On Not Giving an A++++++++++ Grade

Grade inflation is a major problem on college campuses, and it is the sworn duty of the faculty to carefully and cautiously grade all student work the same.  Students tend to expect an “A” grade just for showing up to class when, in structured reality, a “C” grade is what a student earns for merely meeting the minimum requirements for any course.  A “C” is a fine grade — but a lot of students seem to feel a “C” grade is the same as an “F” grade when it is not.  A “C” defines the middling ground for a course and that is the honest grade most students earn, even though faculty tend to inflate grading the middle just to keep the peace.

When I first started teaching English Composition and Literature analysis at a small, private, East Coast College, I discovered quite quickly the paradox between student expectation and graded faculty performance was both wide and deep.

The student who approached me was older — this particular college had a vibrant, mainstream, undergraduate student body, but there was also an older, returning, set of college students who were seeking to finish a course of study abandoned many years ago — and this student was one of those trying to get back into the school groove.

I had given her a “C” grade on an important analysis paper and she was upset with me for giving her that grade.  As evidence of her brilliance — that she felt I had obviously missed — she presented me with a graded paper she’d written the previous semester under the tutelage of a different instructor.

Her paper was graded with an “A++++++++++” along with a long, handwritten note from the instructor about how wonderful the paper was in total.  When I read the first page of her paper, I noticed every paragraph was printed in a different fancy font and a different color ink:  Pink Comic Sans, Blue Times Roman, Lavender Arial Bold — it was a total mess and looked like the paint palette for a clown’s makeup.

It was instantly clear to me that the instructor who graded her paper an “A” followed by 10 “plus” signs was stealing money from the students.  That instructor was getting paid for doing a hard job, but was taking the easy way out by giving ridiculous grades that other instructors now had thrust in their face as proof of a student’s brilliance.  No college instructor could have, under any reasonable circumstance, given an “A” grade to that paper because it was written on a Kindergarten level and looked like a fingerpainting.

As the student stood there, arms crossed, waiting for me to tell her I’d made a horrible mistake in grading her, I decided to do the only possible thing:  Tell her the truth.

I asked her to take a seat, and I started our conversation by telling her there is no such grade in any college that is an “A” with 10 plus signs behind it and that, right there, should have been a clue to her that something strange was happening with her grade.  I went on to explain that, for a brief period, some schools allowed an “A+” grade with a single plus after the “A” — and had that plus sign make the grade a 4.2 on a 4.0 GPA scale — but that messed things up for students when they transferred to other schools, or tried to get scholarships, because the universal understanding is that an “A” grade numerically translates to a 4.0 and most colleges believe an “A” grade is the plain ultimate without any further “plussing” necessary.  Many schools have even eschewed giving “A-” grades because how can an “A” — a perfect grade — become “imperfect” and cheapened merely by adding a minus sign?

She was impatiently nodding her head, certainly expecting the next words out of my mouth to be that I’d misunderstood her and planned to change her grade.

I did not tell her that.

I told her she’d been cheated.

She looked at me with alarm and uncrossed her arms.  She asked me to explain.  I knew I might have been seen as a disloyal faculty member for not playing along with a 10-plus “A” grade from the other instructor, but I decided if I wanted to teach, the minimum I owed my students was the truth as I knew it and my best effort to explain it to them.  My allegiance is to my students, not to some other instructor stealing money via grade inflation.

I told the student about the colors and the fonts and the tone of the writing and the lack of analysis and supported research.  I explained how we would work on all of that in class together and how that would help make her research better.  She accepted my feedback, but she was angry the other instructor misled her into thinking she was a better writer than she was — and I told her that was a natural feeling, and that she will get all sorts of evidence about the truth, but it was up to her to examine all parts and put together the pieces of what was real into a whole that the rest of us can understand, even if we may not appreciate it.

8 comments

  • It’s a positive sign that she took the feedback so well. Too many would just throw up their arms in disgust and assert that something must be wrong with you for not giving her a thousand plusses on her A that you stole.

    • She definitely took it well. She was an excellent student in class, but her writing was troubled — but fixable. Nobody was doing her any favors by passing her writing without thorough feedback. She ended up doing really well in class and she would meet with me after every paper was returned to make sure she understood all the comments and corrections.

  • This is always a problem. Students often think they are doing better than they really are — when we were growing up, it was pretty much just the opposite. Lots of tests and comparative feedback helps create consciousness today.

    • Exactly right. Something grade-related must be at stake in every single class for proper student feedback today. The graded work should also be public, so everyone in class can compare how they are performing in comparison with their coursemates. We must leave no doubt.

  • I have the same problems with my students. Expectations are all out of condition. I do agree that frequent feedback and grading helps a little bit. The expectation for extra credit is always disappointing.

    • Oh, the bane of extra credit! That high school mentality never works at the college level — but that doesn’t mean students won’t try. Do the work as expected and you will do well. Don’t blow off the real assignments and then try to create “extra credit” work to make up for the assignments you didn’t do all semester!

  • There is always a desire to excel. This is not very easy in the real world though. In the real world – success comes with much more patience and hard work. Even after you have done your very best, problems still arise
    I have never published anything including books. Many of the contract drawings which I created usually needed some revisions to actually make them executable and understood by others.
    Communication is what really counts. Our perception of the real world as we write it down can be so vastly misunderstood when it is read by others. As we used to say “The best laid plans of mice and men- They are made for changes.”
    Our thoughts are the same. What we find exciting today, may fade in the future. Learning new things and perceiving an idea from several different view points causes our perception of the idea to change. Should we expect anything less than an A for a certain idea but actually earn a C when it is looked at by someone else. They have a different viewpoint.
    Failure is never an option. Just keep trying to do your very best.You will improve with repeated tries. Schools lesson for life.

    • You make good points, Robert, but an English literature research paper is not a Creative Art — even though some students expect it to become one. There are certain standards and common practices that must be taught in order to be understood in the world beyond the ivy tower.

      As one of my old Playwriting teachers used to say: “Outside this class, you can break all the rules of writing — but in this class, you follow the rules I teach, because I have to know you understand and can master the basics.”

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