Grade Inflation or Resignification?

Recently a colleague drew my attention to a New York Times article on college grading. The article begins by asking: “if everybody in the class gets an A, what does an A mean?”

Exhibit A in the article is Andrew Perrin, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina (UNC), who is “working to fight grade inflation.” In his opinion, “An A should mean outstanding work; it should not be the default grade.” By comparison, average college grade point averages (GPAs) have been rising for decades. At UNC, for instance, the average GPA has climbed from 2.49 in 1967 to 2.99 in 1999 to 3.21 in 2008.

A committee that Professor Perrin leads is working with the UNC registrar “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts.” Reflecting on their progress, Professor Perrin notes: “It’s going to be modest and nowhere near enough to correct the problems… But it’s our judgment that it’s the best we can do now.”

The irony of this comment is hard to escape. Apparently, even someone for whom an A is a mark of excellence finds it necessary in practice to proceed on the basis of work that falls far short of that standard. In other words, sometimes good enough — or even mediocre work — may be the best possible outcome. It also highlights how evaluation is perhaps best left internal to those engaged in the work itself.

By comparison, when subjected to external evaluation, clashes are likely. For instance, I wonder how Professor Perrin would feel if his Dean gave him a C (or gasp, even a D or F) for his efforts come annual review time? Or should he instead get an A, in consideration of the efforts he made on this difficult subject?

Although I can sympathize with the problem — a clash over evaluative standards — for me it is not clear that some kind of “deflation” or “revaluation” is the antidote. And these tensions are at the heart of my ambivalence over whether “grade inflation” is a problem worth worrying about, at least as currently framed. In the real world — ie, in practice — collective outcomes are never simply the aggregates of individual efforts. A team of A students or B students or C students may or may not accomplish great things, but regardless, it will have little (perhaps nothing) to do with their college grades.

This approach — of providing “extra information” — is problematic for me on a second level. Conceiving of grades as some kind of “information” space, misses out on what may be the root problem, namely one of meaning. If my premise is correct, then the crisis is not one of grade inflation but of grade signification. What do grades signify? In what ways are they meaningful? Are they a mark of adequacy? Exceptionalism? Anachronism? No amount of extra information can answer these questions. Perhaps the time for grading has even come and gone in some situations? For instance, in the context of a class like business ethics, the idea that “I” might grade “you” is anathema to fostering ethical discourse. And yet, universities require that grades must be given.

In a world of one best way, perhaps grades were useful. But in a world where the destination is in the making even as the journey unfolds, what counts? Indeed, what might a “post-grading” grading scheme look like?