Friday, March 19, 2010

Grade Inflation and Art Assessment

I was recently speaking with a colleague who is an instructor at a prestigious art school in New York. “If a student gripes about their grade, I ask them what grade they want and give it to them,” he said. “No one looks at transcripts when they hire a designer anyway, it’s all about what’s in their ‘book’ (portfolio).” This attitude about grade inflation reveals a great deal.

It is true in some fields that grades are not considered in hiring. The work in a portfolio will clearly display if the person possesses skill. It can be assumed that a candidate who exhibits outstanding samples will have grades that reflect their hard work and dedication to cultivating their talent.

Evaluating art, music, writing, and other liberal studies, can be highly subjective. Even with the use of a rubric to set criteria for objective evaluation, in questions of aesthetics, it comes down to personal opinion about the work. A student might disagree with a professor’s assessment, but should keep in mind that it is a very educated, experienced opinion based on standards of excellence in the field. When students are overly concerned with the grade they take constructive criticism as a personal affront and become defensive. They miss the point of the critiquing process; to learn from your mistakes.

My associate’s experiences are typical. Faculty members are pressured to give better grades and some give in. It may be in an effort to keep students from giving negative feedback on end of semester evaluations or on teacher-rating websites that let users post malicious comments anonymously. One disgruntled student’s remarks about their grade may not impact an instructor’s credibility with the administration or fellow faculty, but a very vocal student can sway other students away from enrolling in a course. Rather than encouraging friends to take-on a challenging course, bad mouthing the professor for strict grading policies can cause a course to be canceled due to low enrollment. This affects not just the teacher, but students who signed up for that class as well.

Students, as well as faculty, undoubtedly feel pressure from parents, employers and graduate schools. But students who receive inflated grades are being done a disservice. They either develop a distorted view of their abilities, bordering on delusions of grandeur, or live with the guilty knowledge that they did not deserve their marks and constant fear of being discovered as a fraud.

Another long-term problem with grade inflation is that it lowers the perceived quality of the education at the institution. This can happen if recent graduates with transcripts showing a high GPA are then found by their employers not to be of the caliber that their records would indicate. Over time the entire University is thought of as having low standards.

Just as a “party school” can get its reputation from the public revelry of a small percentage of the student body, if a college has a reputation for grade inflation, even excellent students who truly deserved excellent scores will be thought to be overrated.

There is one certain solution to preventing grade inflation: Faculty should never give A’s. Students should earn them.