What’s at Stake With Grade Inflation?

Truth, we’re told, is the first casualty of war. But as I hunker in my office bunker, the dull thud of history term papers landing on my desk, columns of sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden students trudging past the door, I’m convinced that truth is also the first casualty of undergraduate paper writing. It is not only the historical truths trampled in the mangled and muddied papers written by my students. More insidiously, a deeper truth also suffers. Only tatters remain of the contract, implicit but immemorial, that teachers will grade student papers fairly and honestly. This shared conviction, that the students’ level of writing can be raised only if the teacher levels with them, now seems a historical artifact.

At the start of the spring semester, as with every semester, I told my students that while this was a history course, the most important thing I could teach them in 15 weeks was not the nature of the French revolutionary tradition, but instead to be better writers. Channeling George Orwell, I told my students that slovenliness of writing leads to foolish thoughts. Referring to France’s “mission civilisatrice,” I declared that to write well is not just a crucial skill: It is also a moral duty. They could not hope to think clearly, I intoned, if they could not write clearly. Failing this, I continued, we will also fail as citizens.

As I climbed into higher dudgeon, I said I would hold them to the highest standards—that if their writing was as sloppy at the end of the semester as it was at the start, I would have failed as a teacher. And … well, you get the idea.

To be honest, I’ve mostly failed. It is not, I think, for want of effort. I urge students to hand in rough drafts. Invariably, few take me up on the offer, and those rough drafts I receive I cover in red ink. As for the first batch of papers, I’m no less generous with corrections and suggestions. And just as my comments are in red, so too is the red line of grades: A’s are rare, C’s are common. I’ve drawn the line, and I mean business!

But, to be honest, I mean mostly funny business. Many of the final papers are as garbled as the first papers. As for the good papers, they are mostly the work of students who knew how to write when they arrived. And yet, an odd alchemy begins to crackle and pop. While the tenor of my comments remains as sharp as ever, the paper grades begin to rise toward the heavens. Or, more accurately, the grading standard—the one supposedly locked in that empyrean place—begins to sink earthward.

This has little to do with the papers, and everything to do with me.

I’ve discovered I’m weaving a fairy tale that will let me sleep at night. Not only must I believe I can repair failing writing skills and push against the tides of an increasingly post-literate popular culture, but I must also believe in my relevance as a teacher. But the future of my relevance is yoked to my students’ immediate pasts in our national high schools. By the time my students reach my classes, they’ve been deeply handicapped by a secondary-school system that teaches testing, not writing, and a culture that discourages what we once understood to be thinking.

Our mad rush to testing is, of course, the perverse consequence of our laudable determination to hold schools responsible for our children’s education. But the tests do little more than transform our schools into educational Potemkin villages. Our administrators affirm the necessity of standards, but when they are not lowering the bar, they are busily stripping from their curricula a sustained and serious apprenticeship in writing. As the graduation rate becomes the bottom line for our high schools, the pressure to pass grows irresistible—this is perhaps the most decisive factor in the “grade” the schools in turn receive every year.

Is there a similar logic at work with university professors? That the “grade” we receive in student evaluations, based on the grades we distribute, determines the making or breaking of our classes? Short of transforming my upper-level history classes into writing-composition courses—a class that my history majors do not need for their major any more than my Ph.D. in history trained me to teach—I become the students’ accomplice, not their instructor, and society’s enabler, not its critic.

Yes, this means that truth is a casualty. But we must not lose sight of who is really suffering: our students. Last year the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its “report card” on the performance in 2011 of our nation’s schools. They are flunking. Less than a quarter of high-school students performed at a proficient level of writing; only 3 percent rose to an advanced level. Increasingly, professors are called upon to teach remedial English, but often in courses based on the student’s ability to write (and read) at a proficient or advanced level. Neither student nor professor is willing to confront that truth, so we join hands in ignoring it.

The result, of course, is not the shattering of the illusions fostered by our testing culture, but their reinforcement. As Orwell sighed, we are all complicit in making lies sound respectable.

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell University Press, 2010). His next book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.

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