Inflation, Grades, Education, Capital

SEATTLE — Is it time to move beyond grades? That was the question considered — largely in the affirmative — at a workshop Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It may seem counterintuitive to think that this is a time for colleges to consider giving up grades. Many college administrators feel that accreditors are breathing down their necks, demanding more and more evidence of student learning. With the economy falling apart, parents want to be assured that their children are learning something. And the vast majority of colleges award grades.

But when organizers of the workshop had audience members describe their experiences with grading, the closest they came to a fan was an associate provost who admitted that he saw grade inflation as completely out of control and said that for more students at his and similar institutions, the grade-point average range is around 3.4 to 3.8. It seemed that everyone else in the room had been motivated to attend by their sense that the system isn’t working: Other academic administrators who said grades had become meaningless. A registrar who said that she was struggling to understand the apparent inconsistencies in faculty members’ grades. A professor who tells his students that “grades are the death of composition.” Another said: “Grades create a facade of coherence.”

Inside Higher Ed, “Imagining College Without Grades,” Scott Jaschik

I am always fascinated by discussions about grades because they are often laced with revelatory contradictions. There’s a certain sort of academic (who probably is simply saying out loud what most think) that will tell students, “grades don’t matter; what matters is learning.” Interestingly, these same academics often protest the loudest about grade inflation and are the most resistant to new assessment methodologies. Grade matter because they have exchange value.

You can use them for all sorts of things from getting out of going to school (in High School) to getting into a good college. They are a form of cultural capital that can often be directly converted into financial capital in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans. Like everything else that has exchange value in our culture, grades can benefit anyone but in practice they benefit the already privileged most.

Grades help to limit and shape access to educational resources of all kinds; like all forms of capital, the more you have, the easier it is to accumulate. Eliminating grades, then, could potentially open up these resources to more people. It’s not hard to imagine a college admissions system, for example, without standardized tests and grades, in which schools would try to create the most heterogeneous and so productive learning community possible.

You can be sure that the community would include students who once would have been excluded because they got bad grades. If qualitative assessments– portfolios, essentially, in one form or the other– were ubiquitous enough and ‘fine-grained’ they could be used to create classes in which a variety of learning styles and achievements reinforced and amplified each other. It sounds Utopian, but I don’t think that makes it impossible.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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