I’ve been getting nasty e-mails from some Dartmouth alumni about our effort to stop the pernicious effects on grade inflation.  Their arguments are effectively that every Dartmouth student should receive all A’s so that all Dartmouth students look great when they apply for admission to Medical/Law/Graduate school.  

Their reasoning is that if Dartmouth students get lower grades, they will be at a disadvantage on paper, relative to students from all the other schools who give high grades to low performing students.  Apparently, they think we’re caught in some bizarre prisoner’s dilemma.  On it’s face, this position has absolutely no regard for the actual education that Dartmouth students receive.  

We science faculty get this a lot.  The biggest complaint one will hear from many students about introductory biology and chemistry courses are that they are “weeder” courses.  By “weeder” these students mean that the course is deliberately designed to flunk them personally.  It is of no consideration to them that many students do well in them.  To hear many of them talk, you’d think I took the exams for them and purposefully did poorly so that they would get a lower grade.  

What is my responsibility as an educator?  Is it my job to make everyone look as good as possible to get into Medical School, or is it my job to offer the best education possible to every student to prepare them for Medical School?  Or graduate school?  Or whatever they want to do with their lives?  These are decidedly not the same thing, and in fact they are antagonistic (for just two issues see here and here).  Besides, who should go on to these more advanced training endeavors other than those who are most committed to them anyway?

When people hear about “combating grade inflation”, they immediately hear “give everybody lower grades.”  In their minds, this means nobody gets A’s anymore in anything.  Fundamentally, grade inflation has one of two causes: either the rigor of courses decreases over time relative to the quality of the students (either the students getting better or the courses getting worse), or faculty are giving ever-higher grades to low-performing students in a class.  It’s really some of both, but either are bad for students’ educations, particularly the education of the lower-performing students who need it the most. Should we sacrifice everyone’s education so low-performing students will have a higher grade in a class?  That’s the question I have.

Moreover, here’s what the committee I’m a part of at Dartmouth is advocating for each class as the remedy to “combat grade inflation”: all high-performing students get high grades, all intermediate-performing students get intermediate grades, and all low-performing students get low grades in a class.  

Is that unreasonable?

Also, we have absolutely no interest in mandating any sort of grade distribution for anyone.  Our plan is simply to make faculty justify the grades they give based on the academic standards they set in their classes, and then hold faculty accountable for those standards and those grades.  If we fix the fundamental educational problems that are the causes of grade inflation, the grades will take care of themselves.  

And everyone will get all the A’s they should get.