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What Do College Grades Actually Reflect?

Essay by Frank Zahn

Students are pleased—and often elated—when they earn higher grades than their classmates in college classes. Their parents are also pleased—and often elated—because it suggests their offsprings are superior to those of other parents. The feelings are understandable, and superiority is always better than inferiority in any endeavor.

But the quality of any grade earned by students may vary from one class to another, not only within a university but also within the broader arena of college education, namely among universities. For example, an “A” in one class may not reflect the same quality of performance as an “A” in another class. The reason is that the conditions under which grades are earned may vary from one class to another. Several factors account for the variations, including grading standards selected by instructors, the level of competition when grades are earned competitively, and the extent to which the subject matter is analytically rigorous.

Greater understanding of what grades actually reflect under these variable conditions is useful to students in their attempts to maximize the actual, as well as the perceived, quality of their education in preparation for careers after college. The following attempts to provide that greater understanding.

To begin, the grades students earn in a college class measure their grasp, command, or understanding of the subject. The measures are based on their performances on various instruments, including written exams, oral exams, classroom participation, and term papers.

How students perform depends on several variables, including intelligence, attitude toward learning, interest in the subject, command of class prerequisites, and command of the basic skills of reading, written expression, and mathematics necessary to execute performance.

Although grades earned by students in a class reflect a similar level of performance, they do not necessarily reflect the same combination of variables that determine performance. For example, a student with less intelligence relative to another student may perform equally well because of greater command of the mathematics necessary to execute performance. Or, a student with a superior attitude toward learning may outperform a student with superior skill in written expression.

Comparison of grades among students in classes within a major field of study or between major fields of study, both within a university and between universities, depends on differences in the conditions under which grades are earned. The differences in the three conditions stated earlier are differences in grading standards, differences in the levels of competition when grades are competitive, and the degrees of analytical rigor.

Instructors set a variety of grading standards. Some set standards based on what they feel are reasonable levels of performance and grade on how well students measure up. The higher the standard, the more a grade reflects a higher level of performance. For example, an “A” earned in a class in which a professor sets a higher standard reflects a higher level of performance than an “A” earned in another class in which the professor sets a lower standard. It’s no secret among college students that some instructors have lower standards—grade easier—than others.

It is worth noting that instructors, especially those in universities that are little more than diploma mills, are pressured into lowering their grading standards in order to maintain and grow student credit hours. Two forms of pressure are student evaluations of instructors and the not-always-subtle reminders from college administrators to instructors that they share in the responsibility of maintaining and growing student credit hours, which is the primary basis in departments, colleges, and universities for receiving funds.

Although some instructors grade on what they consider reasonable levels of performance, others, perhaps most, grade on some sort of a curve. That is, a grade earned by a student in a class reflects the student’s performance relative to that of other students in the class. This means that the higher the level of competition a student faces from the other students in a class the more a grade reflects a higher level of performance. For example, an “A” earned in a class in which the competition for grades is higher reflects a higher level of performance than an “A” earned in a class in which the competition for grades is lower.

When comparisons are made between universities, the importance of comparative levels of overall competition is important as well. It is no secret that the quality of students in terms of ability to perform varies not only within a university but also between universities. So the greater the level of competition in one university relative to another, the more grades at that university likely reflect a higher level of performance.

For example, when grades are based on a curve, an “A” in a class in business administration at a university in which the median student SAT score is 1320 likely reflects a higher level of performance than an “A” earned in a similar class at a university in which the median student SAT score is 920. The reason is that admission standards in terms of intelligence, attitude toward learning, interest in the subject, command of class prerequisites, and command of the basic skills of reading, written expression, and mathematics necessary to execute performance at the university in which the median student SAT score is 1320 are likely higher than at the university in which the median student SAT score is 920.

In addition to differences in grading standards and levels of competition, differences in the degree of analytical rigor faced by students in classes vary from one field of study or major to another. Some majors are based on a how-to or trade school philosophy of education in which the primary emphasis is on how to perform some undertaking or task rather than the theoretical foundations necessary for more in-depth analyses. They are primarily preparations for entry-level employment. Examples include education (how to teach), communications (how to communicate in various venues), nursing (how to nurse), public administration (how to manage a public organization or agency), and business administration (how to manage a business).

Although not task oriented, another group of majors shares something in common with the how-to majors, namely little emphasis on the theoretical foundations necessary for in-depth analyses. Rather, they are information, revision-of-history, social justice, and social engineering oriented. They include black studies, gender studies, and popular culture.

Grades earned in more analytically rigorous classes reflect a higher level of performance, than grades in a class less analytically rigorous because they reflect a higher overall level of those variables upon which performance depends—emphasis on intelligence and the basic skills necessary to execute performance, especially mathematics.

For example, an “A” earned in a class in the natural sciences, economics, philosophy, or mathematics likely reflects a higher level of performance than an “A” earned in a class in education, public administration, black studies, or library science. The reason is straightforward. Classes in the former are well known in higher education to require greater wherewithal to perform because they are more analytically rigorous than the latter.

The grading standards, levels of competition, and analytical rigor in the same or similar classes that make up major fields of study at universities in which student SAT scores are relatively high are likely higher than those at universities in which student SAT scores are relatively low. This is likely true, even though class syllabi in the foundation courses and major field of study are much the same. This means for example, that an “A” in a class at a university in which the median student SAT score is 1320 likely reflects a higher level of performance than an “A” in the same or similar class at a university in which the median student SAT score is 920.

Also, the level of competition students face at some universities relative to others is influenced by the extent to which discriminatory quota systems at those universities give preference to the not as bright or not as well prepared students. The more such quota systems come into play in the admissions policies of some universities relative to others, the lower the level of overall competition students may face in classes at those universities, and the more grades earned in those universities likely indicate lower levels of performance relative to universities where such quota systems play less of a role or not at all.

Of course, the extent to which discriminatory quota systems play a role in the admissions policies of universities nationwide, the lower the overall level of competition and the more grades earned by students at American universities indicate lower levels of performance in comparison to universities abroad that do not employ such quota systems.

Recognition of the importance of differences in grading standards, levels of competition for grades, and degrees of analytical rigor when comparing grades in various classes provides a cautionary note for students. They would be wise to avoid deluding themselves into believing easy or easier grades, for example, easy or easier A’s, in classes within a university or among universities indicate the same level of performance as grades earned by students in other classes.

Graduation with straight A’s in classes with lower grading standards, lower levels of competition, or less analytical rigor than in other classes is not fooling the people who hire college graduates for positions in both domestic or global arenas of activity. That said, however, graduates at every level of performance within a university or from whatever university have a place in keeping the domestic and global social, political, and economic activities operational and thriving.

For example, college graduates need not have proven themselves in an analytically rigorous major like physics if they seek a career in the less analytically rigorous field of public administration, even though the graduate in public administration may be capable of the same or higher level of performance as the graduate in physics. It is just that demonstration of an ability to achieve higher levels of performance likely means a college graduate will be given greater opportunities to play a more challenging, fulfilling, and important role, at least initially.

 

Copyright © 2017 Frank Zahn

 

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