by Julia Steiny
When my sons and I visited Columbia University, the presenter first warmly welcomed the freshman wannabees, and then she got brutally blunt with us. Back when we, the parents, had applied to college, say 25 years earlier, about 3,600 students applied for Columbia’s 1,000 seats. These days, more like 36,000 applicants vie for those same 1,000 seats.
Do the math. The competition is vicious. On paper, an applicant had better look perfect before even dreaming of entrance to one of the king-maker universities — straight “A”s, perfect scores.
Also during those 25 years, the education industry went bonkers for metrics — the points, grades, SATs and so forth. Many students demand perfect grades, whatever their performance. And parents with money get tutors, private schools, and lawyers to ensure no “C” is ever recorded.
The problem persists in colleges because students might one day want to get into the best medical, law, business schools.
During those 25 years, teachers went on the defensive. They fashioned academic expectations into checklists, called rubrics, with mathematical calibrations so precise that a grade could withstand full-on legal scrutiny, if challenged. God knows what checklist might prove the excellence of, say, Pride and Prejudice or the Mona Lisa. Still, teachers risk a fight when they hold their students to rigorous standards or worse, make judgment calls. Of course, real life is going to be full of judgment calls, but we’re not preparing the kids for the high standards of future employers, for example.
To keep the peace, teachers give inflated grades. “Excellence” is the norm and not the exception. Everyone gets an “A,” a certificate and a trophy. Forget the true self-esteem kids gain from mastery, persistence and rigor.
As such, we’ve virtually killed off the gift of meaningful academic feedback. Kids rake in “A”s and “B”s and then bomb the standardized tests. Everyone rails about the tests, but few mention the praise given to mediocre work. Not being honest with the kids is no favor to them.
Bring back a more utilitarian “C.”
Back when competition for college wasn’t as vicious, a “C” was not a deal-breaker. If you danced with the jazz ensemble, volunteered at the cerebral palsy teen center, and were generally a terrific student, the occasional “C” (in math, to be entirely autobiographical) was evidence of human fallibility, individuality or other interests. The gold standard of the time, “well-rounded,” might include being talentless in a given subject, or bored to death or quarreling with that teacher.
A musician can play every note of a piece correctly and still do an abysmal job of it. That’s a “C.”
“C” signified compliance with the requirements, and that’s all. It should again. If all those boxes on the rubric checklist get checked, it’s a “C.” You did your homework, turned in the project on time, passed the quizzes, and got to class regularly. By doing just that, you probably got enough information to advance you to the next class in the sequence. But both you and your teachers need to get real about your level of commitment.
Less than compliance are the “D”s and “F”s. Many kids in K-12 are disinclined even to comply with requirements, and this is a huge problem, but for another day.
Good work from kids who are motivated, jumping in with both feet, should get “Bs.” As long as they give it their all and complete requirements, students can still have “B”s even if they’re wrong about their conclusions or their science experiments go awry. My teachers were reliably excited when we gave them evidence of having taken the subject to heart, in almost any way. Trying boosted grades, so it was worth weaving the subject’s information into our thinking, perhaps our lives, in ways that were unique. It showed we were learning.
In the best of all possible Academia, students would be swimming in “B”s.
Assuming the course material is really suited to their learning level and that they actually can comply with the requirements, all we need is students’ best effort and a bit of themselves.
“A”s should be highly reserved, not showered on the entitled like balloons at a political victory. Yes, they are overly-granted to the super smart and super diligent, whom we used to deride as “grade-grubbers.” But much more gratifying were those “A”s when your best efforts also happened to produce truly wonderful work. Next to the red-inked letter itself, a happy teacher crowed about the work’s originality, passion, depth of research, vivid descriptions, or clever application. That’s an “A.”
Reverting to more rigorous grading systems would revive academic feedback. Kids live in a real world of diverse interests, talents and inspiration. Let’s be honest with them. Let them strive. Let them know when they’ve fallen short or think they’ve pulled a fast one. As it is, we’re afraid to have a conversation about excellence or ideals lest someone’s feelings get hurt.
More importantly, grade inflation courts laziness, mediocrity and entitlement. Compliance is by no means excellence.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.