With learning, grades fail

by Beacon Staff • April 22, 2009

How does Emerson, and virtually every academic institution, measure education? Grades. Upon looking at a grade, one knows how a student has grown in his or her critical thinking, recall of basic and complex theories, collaborating across disciplines, persuasive oral and written skills, ability to access and analyze information and turn that information into insight, etc. All from a single letter grade.

I'll bet this troubles many more people at Emerson than just me. A grade's assessment of my learning is a tenuous, unhealthy misnomer. The B I receive in dance class isn't commensurate to the B I receive in post-colonialism. Aside from their inaccuracy, the Emerson faculty task force recently found another problem with grades: inflation.

The revelation of grade inflation at Emerson College-a whopping 49.8 percent of 2007 grades were A's-has gotten some students and faculty thinking professors should grade tougher. This is wrong. The answer to better education is not to make it harder to get good grades. This solution is like trying to cure sickness with sugar: it's tasty, but no real improvements are made.

Why? Grade inflation is a symptom of a deeper, systemic sickness: frankly, grades don't guarantee a damn thing about educational quality. They are a relic of an older American mentality-of the industrial era-rating students as they pass through college, much like Model-T engines were given stress tests before being rolled off the assembly line. All of us, students and faculty alike, share in the public secret that learning has little to do with "doing well in school."

Grade inflation is reportedly a problem because, as noted by Professor Thomas Cooper in a April 9 Beacon article, "it distracts from excellence, which is important for the college's reputation and credibility." I think it's a problem because it shows the old educational template, like the American auto industry, is losing relevance. Grading systems that apply bell curves, letter-grade caps and other formulas function more to assign students to grades than grades to students.

With this broken system on our hands, we need to remember the purpose of education: preparing students for the world beyond it.

Success should not, and cannot, be measured by an averaged class GPA. As seen by talk of tougher teachers, GPA is easily manipulated. Emerson's success can only be determined by students' performance beyond college, outside the college's direct control. Because once we are out of college and in the world beyond it, we will not use our grades. Our employers will hire us based on our abilities. We will use the proficiency, understanding and knowledge cultivated in us by teachers. On this rests the reputation and credibility of the college. If that is unmeasurable, it is at the fault of the raters, not the college.

Emerson: don't tinker with a sinking grading system-try stepping beyond it. Rather than buttress their perceived importance, recognize how artificial they are. In a class of 20, there will very rarely be exactly four A's, 10 B's, four C's and two D's. Affixing grades to an arbitrary standard only pours water on an already drowned man.

As for students, I can't help but think we are the winners under the graded education system. We've made it through 12-plus years of education and understand what it takes to do well in school and please others. There's nothing wrong with this in principle, though I think it hardly worth the thousands of dollars of debt we accrue in the process. Rather, it's better to worry about learning than to worry about the grade, jumping into the conversation instead of worrying whether you're right or wrong.

As Mark Twain advised, we ought not "let schooling get in the way of your education." Rather than bemoaning the fact that graduating Emerson today proves only that you were able to proficiently navigate the educational system during your sixteen-year journey, make something of it. It is cheesy, yes, but for education-as with everything else-who determines the meaning of "success" is critical. You are what you measure.

iJohn Keane is a sophomore marketing communication and communication studies double major and a contributor to /iThe Beaconi. Keane was elected SGA marketing communication senator for the coming year./i