are already being released, yet I wonder what they really mean. It would probably be too dramatic to find out by immediately switching to a system of comparative assessment. No, we have to be eased into it, for we really have been too cushioned by our “impressive” strings of high marks. A good place to start would be with the class averages themselves.

When we learn just how many people attain the same marks each year, maybe then we won’t feel so special. Maybe then we’ll be ready to accept the grades that we really earned.

The writer, a freshman majoring economics and history, is a Hatchet columnist.

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