An opinion piece I wrote on the tyranny of the grade point average in last Sunday's Boston Globe prompted a surprisingly supportive response, particularly from academics who agree that the over-reliance on GPA by colleges, universities, and professional schools discourages risk taking and creativity, and directs students toward the least challenging courses. Some carped that grade inflation was to blame, but I believe that grade inflation is the symptom--not the disease.
It is true that at many institutions, faculty are evaluated by students--who penalize low graders and reward easy graders: a professor who assigns a 25-page paper and grades assiduously, for example, risks getting lower student evaluations than a professor who assigns no papers--and gives high grades based on, say, a rather easy multiple choice test. But the reason students demand such high grades is that these grades all but determine their future--a quick look at the top ten law schools, for example, show that a student with a B/B+ average has almost no chance of admission--regardless of his or her score on the law school entrance exam. Were students admitted to top law schools, medical schools, business schools, etc, based not chiefly on their GPA, but on how effectively they challenged themselves in college, and how courageously they rose to that challenge--more students would demand challenge and fewer would demand A's.
I have heard from parents who complain that their college and high school aged children shy away from challenging math and science courses, not from a lack of interest and energy, but precisely because they fear the GPA penalty. Given that the understanding of basic scientific principles is absolutely crucial to the setting of public policy, perhaps it's time to reconsider the centrality of the GPA in our educational system.