Originally posted on June 20, 2014
As a society, we are quick to praise products, places and people. Whenever we buy something, read a book, go to a movie or restaurant, people ask us to rate our experience. More often than not, while we are willing to issue a poor rating, we are loath to give an average one. If we see a five-star rating system, we will give an average product or experience an above-average rating. If something is above average, we will mark it as outstanding. If it is outstanding, we think extra exclamation points will make our case.
This practice of doling out excessive praise has been in education for years. In our field, we call it grade inflation and teachers have bemoaned the trend ever since it arrived on the scene. Once upon a time, we noticed that children felt better when they received a gold star or a higher grade so we started to dispense them more liberally. This boosted their general happiness and, of course, pleased parents as well. Those who criticize the trend said we never stopped and thought out whether the sometimes-unmerited praise established a false sense of excellence when the student in question would not, by objective standards, be considered superb or better than most of his classmates.
The foundation for such concerns rests upon two underlying assumptions. First, a teacher should never issue grades students do not earn. I often give praise when I am impressed by a student’s work. I also will offer advice and encouragement to students, sometimes in response to a request and at other times when they appear to need it but are unwilling to ask. But a student begging to be given a grade that is unearned is like when she petitions a parent for a gift, opportunity or privilege she has not merited. You know it is easier in the short run to give in, but you will be paying for it down the road when she expects more and more. The same is true with grades.
Which leads to my second point – letter grades have an agreed-upon meaning forgotten by some in today’s world. A-level work declares your student’s effort and the quality of his final product is outstanding, meaning that it stands out as being superior to that of the others in the room. When your student earns a B, her work is above the average quality of work in the room. Receiving a C, therefore suggests the work your student completed for the class was not significantly better or worse than the majority of students in the room. Following this trend, D and F grades tell us your student performed below the average or failed the course requirements outright.
Perhaps it is helpful to borrow an example from the world of politics to best understand the approach many teachers have to grading. Political scientists make the distinction between equal opportunity and equal outcome. For example, everybody has the chance to get a job, but not everyone is guaranteed they will be given employment. In a similar fashion, teachers give every student the opportunity to earn an A, but are well aware not all in the room will merit such a high mark. If they see a disproportionate number of students earning As, they likely will consider reevaluating the expectations they have, as the A grade no longer means the work of a particular student stands out from his classmates.
While it feels better to give a gold star or high grade for average work, doing so on a regular basis, gives students a false sense of confidence and does not prepare them for a world that may not judge them so generously. I would be doing a disservice to your student if I let her think she is better, or worse for that matter, than everyone else when that is not the case. Having support and understanding from parents that honesty is the best policy in this regard is crucial.
Failing your student by telling him he is outstanding when he is only above average or average sends him straight to outer space when he should only be in low-earth orbit. And when he comes crashing back to Earth in the next class or the next year, the fault will belong to all of us.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.