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Lake Wobegon Pedagogy

The Fashion Institute of Technology is a college of the State University of New York, located in lower Manhattan. But like many colleges nationwide, FIT also sits on the outskirts of Lake Wobegon—that mythical town imagined by Garrison Keillor where “all the children are above average.” As of this writing, 75 percent of FIT students carry grade-point averages north of 3.00. Receiving an A or an A-minus from a FIT instructor isn’t extraordinary; receiving a C is extraordinary.

Nor is FIT an outlier in this regard. Most colleges are reluctant to make public their grade distributions. But what’s available is suggestive. Harvard, for example, regularly graduates over 90 percent of its seniors “with honors”—which requires a minimum GPA of 3.00. The average graduating senior at Emory University in 2008 took home a 3.35 GPA, with 45 percent receiving 3.50 or higher. At the University of California at Berkeley in 2006, the average undergraduate GPA stood at 3.27, with 36 percent of students earning 3.50 or above. The average GPA at the University of Georgia in 2004 was 3.25. At Brown University, for 2011-12, 53 percent of the grades awarded were A’s; 22 percent were B’s; 4 percent were C’s. At Georgetown, for the Fall 2006 semester, 55 percent of all grades awarded were A’s; 73 percent of all grades awarded were B-plus or higher; 92 percent were B or higher.

Students intuitively know what letter grades and their numerical equivalents mean. Or at least they think they know: A/4.00 means excellent or exceptional; B/3.00 means very good or well above average; C/2.00 means fair or about average; D/1.00 means poor or barely passable; F/0.00 means unacceptable or failing. Various pluses and minuses up and down the scale serve to fine-tune the message. If that’s true, however, most grades should cluster around, or slightly above, C/2.00.

But according to a 2010 study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy for Teachers College Record, based on data from roughly 200 colleges and universities, the average GPA at public colleges is 3.00; for private colleges, it’s 3.30. What students think they know about grades, in other words, is wrong. Feeling pretty good about that B you got in English Comp? Not so fast. There’s a decent chance most of your classmates took home A’s and A-minuses. Writing may not be your strength; it may actually be your weakness.

What’s needed, therefore, is a grading system more attuned to traditional grade definitions. The most straightforward fix would be for colleges to require faculty to assign grades on the bell curve—with a majority in the C range. But such a requirement raises a number of gnarly academic issues: Does it infringe on the right of teachers to set classroom standards? How would it be enforced among tenured faculty? Adjunct and untenured faculty, moreover, may worry that giving lower grades will hurt their student evaluations—and thus their prospects for full-time tenured positions.

How, then, do you balance the autonomy and interests of faculty with the rights and expectations of students? We are proposing a reality-adjusted, bell-curved system that would start with the teachers’ own grading preferences and rescale them to conform with the traditional meanings of grades. Generating such a system isn’t difficult. Class by class, you simply take the grades assigned by the teacher, recenter them slightly above C/2.00, and then jigger individual outcomes according to the distribution’s mean and standard deviation. It’s the kind of calculating Microsoft Excel eats for breakfast.

Suppose, for example, Professor Squishy gives an A to every student in his class. He’s likely telling himself, “Well, all my students are outstanding.” But what he’s really saying is that none of his students stand out. All of his students are about the same. Which means—everywhere except Lake Wobegon—they’re average. Each student in Professor Squishy’s class would therefore receive roughly a C-plus to indicate where the student ranks in comparison to his classmates. Professor Squishy could still assign A’s to his heart’s content, but the school’s computer would convert each one into a C-plus, and that would be the grade factored into the student’s cumulative GPA.

Professor Squishy represents an extreme—though not unheard of—case. But if the Rojstaczer and Healy study is accurate, college faculty nationwide are doling out A’s and A-minuses like campaign volunteers handing out political flyers. You show up and put out your hand, you get one. It’s tempting, of course, to ask, “What’s the harm of teachers blowing smoke?” But artificially inflating the egos of undergraduates has a flip side: It masks actual excellence.

For example, many schools offer specialized honors courses for students who carry high GPAs. Such courses typically involve advanced subject matter and accelerated syllabi—on the assumption that any student eligible to take the course will be able to keep up. But what if half the undergraduate population is eligible? Either the instructor will have to teach down to the level of his students, or he’ll have to fail them in large numbers. Which is the likelier scenario? (If you don’t know the answer, you haven’t been paying attention.) As honors instructors nationwide tamp down their expectations, honors courses recede into the wash of ordinary courses.

So, too, with graduation. Latin honors—cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude—have always signified academic distinction. But distinction requires the ability to distinguish. Have you really distinguished yourself from your fellow graduates if vast numbers of them are strutting across the stage at commencement with magna or summa attached to their names?

The irony, of course, is that any system that recenters grades will sooner or later render itself obsolete. Once it’s in place, faculty will naturally start to adjust their own grading policies. They’ll realize that assigning a Wobegon-preponderance of A’s and A-minuses helps no one and hurts the genuinely superior students in their class after the entire batch of grades has been adjusted downward to the C-plus/C range.

But until that day comes, colleges should consider recentering the grades assigned by their faculty. Misleading students for the sake of keeping them happy serves neither their long-term interests nor the institution’s.

Mark Goldbatt is an associate professor of educational skills and Lasse Savola is an associate professor of mathematics, both at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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