Here’s an article by the courageous Stanley Kurtz on the causes and possible cures for grade inflation. In honor of Harvey C-minus Mansfield, we have to give his analysis some thought. But we also have to remember that Harvey ended up having to give both real grades and ironic grades. The ironic (or typically high Harvard) grade is the one actually recorded, the other is a more accurate evaluation of the student’s work. Harvey ddesn’t want students penalized for taking his class. And Kurtz reminds us that a B at Harvard is a genuinely subpar grade. An unironic Harvard C-minus is vritually inconceivable, although very old people tell me it once was what a B is now.
Harvard and the other elite schools put professors at more ordinary colleges in an awkward situation. Nobody is going to think a B at my college is anywhere near as good as a B at Harvard, but a B at Harvard is not so good. So wouldn’t my ironic position have to be to give someone who would have earned a B at Harvard an A? A fair number of my majors right now could, I think, scrape by with Bs at Harvard. Some could do better still, but I’m left with no grade for them.
Another pressure comes at colleges with schools of education, which often give lots and lots of As based on the principle of mastery grading. If you perform each of the sundry tasks of the course competently, you get an A. So A doesn’t mean excellent, but adequate across the board. Education schools, of course, are all about "the culture of assessment," but that really means detailed quantitative proof of adequate achievement of all the "learning outocomes."
The great injustice of grade inflation is to the admirable, overachieving student who can’t be properly rewarded for his or her outstanding work. The result is an overemphasis on standardized national tests, such as the GRE and LSAT, which should properly be viewed as supplementary, not primary, information concerning a student’s achievement and promise.
I don’t share Mr. Kurtz’s optimism that a war against grade inflation could be won, but I urge him to join us in the trenches any try.