guest columnist
Aaron Stevens is a senior majoring in computer information systems and legal studies.

How can the average performance of students at IU be above average? In the world of mathematics, it is impossible. At IU, this happens because of grade inflation. When the scores of an exam or even an entire class are curved, the resulting grades do not adequately represent the level of ability or learning of the members of that class.

For example, this means students might get a grade of C in their freshman calculus class because of a powerful curve, even though their real score (the one based on actual performance on tests and exams) might be a failing grade of 42 percent. The end result is students complete degrees and enter professions without ever really learning the material the University requires for graduation.

This sounds problematic, but it is common at IU. Many departments curve every class so the resulting average grade in the class is a 2.7, or a B-. I've even heard what I hope are rumors that some schools and departments here curve to a 3.3, or a B+. This makes everyone's transcripts look happy indeed. And it makes the departments (and individual teachers) look good too, because they can boast the average grade in the class was above average.

If the concept of an average grade being above average is a little difficult for you to grasp, don't feel ashamed of your lack of quantitative ability. I have yet to understand how this is possible myself. Our transcripts, which employers use to rate us in comparison to other students at other institutions, claim a grade of A is "Excellent," B is "Good," C is "Average," D is "Poor," and F is "Failure." So if C is "Average," how is it even conceivable that students can, on average, perform above average? It isn't.

For this to have happened, these grades must have been inflated (or perhaps the material just isn't challenging enough, but I sincerely doubt the "average" student will tell you his or her classes are not challenging).

In essence, grade inflation in a university is not at all unlike poor quality of earnings in a corporation. When auditing firms rate corporations' quality of earnings for the preparation of their annual reports, they can rate the earnings as being of eith er "good" quality or "poor" quality. A poor quality of earnings rating means the actual performance of the company is not as rosy as the figures appearing on the income statement would have you believe. As well, a poor quality of earnings rating will ofte n deter investors from buying stock - essentially an act of faith where they put their money into something intangible - because they cannot have faith in the company's real performance.

Perhaps we should think of grade inflation as representative of a poor quality of academics. Investors who have stock in a company rated as having a poor quality of earnings will most likely feel they have been cheated, and will seek to have the CEO unseated (if not beheaded). Employers who invest in students from a university practicing grade inflation should feel cheated as well - they have been. Who will they behead?

It is hard to narrowly define and identify the culprits who have created the entrenched system of inflated grades at IU. Most likely, they include an eclectic mix of the following: associate instructors, who don't want their student to think they are too hard (thus implying they are not good teachers, which is most certainly untrue); heads of departments, who don't want even their poorest students to flunk out, which would mean less funding to the department; students, who hold unrealistic expectations of what their grades should be and who incorrectly correlate the difficulty of a class with the grade they receive in that class; and the students' friends and family, who incorrectly expect everyone to be a suitable candidate for success in higher education, and who hold entire schools responsible for the failings of individual students.

The end result is cheapened grades. If everyone can get good grades, then good grades are meaningless. For those among the student body who truly are above average, and based on the definition of average, this should come out to about 15,000 students, they have been cheated out of the special recognition they rightfully deserve.

Posted Thursday, July 31 1997