Let's not kid ourselves. This thing called grade inflation is for real. And it is far less innocent than it appears.
If only Garrison Keillor were right. If only all the children of Minnesota were above average. Actually, Keillor's line needs to be expanded to fit these inflated times: "Minnesota, where all the children are at least above average and a solid plurality are downright excellent."
At my open-enrollment community college, we seem to be virtual miracle workers. According to recent numbers, our most common grade is an A, followed closely by the B's. Just under one-third of the grades given (earned?) are A's. Slightly over 25 percent are B's. Where does this leave the C's? The category is a shell of its once-robust self. Over the past five years, right around 15 percent of our students have settled for C's.
I say "settled for," because near the end of every semester I am visited by students concerned about their grades. Fair enough. There was a time when a key concern translated into this question: "Will I pass your course?" Today the more common query is, "Will I get a C?"
If the answer to that question is either "it's quite likely" or "yes, at best," some students will drop the course. There was a time when this stunned me, but no more. What today might be termed the "gentleperson's C" is largely gone. It has become a B instead. That C, after all, means, horror of horrors, average. Who likes to think of oneself as average?
But historically a C also has indicated that a student's work has been satisfactory. A quick glance at virtually any college catalogue indicates as much. Just as there is nothing wrong with an open-enrollment college, so there should be no stigma attached to a C from any institution of higher learning. The problem is that such a grade is no longer acceptable to an ever-increasing number of students.
This, I submit, truly is a problem. The pressure is on to make sure that our universally above-average students are rewarded accordingly. And that pressure comes from not one, but two directions.
Retention is an important issue at colleges everywhere. We must not just fill our seats; we must keep them reasonably full. There are calls to tie funding to retention rates -- and success rates. We're talking real money here. In other words, if pressure isn't coming from the student as consumer, it's coming from campus administrators and from state legislators who regard the student as a consumer.
At some level, there is also nothing wrong with this: The student is a consumer. Presumably, those classroom seats are occupied because people want to be educated. The problem is that education may well be the one thing that the American people are willing to pay for and not get.
Of course, we can contend that higher grades are a reflection of better teaching -- or conclude that lower grades are the result of poor teaching. At the risk of being dismissed as a poor teacher, I think it's at least worth mentioning that mastering a body of material and then demonstrating that mastery (or lack thereof) by way of an old-fashioned examination is growing increasingly obsolete.
In its place stand one of three alternatives: the "take home," the "do over," or the "parrot back" (as in "give me a study guide and I'll give you what you want," even though such a process has little to do with that rightly acclaimed "critical thinking").
Given all of this, it's pretty amazing that the percentage of our students landing in the A or B column isn't higher.
Can this trend be reversed? Let's hope so, because as things stand now, too many students in too many categories aren't getting a fair shake. Too often, higher grades are directly related to a lowering of expectations. As a result, legitimate A and B students can become little more than chumps, either because they worked a lot harder than was necessary or because they won't stand out as they should when it's time for decisions on scholarships, higher schooling or jobs.
In addition, legitimate C and, yes, even legitimate D and F students are being short-changed. We are simply not doing what should be part of our job -- namely, helping students figure out what they truly are good at, what they are less good at, and even what they are darn bad at, or at least not much interested in.
Change will not be easy; high grades make everyone feel good. But if grades do start falling, we will at least know one thing. We will know that the education bubble has finally burst. Since I'm an historian, not a futurist, I won't pretend to predict anything else.
But I'd like to imagine this scene: The year is 2047, and one of today's above-average students is attending his 35th college reunion. One of his former teachers looks him over and confides, "Yes, I do remember you. Today you would be a C student."
John C. (Chuck) Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.