Friday, February 20, 2009

129. Grade inflation hides true worth

The University of Southern California (USC) Law School recently considered making the average grade a B-plus, moving the grading curve .1 from 3.2 to 3.3. The dean felt that their students were at a disadvantage in competing for jobs with other schools that had a higher average grade. Meanwhile, compare that to Harvard and Stanford who are all considering, or have, changed their grading system to simply "Pass/Fail," though there will be distinctions of "honors pass" and "low pass."

The question is what does it matter? It was interesting reading the responses from law students in response to this story and it appears that grading is all over the map. In my law school, a 60 is a C minus and an 80 is an A minus. Multiple choice and essay exams are very difficult, unlike any other program I have participated in, and most students end up in the B to C range.

Students from other law schools, however, claimed that they received an A just for showing up (probably an exaggeration. law school is difficult), and most seemed pretty disgusted with the whole system. Of course, for those wanting to practice law, the great equalizer is the bar exam.

But clearly grades should matter, and those that work harder in school should be rewarded with better opportunities. But does it? When was the last time you heard someone ask a lawyer how he or she did in law school? They passed the bar exam, and except for the most prestigious positions, that is all that legally matters. There is even a saying in law school, "C= J.D."

So how do we compare one attorney that was graded on a pass/fail system and another that had a B minus average at another law school? And if it doesn't matter, why does it matter-to the point that USC would change their grading system by .1?

It's not just law school. My Master's of Business Administration (MBA) program was predominately projects and written papers/reports. Many of the projects took place in groups, in which some people worked really hard, and, unfortunately, others did very little. Unlike law school, there is no exam to give someone the right to practice as an MBA. Certainly, there are those people benefitting from a degree they did not earn.

I have written before that I feel as though colleges have watered down their work loads and grading standards. I spoke to one professor who gave "bonus" points for turning in a paper in time. I asked if he was kidding, he said "no," that he received too many complaints for taking away points from late papers. Students complain, make excuses and think nothing of appealing their grades to department heads.

In some circumstances, it seems that a number of professors are afraid to challenge their students. It is easier to keep everyone happy by dividing them into three categories- A, B or F. That is probably also an exaggeration, and oversimplification, but what happened to the grading curve, in which the best students received As, most received Cs and others did not pass? Does it still exist?

I fear we are moving in the same direction as kid's sports, where we do not keep score and everyone gets an award just for showing up. And if we do not get our award, we complain and threaten the authorities until we do get it. I believe in equal opportunity, not equal reward. It is not win at all cost; it is that not everyone wins. Some people have learned to exchange hard work with good excuses. School and sports should teach us that it takes hard work to be successful, that there are few short cuts, and that results do matter-as does process, respect and integrity.

The diversity now seen in colleges is a positive reflection of our time. There are young students, old students, on-line courses, weekend classes, career centers and traditional campuses. The evaluating of factors and programs is becoming more difficult, particularly when an 80 is a B- in one school and an A- in another. The proof is in the job offers, and colleges like USC understand this. They want to attract students by stating, "Attend our school, and you'll get a great job."

It becomes more difficult, however, evaluating a young student from a notoriously challenging traditional program, with no responsibility except for school, with a single mom of two, working two jobs, and attending school part-time on weekends at a perhaps less demanding career center. Following graduation, what factors, in addition to grades, will be considered in hiring?

Today the competing environment for jobs is escalating; there are fewer jobs and intense competition. Everything matters. Applicants in most fields need to be well-rounded-education, work and volunteer experience, character (and it still does not hurt to know someone!). But education will always be a significant factor, and colleges, despite their need to attract and keep students, need to provide a challenging environment, one that adequately prepares a student for the "real" world. A world that does most certainly keep score-in dollars and cents.

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