Robert Zaretsky: What’s at Stake With Grade Inflation?

tags: Chronicle of Higher Ed., college, Robert Zaretsky, grade inflation



Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell University Press, 2010). His next book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.

Truth, we’re told, is the first casualty of war. But as I hunker in my office bunker, the dull thud of history term papers landing on my desk, columns of sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden students trudging past the door, I’m convinced that truth is also the first casualty of undergraduate paper writing. It is not only the historical truths trampled in the mangled and muddied papers written by my students. More insidiously, a deeper truth also suffers. Only tatters remain of the contract, implicit but immemorial, that teachers will grade student papers fairly and honestly. This shared conviction, that the students’ level of writing can be raised only if the teacher levels with them, now seems a historical artifact....

To be honest, I’ve mostly failed. It is not, I think, for want of effort. I urge students to hand in rough drafts. Invariably, few take me up on the offer, and those rough drafts I receive I cover in red ink. As for the first batch of papers, I’m no less generous with corrections and suggestions. And just as my comments are in red, so too is the red line of grades: A’s are rare, C’s are common. I’ve drawn the line, and I mean business!

But, to be honest, I mean mostly funny business. Many of the final papers are as garbled as the first papers. As for the good papers, they are mostly the work of students who knew how to write when they arrived. And yet, an odd alchemy begins to crackle and pop. While the tenor of my comments remains as sharp as ever, the paper grades begin to rise toward the heavens. Or, more accurately, the grading standard—the one supposedly locked in that empyrean place—begins to sink earthward....



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