Papers strewn over a staircase, their locations associated with letter grades Photo courtesy of Sage Ross.

A recent column in The Atlantic takes up the issue of grade inflation yet again. As recently leaked data from the University of Virginia law school shows, student grades on average have been going up over the past decades — in other words, grade inflation is no longer anecdotal, but proved. But the author Oliver Lee Bateman, a tenure-track professor at the University of Texas-Arlington, argues, this is simply the sign of a more equitable system of education. Why? Because the point of assessment, in his view, is not to judge what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but to provide a public service.

Bateman’s claims, while unusual, have not gotten as much attention as other controversial pieces in the magazine (for example, at the time of writing there were fewer than 200 comments on this piece; an article by Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehesi Coates on reparations for slavery had over 500, despite having to click to a separate comments page; a week after contributing editor Peter Beinart’s piece on Obama and Iraq, there were over a thousand). This lack of scrutiny is unfortunate, as two of his points in particular raise important questions about the purpose and nature of student assessment.

(1) “it’s in everyone’s best interest to maximize the value of these costly interactions. In other words, in an unfair system that requires students to bear the costs of their education, it makes no sense to impose harsh grading standards and other obstacles that prevent them from graduating. At a minimum, universities—which have had little success in reducing the cost of attendance—should do everything possible to encourage students to complete their degree programs.”

This is a perfect example of conflating two separate issues. Should institutions of learning encourage students to complete their programs? Let’s start by taking Bateman’s side: yes. What is the point of assessment in such a system? If giving a student anything less than a stellar grade is de-motivating, then there is little point in grading at all. At what point does ‘encouragement’ stop and ‘pandering’ begin?

I say this not to invoke the slippery slope fallacy, but out of genuine curiosity. If everyone is going to pass, ultimately, and their numerical grade is largely meaningless as a mark of their ability, why bother grading? As I’ve pointed out on this blog before, assessment takes time and energy. Constructive feedback needs to be carefully formulated and made individual to each student. If the end goal is graduation, rather than learning, I’m doing a lot of extra work.

To be fair, I’m not sure Bateman means for his words to be taken literally. Some of his statements call out instructors who are unduly harsh on students — for example, professors who think it should be impossible (not just difficult) to get an A. But the links he provides offer a slightly different story. In particular, they connect student success with the ‘student-as-consumer’ model of education. If we start to think of a degree as something you purchase rather than something you achieve through learning, then (a) assessment is useless, and (b) the bachelor’s degree is no longer a mark of education.

Before moving on to his second point, let’s briefly examine the other side: what if universities tried to help students learn, rather than graduate? In that case, there’s an argument to be made for more frequent, rich assessment — the only kind that has been shown to both boost student confidence and increase achievement.

(2) “The humanities, while of paramount importance, aren’t rocket science. A test filled with chemistry problems that all have clear yes-or-no answers might be amenable to a curve; an essay question about the development of judicial review in the United States most assuredly is not. I now approach each class I teach with a firm personal conviction that every person is equally capable of giving attention to the subject at hand (a belief, mind you, not a confirmed and testable fact).”

I suspect that here Bateman is either confused about what a curve is or is unwilling to admit that grading can be based on matters other than fact. Let’s clear away the first misconception: to grade on a curve, you put all assessments in order from best to worst (or vice-versa). You can assign a temporary value to help keep the divisions between levels of achievement clear. You then decide what you want the class median to be (on a traditional curve, it’s 75, but you can actually choose anything) and give the most average assignment that grade. You then assign the better papers grades higher than your median and the worse papers grades lower than your median.

From what I’ve said above, it’s clear that none of this involves a judgment about right or wrong answers; it’s a matter of relative competence, not “yes-or-no answers” (and for what it’s worth, I remember most chemistry tests being curved up, not down). Curves are a measure of average performance; the larger the sample size, the more likely that you will hit a natural curve. Bateman is much more competent than I to judge whether a question about judicial review is adequate, excellent, or stellar, but I can say with certainty that historical essays can be badly written, poorly argued, and yes, wrong in their understanding of fact — just as they can be well written, clearly argued, and plausible.

I will add that I too begin my classes with the assumption that “every person is equally capable of giving attention to the subject at hand”. But giving attention is not the same as mastering. And when all is said and done, no instructor should be assessing attention — we need to assess mastery, which is how we know that the student has understood and been able to apply the material. This is as true in the humanities as it is in chemistry, although the consequences of misjudging mastery may be different in different fields.

Failure to assess accurately does not help students. At best, an inflated grade is a lie: it tells the student that s/he knows something when s/he does not. But when that lie is transferred to a diploma or a career, we begin to harm society more broadly. And that is why purposefully inflated grades can be dangerous.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.