At dinner last night, I was talking to a friend involved in education, and she was pressing me hard on what she perceived to be grade inflation at my school. I could have argued the facts more vigorously: the kids she meets are applicants for an ultra-elite college (she's an interviewer), so when they say "I'm getting A's and so are my friends," that's hardly a representative sample of the class. But I admitted that our bell curve is centered on a B--probably a high B--rather than on a C. And then we started talking past each other: her interpretation seemed to be that, because our kids are really smart and do their work, our attitude was something like "They probably deserve A's, so why not just give them A's?" Her response to this hypothetical motive was to ask me "What do you do to differentiate students?"
In fact, it's more complicated than that, and at 24 hours remove, I feel more clearly the need to challenge the entire premise of her argument. (And, to be fair to my friend, this is a common argument. So even if I've misattributed it to her, it's an argument worth discussing.) You see, my goal isn't primarily, or even partially, to differentiate students. I understand that that's something colleges wish I would do, that the entire college admissions system depends on using grades (and test scores) as differentiators. But I'm a teacher, and so my goal is, primarily, to teach. And at some level, that's the opposite goal.
At the beginning of my course, I have to figure out two essential questions. The first--really the a pair--looks at the present and immediate past: what do my students know and what can they do? The second pair looks towards the future: at the end of my course, what do I want my students to know, and what should they be able to do? If I'm waxing philosophical, I add a third essential question: ten years from now, what do I want them to retain of the experience of having been in my class?
Once I've articulated my standards, students who meet those standards get good grades: A's and B's. In fact, when my students get mostly A's, I generally feel like I've done a good job: it means that I've gotten most of my students to master all or almost all of my standards. When my students get C's, D's, or F's, that's supposed to tell them that there's room for improvement. And it tells me that there's room for me to improve, too: because especially when you're working with children, you can't take their attitudes and behaviors as a given. If a kid struggles and doesn't do homework, I wonder what I could do to convince him or her that the homework is worthwhile, that time spent doing these problems will be fruitful in some crucial way.
Now I'm not saying that every time a class gets all A's, everything's hunky-dory. Sometimes it's a sign that the time has come to raise standards, to demand more of students. If you have kids who are currently scoring at the 40th percentile, then when they get all A's, you have external evidence that they have room to grow (that 40th percentile score), and internal evidence that they have the capacity to do it (they're doing everything you ask and are being successful). So then you raise standards. The same might be true if your kids are scoring at the 80th percentile, or even at the 90th--it depends on what your overall goals are. You might change your standards: spend less class time on the stuff they're clearly mastering, and add in projects or more exploratory work. (Some of these changes might decrease test scores but reflect important long-term goals that standardized tests rarely assess.) Partly it depends, too, on what it takes for your students to meet those standards: are they getting A's easily, or are they doing multiple retakes, asking lots of good questions, etc.?
Where do classroom standards come from? In many cases, the common core, or state directives. In the case of the class I'm teaching, they come from my reading of comparable classes taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois. I have external validation--from those schools--that the things I want my kids to be able to do are reasonable goals for honors first-year math majors. I have internal validation that few, if any, of my students find the coursework easy; they all make some mistakes, and many come back for multiple retakes of my quizzes and tests. So yeah, if at the end of the semester almost all of my kids can do those things, then almost all of my kids will get A's. I'm not going to run around trying to ratchet up standards and lower the number of A's. I'm going to be glad that they, and I, have done our jobs. And if colleges can't tell the difference between them without actually reading the two-page single-spaced recommendations I write for the majority of my students--well, that's their problem.