Lower Your Grading Scale, Raise Your Standards (part 1)

Raise the bar by lowering it

As a professional in higher education for almost two decades and one who routinely sees first-year incoming freshmen on a regular basis, one of the things that bothers me more than most is the idiotic notion that having a grading scale with high % thresholds for grades equates to ‘higher standards’.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had one of these students tell me—with legitimate pride—that THEIR school has ridiculously high standards because you must score a 95% or above to get an A.  They honestly believe they’re more prepared for college, they received a better HS education and they’re more driven than ‘other students’…blah, blah, blah…insert more ‘above average’ traits here.  Odd thing, their hometown is almost always postmarked “Lake Wobegone”.

In truth, such a grade scale cripples students and does infinitely more harm than good.

Grade scale evolution

Most grading scales have evolved over the years—(oh, for that time when there were just letter grades without the+/– scales)—usually a typical 90, 80, 70 (sometimes lower), 60 and 50 for the normal letter grades earned in a classroom.  Then, faculty nationwide idiotically decided to adopt scales that included the +/– grades.  I say idiotically, because I was part of a faculty body that decided to do this (I objected then, as I do now) and I saw first-hand the unintended consequences of such a short-sighted decision.  The number of students on the inflection point of some grade cutoff rose exponentially.  So now, almost EVERY student complained about getting a B and not a B+ (or obviously some variant)…and they were always “that close”.  When you hear college faculty whining about the number of students who complain about their final grade and how ‘close’ they were to some mythical better grade that would certainly validate their existence as a student and a human being, tell them to keep quiet—that wound was self-inflicted.  If they weren’t part of a faculty body that changed a grade scale, then they were students with one, and I’ll bet they whined every time they were close to a better grade.  Karma being what it is and all.

So why do I say that an artificially high grade scale cripples students?  Let’s have a look at that, shall we?

A percent scale is a random construct!

Think about this for a minute.  If a calculus course required students to get 96% of the questions right for an A, but the exam asked you to fill in a 10×10 multiplication table—don’t you think most students older than about ten could reasonably do that?  Of course they could!  By the same token, if you asked a group of first graders to name the current 100 US Senators and set the threshold of an A at JUST 10%, how many of them would “earn” an A?  If you’re being intellectually honest, how many people on the planet could do this (I can’t)?  These examples, while certainly extreme and bordering on hyperbolic, illustrate the point that a % scale is nothing more than an artificial construct.  But these two examples CAN be used properly to illustrate what truly IS wrong with setting this artificially high grade scale.  Just because the calc students ace their test (and all get A’s) while the first graders score a 1 or 2% (MAYBE) on theirs does not mean the calc students are brilliant while the first graders are idiots.  To the contrary…A calc student unchallenged by such an easy exam will mentally disengage from the topic (because they don’t need to expend additional mental energy to figure out what they did wrong) while a first grader might actually delve into the topic a bit more after receiving a (likely) dreadful exam grade.  While that example sort of scratches the surface, let’s delve a little deeper.

Terrified of missing even ONE question!

This is the most insidious consequence of an artificially high grade scale…the inability of a student to accept even ONE answer as being wrong.  They’re more terrified of getting the wrong answer than they take joy in knowing the correct one.  THIS is the crux the argument against an artificially high grade scale—students are terrified of being wrong because being wrong “just once” means their grade likely suffers.  They’re more concerned about their grade than they are in learning the material.  I freely acknowledge that NOTHING in the previous sentence has changed about students since the beginning of time…However! The two topics don’t need to be mutually exclusive.  We need to alter the “carrot–stick”, “chicken–egg” or “cart–horse” paradigm to integrate them—make them symbiotic, not ‘one before the other’.  Only then, when learning and grades stand upon equal footing (and trust me, students will initially resist that paradigm shift) will true learning begin.

70 % Fail Rate = Hall of Fame

Sports offer a pretty good metaphor for this change.  Baseball/softball players receive praise for hitting above .300; if you do that in MLB for more than a decade, your name gets mentioned in a sentence with the word Cooperstown.  That threshold means a batter actually FAILS 70% of the time…they get it wrong 70% of the time.  Baseball players pour over scouting reports to improve—they take that failure (thinking fastball but they’re thrown a curveball or thinking a pitcher will waste a pitch with the count 0–2 but he actually gets a fastball down the middle) and try to improve.  Students in academics don’t think this way—because they’re not ALLOWED to think like this.  ANY mistake means their grade suffers—so they aren’t afforded the luxury of making one in the first place.  Miss one question out of 20 and you’re at 95%, and risking your precious A.  Miss two questions, and now you’re suddenly in the B+ territory.  Cue the shrieking and hand wringing as students (and their parents) try to calculate the infinite amount of damage that does to their GPA, their potential for college acceptance and their potential for leading a productive life.

Part two will continue this thought process and provide some suggested solutions.

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