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What’s at Stake With Grade Inflation?

May 15, 2013 by

grade inflationBy Robert Zaretsky –

Truth, we’re told, is the first casualty of war. But as I hunker in my office bunker, the dull thud of history term papers landing on my desk, columns of sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden students trudging past the door, I’m convinced that truth is also the first casualty of undergraduate paper writing. It is not only the historical truths trampled in the mangled and muddied papers written by my students. More insidiously, a deeper truth also suffers. Only tatters remain of the contract, implicit but immemorial, that teachers will grade student papers fairly and honestly. This shared conviction, that the students’ level of writing can be raised only if the teacher levels with them, now seems a historical artifact.

At the start of the spring semester, as with every semester, I told my students that while this was a history course, the most important thing I could teach them in 15 weeks was not the nature of the French revolutionary tradition, but instead to be better writers. Channeling George Orwell, I told my students that slovenliness of writing leads to foolish thoughts. Referring to France’s “mission civilisatrice,” I declared that to write well is not just a crucial skill: It is also a moral duty. They could not hope to think clearly, I intoned, if they could not write clearly. Failing this, I continued, we will also fail as citizens.

As I climbed into higher dudgeon, I said I would hold them to the highest standards—that if their writing was as sloppy at the end of the semester as it was at the start, I would have failed as a teacher. And … well, you get the idea.

To be honest, I’ve mostly failed. It is not, I think, for want of effort. I urge students to hand in rough drafts. Invariably, few take me up on the offer, and those rough drafts I receive I cover in red ink. As for the first batch of papers, I’m no less generous with corrections and suggestions. And just as my comments are in red, so too is the red line of grades: A’s are rare, C’s are common. I’ve drawn the line, and I mean business!

But, to be honest, I mean mostly funny business. Many of the final papers are as garbled as the first papers. As for the good papers, they are mostly the work of students who knew how to write when they arrived. And yet, an odd alchemy begins to crackle and pop. While the tenor of my comments remains as sharp as ever, the paper grades begin to rise toward the heavens. Or, more accurately, the grading standard—the one supposedly locked in that empyrean place—begins to sink earthward.

via What’s at Stake With Grade Inflation? – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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