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Grade inflation and teaching standards

By Scott Tibbs, May 28, 2010

A few students taking a creative writing class at IU got a surprise when they saw their final grades had been lowered at the end of the semester. The professor supervising the course decided the associate instructor was not grading according to established standards, so some of the grades changed.

The AI's grading criteria is misguided and does a disservice to her students. (More on that later.) The grades should not have been changed after the fact, however. The students have been working with Juliana Crespo for the entire semester, and they were expecting to be judged by the standards she set in her section. While under ideal circumstances all students should be graded according to the same standards across all sections, changing the standards for this particular section after the fact is not fair and does not help students learn.

Instead, this is something that needs to be handled prior to the start of the semester. It should have been very clear to the associate instructors what the grading standards should be to ensure uniform grading across the sections. If the instructors are not grading according to established standards, that should be corrected quickly. This way, no one is surprised at the end of the semester and the students are clear on what they are expected to do.

Crespo's statement about her grading standards was inappropriate. She said "You're going to get an 'A' if you put a decent amount of work in the course" and that she does not consider grades to be relevant.

So what is the point of excelling in the class and writing the best story you can if the requirement for an "A" is a decent effort? How is that fair to the students who are genuinely putting forth the best work in the class and should be rewarded with the best grade? How is it fair to the best students to get the same grade as a student who turns in a sub-par effort, even if the student did put effort into the assignment?

The purpose of a grade is not to judge effort. It is to judge quality of work. A student who literally gets an "A" for effort but isn't learning what he needs to learn and honing his skills will not be prepared for the class that builds on what he is being taught now. Worse, if the grades are inflated, then the grades become meaningless.

Outside of academia, it is not effort that will ultimately be measured in job performance. It is results. A sincere effort to learn and improve is usually taken into consideration by good employers, who will work with employees to help them do the job. Ultimately, however, completing assigned tasks according to established standards is what will judge someone's performance. It is best to learn that sooner rather than later.