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The great grade fallacy

By Zach Thomas
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 14, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Zach Thomas

What's in a UA grade?

Not a whole helluva lot according to the Arizona Daily Star, whose five-day "blockbuster" series on university grade inflation last week found that 70 percent of the grades given at Arizona universities are As and Bs.

"Excellence becomes ordinary," read the series' subtitle.

Perhaps this implies lower statewide standards.

Perhaps it's indicative of some sort of national trend.

Perhaps students are just smarter these days.

But most likely, all these things - including the grade statistics relied on in the Star - are in fact irrelevant.

I sarcastically placed quotes around "blockbuster" because this rare example of proactive journalism emanating from the Daily Star (ironically located on South Park Avenue) itself inflates, if not misses, the entire issue.

Although it is laudable for a daily paper to take interest in Arizona's often-ignored higher education system, to imply inaccurately, as the Star does, that a numeral or a letter, inflated or not, in any way accurately reflects a student's competence is asinine to say the least. To insinuate that these same statistics taken en masse reflect the difficulty level of a professor's classes or that of a university as a whole is likewise uninformed.

An education is anything but quantifiable.

Most professors understand this. Most employers understand this. And enlightened students understand as well.

An erroneous assumption to the contrary, however, extends far beyond the Star to university administrators, bureaucrats, politicos and yes, back down the ladder to the some of the students themselves - some of whom stoop low enough to define themselves by the grades they receive.

And here is where the real focus of debate should lie.

Many a time I've seen a student crushed by a bad grade.

Maybe it's because they're worried about getting into a good med school. Maybe a top-notch scholarship for grad school is their goal. Maybe mom and dad will hold back money for anything under a 4.0.

The maybes stretch on, but that doesn't fix the problem that said student begins to tie his or her self-worth and potential for future success to a score or set of scores being held up as the benchmark. With this grade-focused mentality, the substance of a course becomes merely a means to an end, and the goal of education for this student changes from learning to getting the best grade.

If you have a full-time job, do you work solely for the semi-annual performance evaluation?

I didn't think so.

I repeat: Education is not quantifiable. It's about learning - not grades. And this is where public attention should focus.

So how do you fix a system that relies on the flawed premise of using innaccurate statistical measures to rate an inherently subjective activity?

You don't.

Whether you get good marks or not, realize that grades are far from the bottom line. Work within the out-of-date structure and use it as best you can.

Or you could go enroll at Brown.

Zach Thomas is editor in chief of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached via e-mail at

Financial Times Fall 98