Higher grades have a right to exist

Grade inflation isn't solved by using blunt changes to certain courses

An interesting discussion on grade inflation has been sparked southside recently by an article in the New York Times, which looked at the University of North Carolina’s attempts to rein in rising grade point averages. Averages have risen on average by a tenth of a point each decade since the 1960s.

That’s in the USA though. In Canada, controversies over grade inflation are more likely to happen at the course level, rather than the institutional one. There is of course the example of Denis Rancourt in 2009, who was fired from the University of Ottawa after he gave an A+ to everyone in an upper year physics course. This month, it’s the case of Mikhail Kovalyov at the University of Alberta, who has been asked to resign after letting his students know their grades were lowered over his objections. But overall, this country has been less concerned about grades being too high on a university-wide level, than about courses that are “too easy.”

Funny though that you never hear debates about the courses that are “too hard”, though they too exist. Classes where a third of the class is meant to fail, or where there is simply a crummy professor. Yet these courses are inevitable, because there is always a need to separate the wheat from the chaff, and there is always a few rotten professors in a faculty of dozens.

But an undergraduate degree requires passing dozens of courses. Some will be hard/easy/fair/unfair, and that’s part of the point. It’s a varied challenge. And when the reason for directly interfering with particular marks is only cross-section consistency as with Kovalyov, it gives credence to criticisms of universities operated as degree factories over places of open inquiry and learning, where the grades are secondary to the experience. Transparency in grading practices and internal struggles to ensure fair grading are good—but subjective wholesale modifications after the fact are a rather blunt instrument to combat a nuanced issue.

So while I don’t know enough about the particulars in the Kovalyov case to have a strong opinion, more often than not universities are trying to correct a problem that doesn’t exist when it comes to grade inflation.

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