America’s students have gone back to college. And in my case, they will soon face their first exams. That has turned my focus back to issues of what kind of questions I will ask and what standards I will hold them to when it comes to their answers, at a time when we have accumulated a great deal of evidence that COVID and the plethora of restrictions imposed in response undermined, sometimes sharply, academic standards, yet boosted GPAs. That disjunction has led to an important discussion about appropriate reforms. But one response to such concerns—trying to reinstate more rigor by moving back toward the traditional 90 percent (A); 80 percent (B); 70 percent (C) grading system most of us remember from primary school, but has been eroded—may actually reduce higher education’s effectiveness rather than enhance it.
Given the basic material in primary school and its purpose of building a sound foundation for later academic development, a 90-80-70 scale can be justified. Unfortunately, however, rather than reinforcing rigor in university classrooms by requiring mastery of the relevant material, such a scale may instead result in professors asking far less challenging exam questions, reducing what students learn and, even more importantly, retain.
When complete mastery of basics for building on later is the essential goal, a 90-80-70 grading scale may be essential to maintaining standards. After all, real competency in such areas requires near 100 percent accuracy—ABCs, basic four-function math, and the like. It is often inappropriate, however, where questions should extend beyond memorization of basics into the far-more-difficult realms of integration and application.
University training is supposed to develop higher-level thinking and the ability to handle more complex issues and applications. That is what makes it higher education. Rote certainly has a role in that, since every field has specialized terminology and tools necessary to conduct precise analysis of the topics considered, and these must be committed to memory before being put to productive use. But memorization of definitions and other basics is not the end result desired. That is only achieved if students become capable of applying those tools in the “real world.”
Unfortunately, if grades are to be based substantially on answers to application questions that involve some degree of complexity, it is virtually impossible to get a score distribution for which a 90-80-70 grade scale would be appropriate. Emphasizing higher-level questions and more advanced applications, reflecting the ultimate end of higher education, thus might require abandoning the “old standby” grading scale (though I have known professors to add “gimme” questions virtually everyone gets right, or other ad-hoc adjustments to inflate the “real” results to fit that scale). That focus on application, which is far harder than memorization, is why it has never taken more than 80 percent in any of my classes, over more than four decades of university teaching, to get an A, and I am still considered a “tough” grader.
But asking questions that could accurately be described as higher-level application, and abandoning the standard scale to do so, comes at a cost. Students dislike the uncertainty of a “curve” and essentially arbitrary adjustments to reverse engineer what students think of as the “right” scale; they get frustrated at their inability to master the material as completely as in largely rote courses they have increasingly adapted to; they complain about classes and professors being too difficult and demanding on teacher evaluations; they anoint such teachers as hard and risky to students’ grades, telling their friends and recording their gripes on websites other students use to check out teachers.
Due to the high cost to teachers of pushing students to higher level, more complex thinking, by testing them on such questions, many opt instead for the “safe” (safe from complaints that the “wrong” scale is being used) 90-80-70 scale, and questions that will generate a corresponding distribution of scores. But that erodes the quality of education, as it forces teachers to rely primarily on rote memorization questions, which, because they are far easier, are the only kind that can produce ”appropriate” score distributions.
Because getting a high enough grade is the “success” necessary to move forward in school, the primary motivator for what most students learn in most classes is what will be tested. If testing primarily measures low-level rote memorization, that is all most will ever learn. And since rote learning, divorced from the ability to apply it, will seldom be of real use, little will be retained. Quickly forgotten rote memorization provides little value to either students or society.
The defects of a 90-80-70 grade scale are most obvious in introductory college courses, which are both the first and last course taken in most subjects outside one’s major and minor. Those courses, to be useful to students, must focus on the essential principles of the field and their real-world applications. All too often, however, they focus on regurgitation of “who, what, when, and where” objective questions, with little serious attention to “why,” which is the most important question. One economics test bank I have seen even admonished that “In fairness to your students, you should make an effort to include at least some open-ended short-essay questions on your exams to test concepts and applications” (which I also found depressing in its false implication that you could not write objective economics questions that are serious application questions).
Largely thoughtless adoption of a grading scale inherited from primary school can increase the emphasis on rote instead of reason at the university level. That threatens to undermine efforts to undo the learning losses from America’s COVID misadventure in education by raising grading standards. In the absence of an increased focus on analysis and application, higher score cutoffs for grades can undermine the “higher” part of higher education by increasing reliance on rote questions rather than reasoning. It is time to reconsider this approach to undergraduate grading, where the grading “tail” wags far too much of the education “dog.” Otherwise, the huge investment of time and resources that university training represents will continue to produce far-smaller educational returns than are achievable, both for students and the rest of society.