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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024


Grades: they are the universally recognized symbols of our knowledge, skill and effort; they give us a platform on which to stand and proclaim our proficiency; they provide us something to work toward and something to complain about; they give colleges and employers standards by which diverse candidates can be fairly judged; and they are constantly influencing the decisions we make in and out of the classroom. And when we say constant, we mean constant — most of us have been getting a report card sent home since we were old enough to blow bubbles in our milk. Grades are so ubiquitous — and have been for so long — that we rarely take the time to stop and critically analyze their value, function and efficacy.

Fortunately, Middlebury College does not neglect its duty to engage in such critical evaluations. In 2004, a committee was formed to look into the possibility of grade inflation at the College. Recent data released by the Office of the Registrar has brought the question of grade inflation back to the forefront of our attention and spurred us to re-evaluate the role grades play in our lives
The report found that over the last 10 years, the average Middlebury GPA has risen from 3.27 to 3.45, which is good enough to make Dean’s List and graduate cum laude. Although it is striking to consider that these academic achievements now fall in the realm of “average,” it is important to look at other statistics: average SAT scores have risen over the same time period, and the percentage of Middlebury students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class has gone up from 61 percent to 77 percent. So whether our grades are rising of their own accord, or we are simply doing better work is still difficult to determine.

What is clear, however, is that grades have changed since they were first put into practice over a century ago. Despite its history of denoting an “average” grade, who among us would argue that a C is anything close to average at Middlebury? Indeed, the data just released indicates that it is far below average. As they say, B is the new C — hence the average GPA hovering in the B+/A- range. Whatever the grade’s connotation, it stands to reason that if we are all being judged on the same scale, it should not really matter what the grades denote.

Unfortunately, no two institutions’ grades mean the same thing. That is problematic when you consider that the reason we strive so diligently to get good grades is our desire to be judged as favorably as possible by future employers against applicants from other colleges and universities. When we apply to college, the admissions office knows exactly what our grades mean — they have enough information on the grading tendencies of our respective high schools to determine what our GPA and class rank really mean when comparing us with other applicants. It seems only fair for the college to then pay it forward — that is, to provide a context for our grades to our potential employers.

One way to give our grades some context would be to give the median class grade along with our final grade on the transcript. This would provide some much needed additional meaning to the grade — employers would be able to quickly determine whether a B was above, below or on par with the class average. In other words, they would be viewing our grades in the context in which we received them, rather than the stand-alone letters that can be difficult, often impossible, to correctly interpret.

Grades are a sensitive issue, mostly because they are, whether we like to admit it or not, both the reason we are here and the driving force that keeps us going. None of us like to think that our academic successes are the result of nicer professors or softening standards. However, it is important to take a step back and examine what, exactly, grades are and what they do for us. When we see that they are simply one person’s judgment of our performance in a class and serve to indicate our ability and intellect to future employers, we can detach from the need to ascribe to them more meaning than they really deserve and focus on making them do their job better. Inflation or no, grades out of context can be incredibly misleading and therefore insufficient at doing what they are meant to do. We work so hard for them that it seems silly to walk away without knowing why.