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Who Should Get an A?

painting of crowded schoolhouse

The New York Times reports that for every 10 grades assessed to undergraduates at Yale during the last academic year, 8 were either an A or an A minus: corresponding to an increase in average GPA by nearly 0.3 points since the turn of the century, up to 3.7 from 3.42. This comes after similar patterns were uncovered at Harvard in early October, and a series of university professors were fired over their poor grade distributions: including one at Spelman College last month and a high-profile case last year at New York University.

There are many ways in which to understand these popular controversies: perhaps the problem is grade inflation, or students are struggling following the pandemic. Such theories are important to discuss, and significant attention has been devoted to them since the pandemic. However, there is an observation which we might make here, raising questions with implications spanning pre-K through graduate school: disagreements over low test scores and increasingly high grades are often disagreements over the very purpose of education, and the role it plays in our larger society. The question at the heart of the matter is deceivingly simple: who should get an A?

When asked this question, two categories of answers may come to mind. The first, and perhaps most common, is: the students who understand the material exceptionally well. The entire idea of grading on a curve is based on this premise: for any given class, a group of students will understand the material exceptionally well, a group will understand it exceptionally poorly, and most will fall somewhere in the middle. Under this scheme, grading — and, by extension, education — functions to stratify students: it supposedly identifies the best and most deserving individuals. And, by assumption, someone must always be on the opposite end of the spectrum — for someone to be the best, someone else must always be the worst. This idea, for better or worse, has had an incredibly deep impact on how we, as a society, understand both grades and education more broadly. When grades function to stratify, good grades become the instrument of meritocratic advancement up the socioeconomic hierarchy.

The logic here will be familiar to any high school student, having been echoed for years. To get a good job, you need good grades in college, and to get into college, you need good grades in high school; and to get the best grades in high school, you need to do after school tutoring in elementary school, learn to read as early as possible, and so on. When good grades are a primary vehicle for socioeconomic security, education becomes a bloodsport for which training must begin as early as possible. On this view, the awarding of A’s or A-‘s to 80% of students – as Harvard and Yale and others have done –  is an unacceptable obfuscation of who has won; grades no longer function to establish the differentiation which our broader economy relies upon.

But mixed in our social consciousness is another concept of grading, built on a different idea of education. Perhaps the student who should get an A is the student who satisfied, to the fullest extent, the expectations of the course. The key difference between this notion and that described above is that, here, everyone can get an A so long as all students satisfy those expectations. Imagine, for example, you’re teaching a class on accounting, designed to introduce students to basic concepts in Microsoft Excel and prepare them for higher-level coursework which will require a basic set of skills and a common vocabulary. If this is the goal of the course, then there is no reason that every student shouldn’t get an A: if the goal is for students to develop certain skills, then it only matters that the goal is met, and the degree to which those goals are surpassed is superfluous to the purpose of the course. With realistic goals, proper teaching, and appropriate effort, every student will develop those skills, and the course will have fulfilled its educational mission. Under this scheme, grading functions to indicate competency, and education functions to cultivate it; education is not about sorting students, but rather, uplifting them as a group.

This may seem to be a radical idea of education’s purpose, but I’d argue that the idea is more common than one might think. The idea of educational standards, both at the federal and state level, is built on this idea of education: that a graduate of high school, for example, should have certain competencies. It is also why grading entirely on a curve is uncommon — if the best student gets a 98% and the worst gets a 95%, it hardly seems appropriate to award an A to the former and an F to the latter — and, further, why educators are often blamed for their student’s poor grades: we expect professors to teach all students a set of material, not merely succeed in stratifying their students into the best and worst.

Across education, we can see these two ideas of the educational mission — education as stratifying and education as uplifting — coming into conflict with one-another. Perhaps they even co-exist within most grading systems, where a C is intended to indicate competency and an A indicates exceptional understanding. But even though we may be intuitively familiar with both, I think there’s reason to take the conflict between them seriously: I would argue that not only do these two concepts of education conflict, but that they’re fundamentally at odds with one another. If stratifying students requires always failing some, then education cannot simultaneously function to uplift all students; and if uplifting all students requires providing second and third chances, then grades and education cannot play their fundamental role in our society’s larger economic system. This is exactly what has happened in medical education when the first United States Medical Licensing Exam was transitioned from a scored system to a simple pass/fail: when this change was finalized, residency program directors lost their primary metric for deciding which medical students to interview.

But we can also understand this conflict at a different level. Take the perspective of a professor. Very few educators want to be the gatekeepers of socioeconomic privilege, and most find the idea of failing students unpleasant, especially when those students make a genuine effort: most professors want to teach, to uplift their students, share their passion for the subject they have devoted their life to studying. Take the perspective of a student. In a stratifying educational system, students are actively punished for helping their classmates, and are tacitly encouraged to undermine other students to increase their standing in the grading hierarchy; in an uplifting system, no such incentives exist, and collaboration is tacitly encouraged.

Grading controversies are, fundamentally, a debate which happens between these two, radically different ideas about education and the social role it should serve. Should education uplift all, or determine who can go on? Should education be rigorous and challenging, or designed to accommodate the flourishing of students? These are not easy questions, but they are questions which we will continue to face until the contradiction inherent to modern education is resolved.

Summit Learning and Experiments in Education

photograph of empty classroom

A recent New York Times article documented a series of student-led protests at a number of public schools throughout the United States against a “personalized learning” program called Summit Learning. The program, supported by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, aims to improve students’ education via computer-based individual lessons, and features A.I. designed to actively develop the ideal learning program for each student. The goals of the program seem especially beneficial to the underserved public school systems where the software is being piloted. Although the initial response was positive, parents and students in communities such as McPherson, Kansas, have begun to reject the program. Among their complaints: excessive screen time and its effects on student health; the connection of the program to the web resulting in students being exposed to inappropriate content; invasive collecting and tracking of personal data; and the decline in human interaction in the classroom.

Each of these points touch on broader issues concerning the ever-greater role technology plays in our lives. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the best way to technology into education, as well as the associated harms and benefits. It is probably unwise, then, to attempt to judge the consequences of this particular program in its infancy. It has been poorly received in some cases, but in many other cases it has been praised.

The more essential question is whether the education of young students should be handled by such a poorly understood mechanism. Some of the people interviewed in the New York Times article expressed the feeling of being “guinea pigs” in an experiment. Summit’s A.I. is designed to get better as it deals with more students, so earlier iterations will always be more “experimental” than later ones. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to risk the quality of a child’s education for the sake of any experiment. Underserved communities like those in which Summit is being applied also deserve some special protection and consideration, because they are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It was precisely because of their generally low-performing schools that many of these communities so eagerly adopted the Summit Learning system in the first place.

One seemingly simple solution proposed by many of the protesting students is to allow opting-out of the program. While this would allow students a greater degree of agency and help to arrive at the optimal learning method for each student, it would also significantly undermine the already limited understanding of the efficacy of the system. If only the most enthusiastic students are participating, the results will be understandably skewed. As with other experiments involving human subjects, there is a difficult calculus in weighing the potential knowledge gained against the potential harm to individual subjects. In order to ensure the integrity of the program as a whole, opting out on an individual basis cannot be permitted, but the alternative is to force whole schools or town into either participating or not en masse.

Another consideration is whether there is a problem with the premise of Summit Learning itself, that is, “personalized learning.” Personalized learning follows the general trend in cutting-edge technology towards customization, individualization, and, ultimately, isolation. Such approaches do harm to our collective sense of community, but the harm is especially acute in learning environments. Part of education is learning together and, critically, learning to work together. We can see some evidence of this in traditional K-12 school curricula, which have historically centered on the idea that every student learns the same material; in other words, The Catcher in the Rye is only as important as it is because everybody reads it. By removing the collaborative aspect of classroom learning, we run the risk of denying students the opportunity to benefit from different perspectives and develop a common scholastic culture. Furthermore, by implementing isolating technology use in the classroom, schools sanction such practices for students, who may then feel license to repeat such behaviors outside of school.