In Response to: Are Grades Too High?

“Are Grades Too High?” (On the Campus, April 23) took me back to a 1956 Keycept on the desirability of grading.

My opinions remain unchanged following a 37-year university-teaching career. Grade-free (or free-grade) learning can lead to laziness; meaningful grades provide a sport-like incentive and a standard for measuring one’s achievement.

Outstanding talents from grade-inflated institutions can’t be distinguished from their cohorts, and graduate schools and employers lack this means of identifying standout candidates.

Even Princeton grades become meaningless if mostly As and Bs. Grades should record relative, not absolute performance, with grad schools and hirers considering the comparative values of A’s from Princeton versus A’s from elsewhere.

Grade inflation began in the Vietnam era, supporting student draft-exemptions. Too, the self-esteem movement contributed, as did the consumerist view of education. Maintaining traditional grading standards ultimately became impossible as faculty inflaters overwhelmed us few foot-draggers.

Whereas the undergraduate population had been mostly middle-class and the grade-distribution curve bell-shaped, average performance later declined and the curve became bimodal. This bimodality reflected a contrast between students from affluent and educated English-speaking backgrounds that included recreational reading, and lower-income, first-generation higher-education participants, with limited parental education, minimal reading experience, and (among 30 percent at my campus) English not the household tongue. Many such students had to work to pay for their educations, leaving less time for academics. Another notable factor was the arrival of admittees who had grown up entirely in the television/Internet age, in which reading was minimal.

Stephen C. Jett ’60