Ask people what’s wrong in American higher education, and you’ll hear about grade inflation. At Harvard a few years ago, a professor complained that the most common grade was an A-. He was quicklycorrected: The most common grade at Harvard was an A.
Across 200 colleges and universities, over 40 percent of grades were in the A realm. At both four-year and two-year schools, more students receive A’s than any other grade — a percentage that has grown over the past three decades.
Among older graduates, figures like these usually elicit a comment involving the words “coddled,” “damn” and “millennials.” But the opposite problem worries me even more: grade deflation. It happens whenever teachers use a forced grading curve: The top 10 percent of students receive A’s, the next 30 percent get B’s, and so on. Sometimes it’s mandated by institutions; sometimes it’s chosen by teachers.
The goal is to fight grade inflation, but the forced curve suffers from two serious flaws. One: It arbitrarily limits the number of students who can excel. If your forced curve allows for only seven A’s, but 10 students have mastered the material, three of them will be unfairly punished. (I’ve found a huge variation in overall performance among the classes I teach.)