Opinion: After lawsuit will teachers hold line on grades?

by John Bell, M.F.A. | Feb 18, 2013

John Bell, Head of the Division of Performing Arts at DeSales University John Bell

Please note, this opinion originally appeared in The Morning Call, Monday, 2/18/13:

Now comes the news that a former Lehigh University student, unsatisfied with a grade, filed a lawsuit. While not the first of such lawsuits nationwide, not making the grade apparently means that institutions of learning are now responsible for ruining a student's opportunity to receive the credentials needed to attain a career. And if one were to project over time the earning power one might make in a particular job, the school can now be held accountable for supposedly victimizing students and depriving them of lifelong, materialistic happiness.

This latest development is just another in a long line of consequences born of the trend in American education to inflate grades. As fewer and fewer students grow less and less accustomed to receiving a grade below an A or B, more and more students view receiving a grade of a C+ or lower as an incidence of injustice.

This view is tied directly to the parallel trend in modern American society toward entitlement. With the cost of tuition soaring, parents and students believe that, having paid tuition, they have purchased the grades — and, by extension, the credentials — needed to secure their dream career.

Many scholars believe this trend in grade inflation began in earnest during the Vietnam War era when giving a student a D or an F might result in sending young men, at least, to war. The burden of whether to cut a student a break on a grade came with potentially life-and-death consequences.

And over time, this shifting of the burden of the grade from the student to the teacher has been compounded in an age where education has focused squarely on self-esteem. Just as soccer leagues give trophies to every participant, some schools have removed the F from the grading scale, not wanting a student to feel like a failure.

Teachers have propagated the trend willingly: the higher the grades, the happier the students; the happier the students, the better the teaching evaluations; the better the teaching evaluations, the greater chance of achieving tenure. And administrators have looked the other way too, for the higher the grade point averages, the more effective the school appears to be in achieving its lofty aims.

The trouble is that with the majority of students receiving a majority of As and Bs, employers — finding that graduates they hire do not possess skills and traits the grades suggest — no longer trust the schools.

In the face of this malaise, the individual teacher who dares to award an objective assessment of educational attainment is left standing alone facing a barrage of attack from students, parents and administrators.

It is big news that students are filing million-dollar lawsuits against schools, attempting to hold the institutions responsible for their future lives.

It used to be that a grade was the student's to earn. Based upon the application they made and the engagement they invested in the educational process, it was the purview of the trained educator to administer grades based upon student output. If the student earned a C+, missing a B- by even one-tenth of a percentage point, it didn't fall to the teacher to give the extra point to help the student get into the higher category. The standard for a B- had not been met so the C+ was administered.

If the scenario played out in graduate school, where all students might be required to achieve a GPA equating a B, then the onus was on the student to ensure that he or she understood the standard and was meeting it. Failure to do so might mean that the student would no longer be permitted to continue in the program. The assumption was that the standard served a purpose and that to compromise the standard would devalue the entire enterprise both for the field of study and the student alike.

The ripples of these trends can come at great cost. For when a society loses its ability to distinguish between mediocrity and magnificence, all things of virtue and value can fall. So while the judge in the Lehigh suit last week found in favor of the university, let us hope judges of such future cases will throw them out and that society will unequivocally express its disdain for lawyers who file such actions.

And, in the absence of parents who raise children who understand the value of hard work and responsibility, let us hope teachers muster the courage to hold the line.

John Bell is head of the Division of Performing Arts at DeSales University.

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