Grades devalued with inflation at Williams

On a shelf above Bart Simpson’s bed, there sits a trophy with the inscription “Everybody-Gets-A-Trophy Day.” Once again, Springfield proves to be a two-dimensional microcosm of American society. Last year the modal grade at Williams was an A-minus. In the class of 1998, the mean GPA was 3.32 and 58 percent of the class graduated cum laude. Starting this year graduating “with distinction” will be limited to the top 35 percent of students. By last year’s standards, that is equivalent to those with a GPA of 3.53 or higher. These figures are just a couple of the sobering statistics presented by Registrar Charles Toomajian at last week’s Gaudino forum on grade inflation. Before you celebrate your next above-average mark remember, it may be an A, but these days that’s an “Everybody-Gets-An-A” grade.

Personally, I have no problem with grade inflation. I prefer receiving good grades, even though I know I don’t deserve them. But while I’m satisfied with a transcript decorated according to the prevailing fashion, we should acknowledge the superficial quality of these adornments. We also might wonder how this trend came into vogue.

No single factor will suffice to explain the meaninglessness of the current marking system. The death of the gentleman’s C was gradual and of undetermined origin. Some people suggest that students are simply smarter. I have to veto this idea. I refuse to believe that Lake Woebegone has overflowed into the general water supply.

Everybody gets good grades because good grades are made easy to get. The work we are evaluated upon is increasingly disconnected from the actual effort put forth in the course.

Final grades often consist of a couple tests and/or a few papers. It is not very difficult for a student to go through the semester doing little actual work.

But when it comes time to turn in an assignment or take an exam, the student exerts a frenzied burst of effort. We know how to cram: to study for the maximum points, not necessarily the maximum knowledge. Helpful in this respect is the current trend of not making students memorize “useless” information like, say, facts.

We are told incessantly, “It’s the concepts that are most important.” I completely agree that the concepts are generally most important. I’m just pointing out that concepts are much more conducive to extemporization (i.e., B.S.).

Papers involve a good amount of time and effort, but writing a few papers over the length of a semester is not a huge burden on any student.

We can all, at the very least, pull together a mediocre paper. Thanks to grade inflation, even mediocre papers get good grades. As long as you actually turn in the requisite number of pages with some assortment of words printed upon them, you are pretty much guaranteed a passing grade.

Last year I had to write a paper on some aspect of “being,” drawing from an assigned reading. The prose that I turned in was more along the lines of nothing (I couldn’t get through the Heidegger, so I winged it). To my surprise, I received a B on this incoherent collection of pseudo-philosophical nonsense. If my paper (on a book I never read) got an above-average grade, I think it is safe to suggest that other written work is passing by, unscathed by any standards of quality or content.

Not all classes are based on just a few papers or tests. Most Division III courses, which involve regularly assigned, objectively graded work, scale grades liberally to fit the campus stats. Some courses are just plain demanding.

But the current system enables students to maximize the work they do in one class, while slacking off in another. The uneven distribution of effort doesn’t effect their grade: they’ll still get an A in both.

For lack of a better term, students these days are “slick.” We are selected for having this trait by the calculating nature of the college entrance process. Obviously, intelligence and ability are important factors in getting into a good school. But preparing for college is premier learning ground for perfecting the art of manipulating appearances and inflating accomplishments. This seminar in giving the higher authority exactly what it wants is facilitated by our high school guidance department, documented step-by-step in innumerable pulpy publications courtesy of Princeton Review et al. and encouraged by our family, teachers, etc. After proving ourselves to be “slickest” (by getting accepted), we can continue to perform this dubious talent. Only now, having passed muster with admissions, we are playing the game on a smaller scale with our professors.

I hope my frankness does not invoke the wrath of those who grade me. But I don’t think I’m saying anything new. The grade is what is important. That’s what grade inflation is all about.

We are all at Williams to get a diploma. Okay, some students are trying to broaden their minds or some such lofty endeavor. Don’t get me wrong, I am interested in learning and all that.

I just would keep the $120,000 and read books if the whole diploma thing wasn’t requisite for employment in those fields I wish to pursue. If I’m here to get a diploma, I want the most for my consumer dollar. That means getting good grades.

As academia takes on the role of inspecting students for later use in the real world, those paying for this service are going to be more and more demanding to be labeled top quality (or rather Grade-A). Thus, we have grade inflation. If the corporations who trust Inspector Williams’s stamp of approval start getting poor quality goods, undeserved marks may need to be deflated. But Williams starts with a good product, so it probably would not have to worry about such quality controls for a while.

I am not suggesting that Williams students do not work hard. Nor am I suggesting that we do not care about our education. My point is that grades have taken on a significance apart from a measurement of academic success. Everyone can obtain good grades, as long as they understand the system. Admittance to Williams ensures they have this knowledge.

Some students are incredibly intelligent and hard working. They choose challenging courses and put forth great effort. Others students slide through their four years by choosing easy classes and playing the system to their advantage. Most of us do a little bit of both. Regardless, “everybody gets an A.”

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