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05 August 2017

"Grade Inflation" as a Path to Ungrading

Cat Sidh, Flickr

At Jacobin, Ed Burmila writes about grade inflation as a symptom of the neoliberalization of education, pointing out that there is no group within contemporary higher ed for whom there is much benefit to a lowering of grades, and, indeed, there are many groups for whom a lowering of grades is at best inconvenient and at worst utterly undesireable.

This seems to me an accurate assessment, but it misses any sense of opportunity. Burmila laments the loss of meaning in grades and seems to yearn for a time when teachers were tough and gentlemen preferred Cs. There is an assumption within what he writes that grades and grade-point averages can be useful and meaningful.

I don't entirely deny that grades can mean something. But what they mean is obscured by the simplification of a grade: one instructor's C is another's B is another's D. Grades provide an alibi for us, they let us pretend we're seeing an assessment when what we're seeing is something so simplistic and reductive that it has just as much chance of being a distortion as it has of being a reflection of a person's accomplishment, knowledge, skills, or abilities.

Nobody wants to lie to students about their achievements or give them a false sense of accomplishment, and we should work hard to avoid doing so. Pretty much everybody wants students to build on their strengths and recognize their weaknesses so they can work on improving. In my experience, grades aren't a particularly effective tool for that. I've spent a lot of time and effort over the years trying to make grades meaningful, and I continue to do so, because grades are a fact of academic life for most students, teachers, and institutions. But again and again I find that the less I stress out about grading, and the less I think of grades as much of anything other than a very blunt, imprecise, summary measurement, the better I teach and the better my students learn.

Students' anxiety about grades is, to me at least, a far greater impediment to learning than grade inflation. Indeed, one of the reasons I am now a passionate convert to the church of grading contracts is because it gets rid of that anxiety: "Do this, this, and this," the contract says, "and you are guaranteed a grade of X." I'm not an anything-goes teacher. You can't pass my class and do no work. (It's rare that a term goes by when at least one student doesn't get an F from me. I also feel utterly confident that just about any teacher on the planet would give an F to those students, unless it was the teacher's policy, as it is for some, to give a grade of  "incomplete" and let the student have more time. I don't believe in that model because it puts more work on the teacher, and anyone who is not salaried is volunteering to do unpaid labor later, so I insist on ending my class at the end of the term unless there are huge extenuating circumstances like medical emergencies, etc.) But I don't see any reason we shouldn't admit that grades are one of the least meaningful, least communicative ways of measuring accomplishment.

The place we've gotten to now (in higher ed at least) is that lots of people inside and outside universities recognize that grades are hardly more accurate than astrology. Employers and grad schools recognize more and more that they can't use grades as meaningful summaries of years of work and study. (When 91% of Harvard students graduate with honors, those honors are decorative. And that's fine. It's nice to have decorations at graduation.) If you want to know if a graduate can communicate in writing, you have to look at that graduate's actual writing, not their grades. If you want to know if they can think logically, if they can research, if they can understand whatever it is you hope they understand, you have to find evidence for that beyond a GPA. Grades, which have always been subjective and always been hugely inconsistent, were never good measures of this stuff in the first place, but we pretended they were because it was efficient to do so.

Though Burmila is correct that the neoliberalization of education has led to this point, there's a seeming paradox, too: Shouldn't the neoliberal imagination desire grades to be meaningful, because the neoliberal imagination wants to reduce everything to data? Shouldn't there be some force to push against the obvious meaninglessness that grade inflation creates? But there isn't. Ultimately, neoliberalism doesn't desire accurate numbers. Datafication is more important than the precision of data. If accurate data were important, then there would be more recognition that not everything of value can be accurately reduced to data. But if the imperative of your ideology is to collect data, to turn all judgment into numerology, to treat human behavior as a math problem, and ultimately to find ways to transmute everything into finance, then you cannot admit that there are valuable things outside of data sets, or valuable things that not only can't be financialized but that are weakened or even destroyed by financialization.

Let's not fall down the rabbit hole of trying to say what is or isn't neoliberal, etc. Call it what you want, identify the forces via whatever origin story most appeals to you, the fact is that even if grades could be made consistent, accurate, and meaningful, there would still be few incentives for anybody in the current typical university in the US to grade in a way that would lead to many low scores. As Burmilla says: "Students are happy for obvious reasons. [Although some students are unhappy that other people aren't getting lower grades.] Administrators are happy that students are staying enrolled. Teachers are happy their already hefty workloads aren’t being increased further."

But grades have never been consistent, accurate, or meaningful, so the situation does not need to be a terrible one, nor need we wring our hands too vehemently. Let grades become a ritual rather than continue to pretend they're a real measure of anything. Let the prestige of the overly prestigious famous universities fall. Let students have to provide actual evidence of their learning and skills rather than pretending that a GPA tells you much of anything.

The tyranny of grades warps education and hurts students. We don't need more grading, we need more ungrading. We need students, parents, teachers, and administrators to all drop grades to a lower priority in education. Grade inflation — real or perceived — may be moving us there.

It's not that this is a utopian situation, but neither were the mythical days of the C-as-average. We can stop pining for a golden age, we can seek out meaningful ways of helping students recognize their strengths and weaknesses while improving their skills, and perhaps we can even start thinking like a neoliberal and not let a crisis go to waste.