March 21, 2001 | Commentary on Education
Harvey C. Mansfield teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. And if there were a class in "how to get yourself into trouble with your bosses and your peers," he'd probably teach that, too. Because he's very good at it.
Professor Mansfield has been ticking off liberal colleagues for years with articles designed to skewer political correctness. Now he's drawn attention to a practice that's become commonplace at Harvard and other universities: grade inflation.
Mansfield began this past semester by announcing that henceforth he will give each student two grades rather than one. The first will be the grade he thinks the student earned. The second, which will go into the student's transcript, will be the higher mark he thinks the student would have received from a more generous grader.
Judging from the stellar grades received by most Harvard students these days, it appears that Mansfield may be onto something: 51 percent of the school's undergraduates have A or A-minus averages. Administrators say they just happen to have a sharp bunch of students. The man known campus-wide as "C-minus Mansfield" holds a different view.
But he's fighting a trend. For example, at the University of Illinois, A's and B's now account for 80 percent of the grades handed out, compared to just 63 percent in 1967. C's, which accounted for 28 percent of the grades in 1967, now account for only 16 percent. At Dartmouth, A's alone account for 80 percent of the grades issued.
And it's not just colleges. High-school grade point averages have climbed from an average of 3.09 to 3.26 (out of a perfect 4.0) in the last decade, even as scores on standardized tests such as the SAT have remained constant. And elementary schools seem to hand out an improbably high number of "My Child is an Honor Student" bumper stickers.
But why do teachers inflate grades? For one thing, campus budgets often are based, in part, on enrollment. In Georgia, 128,000 students attend state colleges thanks to state-financed HOPE scholarships, and students with these scholarships must maintain at least a B average to keep them. When faced with forcing students to lose their scholarships-and their schools to lose enrollment-professors say they help those who are close. Georgia professors have gone from giving A's, B's and C's about half the time to nearly 70 percent of the time in just eight years.
There's also the phenomenon of "social promotion," with elementary and secondary schools failing to hold back students who have no business moving on to the next grade. Why, college administrators ask, should we get stuck with all the remedial work?
Whatever the reason, we're losing something important here: accountability. And our colleges are losing touch with reality. The padded grades they're giving out don't help our students. They merely teach them that "the system" will accommodate them so they can slide by. Their future employers, however, won't "grade" them so leniently.
The practice of grade inflation may help explain why President Bush has drawn so much fire for proposing more standardized testing. Lax school administrators realize this means they're going to have to teach their students, and they're throwing up roadblocks.
But the problem doesn't lie with testing, or the standards it's meant to enforce. By definition, standards reflect the reasonable expectations of society. The problem is when these expectations aren't met. Do we dumb down the curriculum and dole out A's? Or do we give C-minuses, expect students to analyze their weaknesses and push them to improve?
The first way makes us comfortable. The second way makes us better.
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