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Abolishing Average 

Grade creep in college has made us all resemble Lake Wobegon

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It's that time of the year. I'm not referring to Christmas season, although Christmas may be an apt metaphor (more on this later); I'm referring to the ending of the academic fall semester. Across the country in Higher Educationland, this week is known as "finals week." After finals come grades. And it's those grades that college students are stressing over — stress made all the more intense because of that term paper. (You know — it should have been completed two or three weeks ago, but wasn't.)

Professors typically provide a study guide and set time aside during the last week of class for review. And it is on that day that we get the usual questions: "Do you grade on a curve?" "How long do you want my essay question answers to be?" "What about my term paper — how many words?" (The word count, of course, had been provided in the syllabus.) Then comes my personal favorite: "What do I need to do to get an A?"

Last week, when asked this question by one of my seemingly ever-younger freshmen, I answered indirectly: "You know, I was just chatting about this with a colleague. He told me that he has become more traditional about grading — more reliant on the old standards curve — lots fewer A's. He told me that he is now giving out maybe four A's in a class."

A moment of shock and awe: "What's his name? I sure don't want to take a course from that professor. Only four A's!"

I then tried to explain the standard curve — 10, 20, 40, 20, 10. The gasps were audible: "Only 10 percent A's!" responded one of the truly shocked. Another followed with, "Forty percent C's; who would do that?"

Then, a surprise: the student in the back row, on the right side of the room (a very bright student by any standards), shot back: "Look, a 'C' just means AVERAGE!"

"So how do you grade?" asked another student, no doubt concerned that he could be dealing with a teacher who might actually believe that some students were — horrors — average. "I use a standard curve on my first pass through, then I correct for distortions."

"How do you do that?" he asked.

"Well, I then go through again and recalculate based on 90 percent and over being an A, 80 percent and over a B and so on. Say you have a 92 percent average but 20 percent of the class has over a 90 percent average; you will still have earned an A."

About this time several other students weighed in: "I deserve an A because I study so hard." And a corollary: "What about the effort we put in?" This led the student in the back row to come back yet again to his earlier point: "C means average!"

I thought I'd try a different tack just to put "average" in a somewhat different light: "I graduated from a public high school that used a numerical grading system far tougher than what I use. Try this on: A equals 95 to 100 percent; B equals 89 to 94 percent; C equals 83 to 88 percent; D equals 75 to 82 percent. Anything below 75 percent, and you flunked. Forget 'C,' you flunked."

This drew not only more gasps but looks of disbelief.

Grade creep is what we call it in Higher Educationland. Recent articles on this phenomenon focus on grade creep at Harvard, where it seems no C's are permitted — not even that many B's.

It's kind of like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon: "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average."

It's just that the "above average" would seem, nowadays, to be mostly about esteem building. Grades for "working hard." Speaking of Christmas, it's kind of the "I've been good" argument.

But do grades really tell us all that much anyway? My brother matriculated at Dickinson College during the late '60s and was a member of Phi Delta Theta (kicked off more college campuses than any other fraternity). His house set a record with 59 consecutive quarters below the college average GPA. Yet his "animal house" of underachievers ended up producing an orthopedic surgeon, an ophthalmologist, five judges, one president of Citibank Netherlands and the American Chamber of Commerce Netherlands, one CFO of Waste Management. Inc., one environmental author, one Assistant U.S. Attorney, one director of curriculum for a large public school system, one director of litigation for a large insurance company, one president of a commercial real estate firm, one college professor, one deputy general counsel of a federal agency (my brother) and others including schoolteachers, state employees and private practice attorneys.

Maybe the trick is to get beneath the grades and figure out what really turns students into successful people. But in the meantime, ought we not try to avoid diminishing the efforts of my student in the back row, the kid who really is above average?♦

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