Before I began to teach, I thought most concerns about grade inflation were silly. I still think that, but now I also think grade inflation is a big deal. Because after starting to teach at a technical college, I realized that there’s actually a real systemic problem, and the consequences are worse at lower-prestige institutions like mine. But that’s not what most people talk about when they talk about grade inflation.
Instead, talking about grade inflation comes off as old people grumbling about how easy the young ones have it. I don’t want to hear “kids these days”-style moralizing. As far as I am concerned, if I were in the mood for it, I would just read “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” as many times as necessary. And I really can’t bring myself to care that an “A” from Harvard now means what a “B” from Harvard used to mean. So why is it that I’m worried about grade inflation then?
I’m worried because at institutions like mine, grade inflation is part of a cycle that wastes students’ time and money, and makes starting their careers more of a hassle. We’re mostly preparing people for certification in trades and in health-related work. And we’re locked in a terrible positive feedback loop with the employers who hire our students, where grade inflation plays a big role. It works like this:
Putting in a bunch of extraneous requirements to be certified for a job is advantageous to the licensing body (this makes the job sound more prestigious and important). It is advantageous to people who are already working in that job (reduces the amount of people who can start working in the field, thus reducing competition). It is also advantageous to the college (more people need to take more classes and pay more tuition). It’s also very hard to push against. Arguing against increased certification requirements makes you sound anti-education (since it wouldn’t be worse overall if, say, radiation technologists were better at physics. It’s just not really worth it for them to go to school for an extra year to achieve that, for example). Thus, the requirements for licensing are continually made more strict.
As a result, a bunch of working class students looking to start careers end up taking courses in things they don’t really need to learn, but which are required for certification.
It’s in my interest, since I am an adjunct and am evaluated on it, to give them the grades they need to get into whatever programs they are going into. But honestly, totally apart from that, I don’t want to give low grades for required courses if I know that what the students are missing is not really required for people to do the work well. It seems unreasonable to stop someone from being an LPN over some arcane piece of statistics curriculum, say, when whether they are able to know the difference between a z-test and a t-test doesn’t really impact how good of a nurse they’ll be.
Or does it? I’m not a nurse, and have never held any job in the health professions. So I’m not actually qualified to answer that question. Luckily, our college’s nursing faculty have a lot of nursing experience. I went and talked to an instructor in our nursing department to find out.
They said that some math is actually really useful for nurses: they need to be able to understand proportions and do unit conversions quickly and reliably. Without that skill, they can’t do their jobs properly. But when deciding which math course would be required by the state for entry into nursing programs, it was decided (unwisely in the instructor’s opinion) to make the class statistics. Because it would be more prestigious, and also be connected with nursing research.
The instructor also gave me a textbook on nursing research. Here is the textbook’s explanation of what you should be doing when you first come up with a study to do:
These activities include reading, conceptualizing, theorizing, reconceptualizing, and reviewing ideas with colleagues or advisers. During this phase, researchers call on such skills as creativity, deductive reasoning, insight, and a firm grounding in previous research on the topic of interest.
Textbooks, man! But that’s beside the point.
The point is that I do what I can to “sneak in” unit conversion examples into my statistics class. But there are also external requirements for what I have to teach — so, I’m sorry, but these nurses will have to learn about how to perform a t-test. But if they can’t do it very well — well, now I’m pretty confident that that’s not really going to make them be worse nurses. Therefore, I am not going to let it stop them from getting into the nursing program.
And yet, as a teacher, I can’t just make up grades — I have to base grades on the work in the class. I’ve seen this having a negative effect on how courses are taught and how students learn. Because I try not to prevent people from going to their program of their choice if they put in some effort and aren’t missing anything that would be crucial to them in the profession, I have to structure a course in such a way that you can get a very good grade without knowing a very large percentage of the material. There are two ways of achieving this:
- Not teach any material the students don’t already know
- Not check whether the students have learned the material
Both approaches lead to a class focused on busywork and stop students from learning the material in the course. Which I guess would be OK according to my premises, since they don’t need it, but it’s a dishonest system and wastes the students’ time and money.
And not only is it bad, it keeps getting worse.
Employers and licensing bodies see that the grades no longer mean what they used to. Meanwhile, they still want to maintain the prestige of their profession and stop competition from new workers. Therefore, they try to tighten the licensing and employment requirements further, meaning that students now need to take even more classes, and get even better grades in them. As a result, we might be required to tailor our classes even more towards busywork and ensure that everyone can get a good grade no matter their level of understanding. But the range of grades we can work with has shrunk — instead of going between 50 and 100%, we now get to range student understanding between 75 and 100%, and then between 90 and 100% and so on. The students have to do more and more work that requires less and less understanding. They waste more and more time and end up learning less and less.
Since many students have barriers to success — many of them, for example, are single parents who also have to work nearly full time — some of them don’t end up finishing the courses the first time around and can’t enter the profession. Which is great for the licensing body, but terrible for people’s lives.
Of course, this has mostly been the standard story that the more libertarian-minded people of good faith tell about licensing requirements. The point that I want to highlight is that we can maybe combat some of this trend by combating grade inflation.