Like it or not, change is inevitable. As time passes, we frequently complain that things aren’t as good as they used to be. Of course, the fact that many such complaints are baseless doesn’t mean that all of them are.
Like it or not, change is inevitable. As time passes, we frequently complain that things aren’t as good as they used to be. Such griping may be the result of a defense mechanism intended to buffer the realization that an increasingly complicated world could be leaving us behind as we age. Not surprisingly, the younger generation is frequently the target of our wrath, often without cause.
Of course, the fact that many such complaints are baseless doesn’t mean that all of them are.
I’m a part-time professor of law and business at several colleges. Since I first began teaching more than 15 years ago, I have noticed a steady deterioration in the performance of my students.
I rarely assign written projects anymore: the papers are so poorly written, I now spend an inordinate amount of time grading them. I must first try to understand often incomprehensible prose, then correct an astonishing number of grammatical, spelling and factual errors.
My exams are hard, and I often apply a scale to ensure an appropriate class average. Since I started teaching, I have had to increase the scale applied to raw exam scores by 5 to 10 percent, an indication that the performance of my students has dropped by a corresponding amount over the same period.
My experience is not unique. The National Center for Education Statistics found that the percentage of college graduates deemed “proficient” in two critical categories of literacy dropped significantly between 1992 and 2003. Today, less than one-third of college graduates are considered proficiently literate.
Additional research consistently reveals that college students spend less time studying than ever before. The University of California Riverside found the average student studies just 14 hours per week, a decrease of more than 40 percent over the last 50 years.
A 2009 study confirmed that first-year college students spend more time drinking than studying.
Though students certainly bear responsibility for the current state of affairs, many schools have enabled this apparent decline in performance by concurrently lowering their standards.
Letter grades have traditionally been used to both motivate students and distinguish their performance from that of their peers. Typically, A’s are defined as excellent, B’s are good, C’s are average, D’s are below average and F’s are failing. Consistent with this standard, normal statistical distribution should dictate that the largest cohort of grades should be about a C or C+.
Grade point average (GPA) is based on a scale that corresponds to letter grades; A’s are worth 4 points, B’s are worth 3, and so on, down to zero for an F.
In the 1930s, the mean GPA at American colleges was about 2.35, roughly the equivalent of a C+. According to gradeinflation.com, the average national GPA is now 3.11. More than 61 percent of students carry a GPA of 3.25 or higher, and just 1.7 percent graduate with a GPA of a C or lower.
Some college administrators deny the existence of grade inflation, claiming instead that the quality of both students and teachers has increased accordingly. However, there is another, more compelling explanation for the increase in GPA.
For years, college tuition has increased at rates far exceeding inflation. Many students feel the money they spend entitles them to a degree, preferably with honors. Facing unprecedented competition, schools feel pressure to accede to student demands for higher grades, lest they take their studies — and their tuition payments — elsewhere.
Once established, the problem of grade inflation is self-perpetuating. Students rightfully view a C as a catastrophic blow to their GPA, and instructors who don’t acquiesce to demands for leniency face poor student evaluations, low enrollment and the possible denial of tenure.
Though grade inflation is not apparent in all institutions of higher education — community colleges appear immune — it has crept into high schools as well. The New York Times reported that one high school graduated 94 seniors with perfect 4.0 GPAs. One recent survey found that more than 50 percent of incoming college freshmen described themselves as being in the top 10 percent in math.
In the real world, the hard truth is that we are not all created equal in terms of intellect. It is better for students to hear the truth in college rather than to persist in delusion only to graduate and find themselves unqualified for employment while saddled with a six-figure debt.
Some rightfully question the merit of using such an antiquated and subjective grading system; after all, the point of education isn’t to get an A, it’s to learn. However, the current system is unlikely to change overnight. If we’re going to give grades, they might as well mean something.
The solution: first, ensure that all schools provide a curriculum that meets all institutional and accreditation requirements. Next, simply assess student performance according to established standards. The majority who produce average work should receive a C; outliers who perform above average or truly outshine their peers should receive B’s and A’s, respectively.
If such a change were uniformly enforced by accrediting organizations, educational institutions and government oversight agencies, the status quo would shift to reflect the new reality.
Until then, students will continue to have less incentive to excel and employers will struggle to differentiate between the truly outstanding and the merely adequate.
Read more from Medford (Mass.) Transcript contributor Matthew Casey at matthewcasey.net.