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Grades: The Currency for our Future

Updated on March 6, 2015

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle

Grades are the currency of universities, and have been for years. They are one of the best ways for providing adequate feedback on the quality of work and understanding of students. The purpose of a grading system is to provide a form of evaluation that is acceptable, and recognizable by all institutions and originations. It is the universal measurement of achievement for graduates and students. Just as the value per capita of currency in today’s world has changed, the value per capita of grades has also changed. Alexandra Achen, and Paul Courant observed that, “Continuing increases in average grades have been widely documented in many universities over the last several decades.” (Achen & Courant, 2009, p. 79) Doctor Winai Wongsurawat, professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, questions, whether the phenomenon reduces the credibility of grades, viewed by graduate schools and employers, as a signal of a graduate’s ability (Wongsurawat, 2009, p. 523). Will increasing grade inflation pose a threat to the future of our economy? That is why the focus for education should not be what a student knows, but the capability that student has to learn quickly.

According to Armstrong (2011), an author and marketing expert at the University of Pennsylvania, workers with less education have proven to be more effective than workers with more education within the same job. He alludes to the fact that grades at the university level have low relationship to long-term job performance, according to growth of several companies he has researched. Grading has become the process of applying standardized measurements on the various degrees of accomplishment in education. It has been used for centuries to sort students into categories based on their academic success. Universal grades provide outside prospects with a tool to evaluate a student’s capacity to excel in a singular subject. Over the past decades, however, the correlation between high grades and upper-level achievement has been deteriorating across US colleges and universities. Much attention has been brought forth in attempts to find the cause for this increase in grade averages, and how it will affect our future.

The major factors of a grade are tests, mid-terms and homework within colleges and higher levels of education. According to Achen (2009), “Grading well is difficult, and it is especially difficult to sustain a wide range of grades absent reliable and replicable grading criteria.”(pg. 87) Students in these upper-division classes receive a grade usually by completing their homework as a team or with as little effort as possible while still being able to complete the assignment. When little effort is spent on completing homework, little time is spent on test preparation. This is how the term brain dumping was created. Brain dumping is the act of memorizing the answers to a test merely to pass the exam. It is not a legitimate training exercise or preparation tool. Not to say that this method is ineffective for passing classes, getting good grades, or acquiring a degree; what it does is provide little confidence in a student’s ability and competency over the material. This is one of the main causes of grade inflation. Hunt (2007) explains that the student who is awarded high grades without earning them, risks poor proficiency in the workplace. The responsibility falls upon the student to actually learn the material. This is very important even regarding the manner in which we teach and how we perceive knowledge and education. Brain dumping raises the grade point averages while the level of measurable knowledge remains constant. This is one explanation as to how the standard of knowledge has remained the same across institutions.

There are many variables that go into comprising the education system from which grade point averages are created. The responsibility of reliable and accurate grades falls into the laps of many people. Students have the responsibility to complete with accuracy the assignments given to them by the instructors. This is in order for the student to retain the knowledge for future and practical use. Instructors have the task of accurately teaching the requirements given to them by the board of education to credit a passing grade. These grades are what translate into degrees for merit of a better career. The board of education reviews the critical points of each subject matter to ensure the most valuable information is being transmitted to the students. The information required by the board is voted to be the most useful and practical knowledge for a particular subject and must be taught. A circle of education is formed between these parties to protect the knowledge we have acquired over the centuries. Though all parties of this circle hold responsibility for maintaining a healthy grade point average, onto which party falls most of the blame for grade inflation? Students may be appeased the board of admissions of a university which matriculates to force the teachers to do the appeasing, but then again, students expect to be taught what they need to succeed.

In an attempt to measure the true capacity of the student’s knowledge, the United States has implemented a standardized test to be taken by all students grades K-8. This test is to determine the average understanding of each age group. The results are compared with the average grades of the given age group and dictate whether or not the grades are an accurate reflection of their learning. This is a great way to determine if inflation in grades is occurring within a school system, or across an age group. The SAT and ACT are also forms of standardized tests created to the measure the quality of knowledge one has received after secondary school. These standardized tests are what help us determine to what extent grades have inflated. Caruth declares that, “While grades are not a perfect answer to assessing student performance in a course they are still the best answer we have for evaluating students.” (2013, pg.108) What standardized testing is not able to do, is increase the knowledge of the students to accurately reflect the grades they have received if inflation is in effect.

With all tests, standardized tests are just to measure what was learned and not what they can learn. A growing concern with standardized testing is determining whether the tests are valid and accurate. Many of these tests are not taken seriously by students and can result in a low score on test results. While the results of the test will reflect a low score, the students may still receive a high grade from their instructors. This would cause a test to be invalid or unreliable. The positive correlation between good grades and high test scores translates into more degrees. To say that a grade or test is unreliable is to also insinuate that the degree made valid by those grades is also unreliable. Many of the jobs in the workplace today are specific and require training. While it is important that students receive a general knowledge and understanding of a wide variety of materials, employers would like to see the capability of a future employee. They want to know if they have the potential to become a leader of their company. Many of the students are trying to determine the true value of the education they are receiving.

Many of the jobs today require very specific skills to accomplish, and when training is needed, often it is paid for by the company. This demonstrates that even with prior education in a particular field, more training or education must be given to that employee. Regardless of how proficient the prospect maybe, they will always need training by that firm. The world today has changed significantly in information, communication, and technology. The ways of schooling and education seem to stay stagnant, for they fight for traditional knowledge to remain as the core of higher education. Though a degree defines a person as an expert of a chosen field, degrees rarely indicate that the person has experience in that field. You can graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and never have applied those principles outside of a classroom. A student could study five years and graduate with a degree in business management, but never actually had the chance to manage a business. Changes need to be made to our education system that allows graduates to build resumes for the future of our culture and economy. These resumes don’t need to be made just to demonstrate our accomplishments to others but should be made in order to ensure the quality of workers that are being supplied into the work force.

Knowledge is power, as the old saying goes, but so is money. Universities prove that there is a fight between knowledge and money as they both integrate together to create our education system. The one with power however is the one with the money. As Mark Edmundson declares, universities have turned into a commerce market where prestige and honor don’t come from those with knowledge anymore. He relates that it is the students who have the power to make changes and decide because they are the ones who are paying for the system to function (1997). In the ancient times of Aristotle, knowledge was a prized commodity. People would travel from all over to learn the secrets of the universe. The philosopher who had the most influence at any given time would also be considered the philosopher who is the most accurate, even if their teachings turned out to be inaccurate. Today the world is a fast pace busy stream of business and communication, and answers are but a click away. As a student one might feel all the answers they need are not found in a class room, but are more easily accessible from the internet. Many new schools have been formed solely based off the internet and provide convenience for the learner, and direction. It is easier to learn when you know what it is you want to learn.

Love and Kotchen (2010) agree that another cause of grade inflation is derived from course evaluations. Course evaluations are small questionnaires given to students of each class to assess the overall experience and quality of the course. It is the one time the student is given the opportunity to grade the teacher. These evaluations are a double edged sword for the student and future students. If a teacher is told that their class was relatively simple and easy to master, the teacher will be forced to make the class more difficult. Although if the student responds that the class was too hard, then the teacher might be chastened to lighten the load of future courses. No academic department or instructor wants a class to be so easy everyone passes; it shows that the information is not challenging and the students aren’t learning much. At the same time academic departments must have a high rate of success to display that their department is fulfilling their job as instructors and adequately presenting the material in a way that is easy to understand and apply. Teachers don’t want to be told that their class is too hard, and that it was extremely difficult, and neither do students. Students often maintain the neutrality of classes by stating they were just hard enough to present a challenge while still giving the merit to the teachers for providing a credible course. Grading gives power to teachers to sway these evaluations. If they continue to grade easy, students will maintain their positive evaluations of the course. The course evaluations can be used to help improve the quality of education and the materials taught in a course and are very important, but the true cause of grade inflation will remain. If a teacher wants to continue to receive good evaluations then they must make their grades relatively easy to obtain.

Universities have a reputation of proving society with graduates that have ample knowledge of their chosen field. This reputation is tarnished when the graduates have low grade point averages, or the graduating class is too small. Popov and Bernhardt (2013) have identified the conditions under which better universities set lower grading standards, exploiting the fact that firms cannot distinguish between good and bad A's. They explain that third party firms often award employees with higher GPA’s with a higher salary or a better position. This helps sway future students in to attending schools where the probability of graduating students receive better paying jobs, even if it based off the notion that their grades were inflated.

Competition between schools also factors into grade inflation. When two competing schools go head to head in any sort of competition, whether it be athletic or academic, grades tend to increase to assert dominance. Every university strives to be labeled as one of the top universities. The main purpose of college is to provide an institution where high education can be obtained, but these institutions have transformed into so much more than just a facility where knowledge is to be gained. Pressman (2007) explains the competition for students is great between universities and that universities have to appeal to all types of students in order to maintain a steady growth. He relates, “On the demand side, students insist on getting high grades. Similar to the popular view of demand-pull inflation, we can see grade inflation as a case of too many students chasing too few good jobs and too few good places in graduate and professional schools. For this reason they badger faculty for higher grades and tend to take classes from lenient graders.” (pg. 94) This helps demonstrate the capability of a college as well, if a university is said to produce graduates with an average grade point average of 3.06, it demonstrates the colleges aptitude to teacher better than other competitors.

A new system of measuring academic success needs to be implemented in order to ensure that the currency of our future isn’t left inflated. A focus on the potential a student has to learn and acquire knowledge is more important to our culture and our economy. Although I agree that having knowledge is just as important as the ability to gain knowledge, the A-F grading system is not an accurate enough depiction of having knowledge. If teachers wish to receive praise and incentives for having successful students, and students continue to focus on passing the next exam, then our education systems turn over mediocrity into society. What grade inflation really boils down to is the consistency of a given grade across all universities. An A should be an A no matter where, or who it was received from. The articles mentioned above all have one thing in common and that is a standard for grading needs to be met for all institutions of higher education. After all, the ultimate goal of a student is to become employed and utilize the skills obtained from their institution of learning.

Grade inflation will be the cause of an economic collapse. Although there is no clear reaction as to how grade inflation will affect the monetary economy, it is apparent that it will cause the economy of academics to fail. There needs to be a change in the way we present and measure knowledge. A reform for schools that will focus not just on the final grade or passing an exam, but a school that prepares students to use their abilities and skills acquired through learning to produce for the country as a whole. We must all contribute equally in order for this society to function, and inflating grades will only cause harm to what our true potential as a country can reach. Therefore a standard for grades must be implemented across all universities and colleges, and a focus on creating malleable students who can learn must be given so that we can start preparing the workforce from an early age.


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