Does a B represent poor performance?

Grade Inflation and the Meaning of Letter Grades

Conrad Weisert, May 9, 2013
©2013, Information Disciplines, Inc.

NOTE: This article may be reproduced and circulated freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.


Quality and sanitation

When was the last time you bought Grade B eggs in the supermarket? When was the last time you even saw Grade B eggs displayed for sale?

Of course we know that rating agencies in America and other advanced nations apply that rating to eggs that are both perfectly safe and nourishing. And they're certainly less expensive than those grade A eggs that we keep buying. So why do we avoid them? There's just something about the letter B that conveys a sense of inferiority. We don't pay to see B movies, and in California we don't dine in restaurants that display the State's B sanitation rating in their window.

The common interpretation is that A represents the normal case. Any grade below A conveys to many of us a sense that something is wrong with the product or the establishment. That seems to apply also to academic performance.

Academic grades

I recently finished teaching a course. The students did very well: lots of As, a few Bs, and a scattering of lower grades.

After posting the grades I started getting requests from students wanting to schedule conferences to discuss (i.e. negotiate, plead, cajole) their grades. Which students did those requests come from? Exclusively from students who had earned a B!

After I remind them of the clear policy stated at the beginning of the course, if they still want a conference I schedule it. And if we should then discover that I made a rare mistake or misjudgment, then of course I correct it. Sometimes, unfortunately, we have to go through an argument: "What did I do wrong?" the student may ask. "Nothing," I explain, "A course grade of B represents excellent performance.

Alternative scales in high-school

The first high-school I attended1 used these mnemonic codes for students' grades:
SSuperior
EExcellent
GGood
FFair
DFailure

Of course, college admissions people and everyone else knew that they meant exactly the same levels of schievement that we associate with the A, B, . . scheme, but it was easier for the students to accept. If you got an E you felt good about your excellent grade, and you didn't provoke an argument with the teacher about it. Even a G, which might disappoint your parents, was no disgrace. And it was understood that S meant something very special: Superior or oustanding performance.

The high-school I graduated from2 used pure numerical grades. If you got an 83 in Trigonometry, you might be pleased or disappointed, but there was nothing subjective or judgmental about it.

Alas, what worked in high-school doesn't help in college. Any university that instituted either of those old-fashioned high-school grading scales would become an object of ridicule. Mature students are expected to understand what course grades are about.


1Senn High School in Chicago. I don't know whether they still grade that way.

2American School of Paris.

Last modified May 9, 2013

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