January 23, 2005

Inflate Away!

Okay, I'll admit, I've never understand the problem with grade inflation. Sure it seems hokey and filthy, but doesn't it all get recalibrated eventually? Here's what I mean. Let's say there was no grade inflation, and professors gave out A's for outstanding work, B's for great work, C's for average work, and so on. If everyone agreed to and understood this standard, then we'd all know—and by "we" I mean employers, graduate schools, peers who listen to the kid brag about his GPA—that 2.0 means you're an average student, 3.0 means you're really quite smart, while 4.0 means you're hot shit.

Not let's start inflating. A is for outstanding work, A- is for great work, B+ is for average work, B is for mediocre work. Again, eventually everyone's going to catch on, and a 4.0 GPA still means hot shit, a 3.5 GPA will mean you're kind of smart but not all that smart, 3.0 means mediocre, etc. etc. Unless everyone's getting an A in every single class, there's still a distinction to be made.

In a given class, two kids may get A's even though one kid worked much harder than another. So in that sense, as Andrew Samwick says, the distribution of grades really is compressed. But over a full college lifetime—36 courses or so—the smarter (or, okay, we won't say "smarter," but "more classroom-adept") kid will likely get A's more consistently, no? And the difference between a 4.0 and a 3.8 will be much more significant than it once was.

Anyways, Professor Samwick has some more smart thoughts on this—and isn't quite so cavalier about inflation. As a bit of additional anecdotal experience, though, I didn't think the standards at Dartmouth varied that much from department to department. I majored in both English (which you would expect to be inflated and fluffy) and Mathematics (supposedly cold and ruthless), and never felt like I earned an easy A or an unfair B+ or what have you. Plus, this stuff sort of depends. Kids gravitate towards departments where they're likely to excel. I had an intensely difficult time in my Computer Science classes—spending all-nighter after all-nighter in the lab—when some people could just crank out code. By contrast, some people just don't get literary criticism. So guess where we end up spending most of our time?

Continue reading "Inflate Away!"
-- Brad Plumer 5:24 PM || ||