A for effort… or whatever

How do you reward exceptional work when “good enough” is good enough for an A?

How do you reward exceptional work when “good enough” is good enough for an A?

This conundrum is a strictly modern problem, born in elementary schools and carried through all the way to institutions of higher learning. Students who do the bare minimum receive top marks for their efforts, as long as they’ve fulfilled the requirements of their assignment. Mediocrity has become the mark of the honor roll, with more and more A’s being given out every year. And for those whose work is truly exceptional, what reward is there but the same mark given to the student who threw together his paper at 7 a.m. the morning it was due?

Coddling and grade inflation has steadily increased over the last few decades, to the point that it has become an expectation in many students’ eyes that good grades will just be handed to them. The mean grade point average (GPA) in American universities has risen at a rate of .1 points per decade, from 2.52 in the 1950s to 3.11 in 2007. Middle and high schools are even worse. West Potomac High School in Washington has even done away with failing grades entirely; students receive “incomplete” grades that they can later replace with letter grades without so much as a mark on their transcript.

If this trend continues, America is going to become a nation of high scores, low expectations and even lower qualifications. It needs to end now.

Troy Wahl, a graduate student and TA in the chemistry department of Portland State University, taught secondary education for a few years between degrees. He says a multitude of factors lead to pressure to give good grades. “There’s pressure from parents, principals and district officials,” Wahl said. “Teachers are often evaluated based on the grades they give.”

Teachers aren’t the only ones evaluated based on these grades. The prestige of a school is measured by the quality of its students, and that quality is determined by the students’ grades.

Postsecondary institutions such as PSU are far from exempt from these pressures. I myself have seen tests curved so severely that 60 percent constituted an A. What would normally border on failure became the mark of a “well prepared” pupil. Students seek out the “easy” professors—the ones who grade on whether you do the required work, not the quality of work you do, the ones who allow mediocrity to set the standard—the “A for effort” professors.

Dr. Carl Wamser, professor in the department of chemistry at Portland State, has taught for 40 years (26 of which have been spent at PSU), and isn’t sure why students are so stressed about grades now, though he has noticed more students seeking higher grades. After 40 years of teaching, he’s become quite familiar with the differences between excellent and average work.

Wamser, unlike other instructors, does not curve his exams. Instead, he pre-curves the class grades. “I like the concept of an absolute scale,” Wamser said. “If everyone can do excellent work, I’m fine with giving everyone A’s.”

Wahl agrees with this sentiment. “In my classes, I try—not always successfully—to reward exceptional work,” Wahl said. He sees grade inflation as a serious problem and tries to combat it in his classrooms. “If grades are inflated, you can’t tell how well people know the material. You don’t know how well they’ve learned it.”

But more often than not, students nowadays are graded on the basis of how well they do what they’re told, not whether they know the material they’re supposed to be learning. “It’s a system that encourages a factory worker mentality,” Wahl said. “You go to work, you do your job, you don’t say no. People just do as they’re told. They need to be judged based on the quality of the work they do, not simply that they do it.”

That quality is falling with every increase to the average GPA of the nation’s universities. The trend of grade inflation needs to stop before America’s students fall behind the rest of the world, if they haven’t already. Top marks need to be reserved for exceptional work. And students need to realize that just doing the minimum isn’t enough.

After 40 years in education, Wamser has developed his own opinions and philosophy. He doesn’t like to make his students compete with each other. Instead, he says, “I would like them to compete with the standard of excellence.” ?