Apparently, those of us who object to grade inflation have it all wrong. Or so Bill Coplin says. According to Coplin,
But no one has explored the idea that grade inflation may have significant benefits to undergraduates. I find today's students to be better writers, more accomplished at processing information and more knowledgeable about more things than students of 30 years or even 10 years ago.
Think about this for a moment. If students are truly better writers--and since I've just finished commenting on sixty rough drafts, I fear my response to that assertion is unprintable--then higher grades would represent not "inflation," but an objective measure of achievement. One would expect the same for signs of "accomplish[ment]" (measured how?) or "knowledg[e]" (again, measured how, and about what?). It's not clear, then, how "grade inflation" could possibly correlate with "improvement," since, under the circumstances, grades should not be "inflated" at all.
Matters don't improve as we go along. Here's Coplin's first example of "good" grade inflation:
First, the policy of most universities to allow drops fairly late in the semester has resulted in higher GPAs. My freshman class is called "boot camp" by my successful graduates. Students have to submit five papers during the semester at about two-week intervals. As they get their low grades back or fail to turn the papers in on time, they drop. Most universities permit late drops, which give students more flexibility in finding their interests and exploring their capabilities. This source of grade inflation is clearly a good thing.
Once again, this isn't "grade inflation"; in theory, at least, the "successful" students are earning their high grades. There's a perfectly reasonable point lurking in here--namely, that students discover a certain lack of aptitude for Major X and proceed to do the logical thing. Or do they? Many students persist in a major despite consistently low grades; some will wait around for an instructor who doesn't run class like a "boot camp." And God forbid I point this out, but if you've got a mass exodus from your courses every semester, enough to skew the final grades, then there might be a problem somewhere. In any event, since Coplin cites no statistics--how many colleges have late drops? how many students drop introductory courses to preserve their GPAs? how do such drops affect final grade distributions?--there's not much in the way of convincing evidence here.
Coplin goes on to suggest that grade inflation actually helps the learning process: "More important, I have found that students learn, on average, less than half of what they need to learn as undergraduates in formal course work. Therefore, higher grades give them some breathing room to undertake activities from which they can learn what is truly important." In other words, by making the "A" meaningless as a measure of student achievement, we allow students to relax enough to go off and Learn By Doing Cool Extracurricular Activities. This presumes, of course, that students with unearned "A"s feel the need to go off and Learn By Doing Cool Extracurricular Activities, seeing as how the instructor has, in effect, told them that they've mastered the material.
Ah, but students aren't the only ones liberated by grade inflation! "Finally, grade inflation allows the faculty a chance to provide apprentice opportunities to the best students, such as conducting research in a laboratory, doing a literature review for a historian or starting a mentoring program for a local community youth agency." Now, I'm looking for a charitable way to interpret this claim. Actually, I'm looking for any way to interpret this claim, because the cause-and-effect relationship seems awfully murky. If we've inflated the grades, then, pace Jordan Ellenberg, we've made it more difficult to tell students apart, not less.* Or does Coplin mean that there are the students who get "A"s, and then there are the students who get "A"s that actually mean something? Come to think of it, why does grade inflation "allo[w]" faculty to single out the best students for additional attention? Please tell me it isn't because the teacher has reduced the amount of time s/he spends grading. Please?
*--With all due respect to Ellenberg's statistics, it's not clear to me that faculty who inflate grades do so in some discriminating fashion. His model presumes that the professor will preserve grade distributions, just at some higher level. But many inflators are also conflators: the "A" range may comprise everything from "A" work to "C" work.