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January 08, 2010


The New York Times added an interesting perspective to the debate last week when it published a piece on the rising number of honors societies at the high school level ("As Honor Students Multiply, Who Is Really One?" December 31, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/01/education/01honors.html?hp ). It seems there is now an epidemic of such societies, created to make students' resumes look better when they apply to college.

It should come as no surprise that college-bound students try to have more of what has been identified by admission officers as a good thing - grades, honors societies, or even community service. This sometimes leads to distorted situations. I'll end with a story I heard a while back, and hopefully remember correctly, although I have no recollection of who first shared it with me. (This is supposed to be a true story and not a joke, but again, I heard it a long time ago and I have no way to check its veracity.) A parent is disappointed that his son was not admitted by his first-choice college, while one of the son's not-as-good classmates was. He calls the admissions office and manages to wrestle some information out of the person he talks to on the phone, which he relays to his son: the admissions office had been very impressed by his classmate's record of community service. The son rolls his eyes. "Dad," he said, "that kid got busted for drug possession! That's how he ended up doing community service. It was court-mandated. It wasn't something he did out of the goodness of his heart." But hey, the admissions office had been very impressed.

I think it's important to note that it's not just that grades are rising. It's also true that learning is decreasing. When students know that they can receive a high grade whether they work hard or not, their motivation to excel decreases markedly. College students are now studying about half as much per week as they did in the 1960s. That means they often don't read material in advance, which leads to wan participation in the classroom. Studies have shown that they are far less "engaged" in the educational aspects of the college experience.

I would argue that students are simply not mastering material to the level that they once did even in the sciences and engineering. For example, when I taught I eventually had to drop the assumption that students knew how to use calculus at a rudimentary level. Yes, they had taken and passed calculus courses or had received AP credit for those courses. But increasingly they had little idea of what the math meant.

On a less anecdotal level, studies show that English literacy is down for college graduates. It's not simply that grades are rising. More importantly, grade inflation is a symptom of something much more important: the academic achievement represented by a college degree has diminished markedly over the last several decades.

Hi, thanks for the great comment! I enjoyed reading your opinion on the decrease in learning. I agree with you about calculus: often students receive AP credit for, say, Calc 1, but realize later the course is taught very differently and in more depth at the college level, or they don't know how to use the material (and thus forget it quickly) because they don't connect it with some real-life application. I've learned not to be surprised when seniors struggle with basic concepts such as the role of parentheses in mathematical expressions. I'd think it's a consequence of poor training at the K-12 level rather than a deficiency of the college educational system, but one probably compounds the other.

Most telling in my opinion is the rise in the number of college graduates over the past decades. Either training has improved markedly, or some people who are going to college shouldn't. In a way, this is not just about grade inflation, but about diploma inflation. That is one reason why so many students stay in school for a Master degree: having a Bachelor no longer differentiates them enough from the crowd of their competitors.

And this is why I don't value my 4.0 so highly. If it's as George says, with A is average, B is bad, and C being catastrophic, well, hey, a 4.0 means I averted disaster.

But, hey, I'll take it!

Have an interview with Analytic Partners this Thursday.

Best of luck with the interview, Ilya!

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