The skills–grades gap

We’ve all heard gripes about grade inflation.

We’ve all heard gripes about college students’ lack of basic skills and study habits.

How is it that those two conditions co-exist?

Letter A made from a balloon illustrates article on grade inflation

That’s the question Donald Hurwitz, senior executive in residence at Emerson College, explores in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe this week.

I don’t think many people in education have stopped to ask that question.

If you read Mary Alice McCarthy’s recent  influential piece in The Atlantic about America’s love affair with the bachelor’s degree, you might have noted the anecdote about her nephew who  couldn’t march with his college class because he was three credits short.

His adviser pointed out that he had taken the same economics course twice—one year apart. My nephew hadn’t noticed. When his exasperated parents demanded an explanation, all he could offer up was that the class had been taught by a different professor, and held in a different room. He got a B both times around.

That anecdote illustrates the problem.

Both times the nephew took the economics course he got a B, but he didn’t learn enough to recognize the material the second time around.

The B for not learning is what appalls Hurwitz.  He says:

Undifferentiated grades suggest a failure to engage with students, to acknowledge differences. Very high, undifferentiated grades make it easy not to ask, why? If the fault lies with students’ attitudes or abilities, shame on teachers; in not demonstrating how discerning judgment is exercised, they fail to equip students to determine how seriously to take their schooling and themselves, to wonder what in the situation they are responsible for. They are deprived of the means and reasons to ask: Did I work hard enough? How much should I care? Does this subject matter to me?

In the end, the solution comes down to teachers.

Hurwitz concludes:

Failure to engage, to acknowledge differences, to own up to discerning judgments of others, permits students to do likewise, and it undermines the very idea of a community of learning.

Lick the grading problem, Lollipop

When students are just beginning to learn to write, they write poorly and deserve poor grades. Getting poor grades may discourage them from learning to write well enough to get better grades. On the other hand,  they may misunderstand a high grade for effort as a grade for skill.

What’s a teacher to do?
Section of grading rubric for content

I prefer to drop all grades students earn before they achieve competence on three formal writing assignments in a row.  Educational administrators, however,  don’t always share my opinion that counting students’ learning against them is as unfair as telling a basketball team it can’t be league champion because it lost its first three games of the season.

When I can’t drop pre-competence scores, the least unsatisfactory solution I’ve found is this:

  1. Maintain a consistent grading standard for the year, so students are always aiming at the same target.
  2. Track progress toward a goal of competence.
  3. Give students plenty of opportunities to write so a few poor grades don’t count heavily.
  4. Raise the total point value of writing assignments as you go through the year while giving the same proportional weight to the various writing elements. If you choose to count the content (the ideas, their organization  and development) worth 60% of the points, keep that percentage regardless of whether the assignment value is 50 points or 500 points.
  5. Give some non-grade rewards for improved work, especially if the improvement doesn’t make a big, immediate impact on the grade. I used to staple penny lollipops to papers to recognize improvement. It was trivial and silly, but my college students loved the unexpected surprises.

Have you found something that’s less unsatisfactory than my fall-back position?


A version of this article appeared in Writing Points for  October, 2008  ©2008 Linda Aragoni

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