Kevin Roose ‘09.5: The case for the A

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

If newspaper columns were given letter grades, I’m pretty sure this one would get an A. How could it not? A’s The Herald reported yesterday, a full 75 percent of the letter grades given in Brown’s humanities departments last year were As, with the number of A’s in other disciplines ranging from 58 to 63 percent.

As an English concentrator, I took this as good news. While, as of this writing, it is not technically impossible to earn a bad grade in a Brown humanities class, the window of opportunity is closing quickly. (For what it’s worth, I was going to call this column “Things I Could Do To Get Cs In My English Classes,” but I ran out of ideas after “Move to Europe,” “Write All Papers in Blood,” and “Insult Professor’s Cankles.”)

Every few years, the topic of grade inflation at America’s top colleges comes up for discussion, and every few years, the pro- and anti-inflation camps trot out the same arguments. On one side are those who don’t consider grade inflation a sign of weakened academic standards or pushover professors, who assert, as Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02 did in yesterday’s Herald article, that students may simply be better prepared than they used to be.

On the other side are those who argue that students aren’t getting smarter, that severe grade inflation makes it impossible to separate the true whizzes from the merely capable, and that grade inflation in the humanities will drive less motivated students away from science and math courses. These people ask us to imagine two recent college graduates interviewing for the same position, one of whom earned a 4.0 just for showing up to history lectures, while the other spent long nights in the library to eke out a 3.5 in biochem. “Who will get the job?” they ask.

Well, for starters, neither one of them. Have you watched CNN lately? There are no jobs.

Moving on, it’s not hard to see why the idea of grade inflation rubs many people the wrong way. It smacks of injustice, of undeserved rewards and unrewarded excellence. It threatens our embedded Democratic ideal. It proved enough of a threat to Princeton’s gatekeepers of academic integrity that, in 2004, the university adopted an across-the-board grade-deflation policy that encouraged professors in all departments to give As to, at most, 35 percent of their students.

Given that Brown’s current grade imbalance dwarfs Princeton’s (even before implementing the grade-deflation policy, A’s only accounted for 47 percent of all Princeton letter grades), it’s reasonable to assume that Brown’s academic bigwigs are at least considering the possibility of following Princeton’s lead and deflating our grades in the not-so-distant future.

(Breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.)

Grade-deflation policies are well-intentioned, I’m sure, but setting a grade quota at Brown would be a mistake for several reasons.

First, Brown’s S/NC option at least partially nullifies one of the supposed benefits of a grade-deflation policy – the theory that, if you set a 35 percent limit for As in a class, the members of that class will work harder than they would otherwise. But at Brown, only a portion of the students in a given class are actually seeking letter grades, which effectively derails the competition. In a class of 100, you might only have 60 students competing for those 35 A’s. With no way to tell which of their classmates were taking the course S/NC and which were shooting for an A, grade-grubbers wouldn’t know who to sneer at during exam periods. And what fun would that be?

Second, while grade-deflation policies might allow professors to distinguish between excellent work and merely good work, it’s not clear that those distinctions ultimately matter. In the years following Princeton’s successful grade-deflation, the university boasted that its job hire and grad school placement rates remained at their pre-deflation levels. Which proves what, exactly? That employers and admissions committees aren’t really looking at grades? That other factors – test scores, personality, extra-curricular accomplishments – are more important? Opponents of grade-inflation argue that giving out too many A’s will make high GPAs meaningless. But what if they already are?

Ultimately, schools like Princeton are drawn to grade-deflation policies for one reason only: They’re embarrassed. A’s a prestigious university, having to explain that more than half of your students receive a grade that is supposed to designate “excellent” work isn’t particularly comfortable. It reeks of foul play, of old-boy cronyism and the “gentlemen’s A.” But Brown should (and may indeed) know that there’s nothing embarrassing about the work its students do. There’s nothing to apologize for when we bust our balls on a paper and are rewarded with an A. Dealing with our 75 percent A-rate in the humanities by imposing quotas might be tempting, but we have to stave it off.

At least until I graduate.

Kevin Roose ‘09.5 wrote this column in blood.