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.