04/02/2012 09:05 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Grade Inflation: Killing Innovation

First conceived in the pre-k years by "nurturing" teachers who doled out "Fantastic Job!" and "Genius Work!" stickers to chicken-scratch drawings, reinforced in high school through easy A's on sloppily constructed papers, and manifest at the collegiate level in the form of undeserved summa cum lauds, grade inflation pervades American academic culture. It may appear, at first glance, to be a harmless way for educators to encourage intellectual curiosity, but in reality grade inflation has accomplished the very opposite. Deflated standards have become the crutch of laziness, essentially depreciating the value of genuine academic endeavors. As a result, the American education system, once touted by Thomas Jefferson as the basis of democracy and progression, fails to prepare the students for the real challenges of a globalized society.

The 'A,' a once-coveted mark reserved for only the most exalted feats of student performance, is now a commonplace occurrence -- an expectation, even. Take Harvard for example, where in 2001, A's and A-minuses constituted a solid 51 percent of grades and a whopping 91 percent of the class graduated summa, magna, or cum laude. The effect is to devalue academic rigor and cheapen the real worth of an honors degree. When, at Harvard, "a quarter of all honors go to students who do not earn honors in their major," those who may have considered taking on the additional burden of a thesis because of genuine passion in the sciences or arts are deterred by the meagerness of the payback. The disincentivization of hard work isn't just found on the collegiate level -- it takes root in high school. The majority of AP U.S. History students, my peers, agree that the grade gap between a "Sparknotes" understanding and a truly insightful understanding of the subject is negligible and not worth the effort. When studying for two hours yields the same A as studying for 20, why waste the sweat, blood, and tears? However, strife is necessary for real success -- the light bulb wasn't invented because Edison got everything right on the first try.

In response to the alarming percentage of collegiate honors students, Jamshed Barucha, the dean of Dartmouth College, says, "To be an honors student is to create your own intellectual work in a these or a science lab -- to have had a transformative experience." Lenient grading policies discourage the arduous effort necessary to realize the full potential of a student's interest in a specific field of study, closing off possible roads that may have led to innovation.

As near-4.0 GPAs become the norm, students begin to expect A's out of their courses and choose classes based on where they will receive the highest marks for the least time commitment. This creates an effectual market out of education with grades as a commodity, compounded by the pressure of scoring a high GPA to show off to college admissions officers, or later on, corporate recruiters, law schools, business schools, or medical schools. From a 2004 survey published in Project Innovation, 61.4 percent of undergraduates take a class to "get a good grade" as compared to 25.3 percent who claim to take one to "learn new information to apply to their lives." Moreover, a greater fraction of these students believe that a letter grade should be determined by a modified curve -- a form of grade inflation -- rather than predetermined cutoffs, which would set objective standards and deflate grades.

What's alarming is that professors, jaded by their lackluster students and the modern GPA system, respond to such demands -- adding 10, 12, and 14-point curves to batches of low test scores, conducting classes as informational spoon-feeding sessions, and giving out 100's on free-response questions as if it were perpetually Christmas and the three-letter scores were candy canes. What this does, essentially, is create a group of unqualified students who go on to become unqualified professionals in our society. And let's be honest, do you really want an open-heart bypass from someone who fumbled his way through med school?

When, despite all of the bubble wrap, students still aren't able to garner that expected A, they drop out. This is precisely why grade inflation and grade obsession is a threat to the nation's crop of science and engineering students. Ironic, since grade inflation is least prevalent in those fields. But because examinations in the sciences are based on mastery of objective material, there is less room for a teacher to excuse mediocrity. The problem comes when a budding mechanical engineer notices the 10-point gap between her objective science averages and her inflated humanities scores.

"Students who have a bigger gap are more likely to not persist in these science classes and are pulled toward their non-science courses," says Ben Ost of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, who recently uncovered the correlation between low grades in introductory STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes and higher STEM dropout rates. With its famously low ratio of science and engineering degrees as compared to other countries, the United States cannot afford to stand by idly as the GPA monster plucks and consumes its future civil engineers and nuclear physicists. As former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testifies, "Excellence in science and engineering helps a country to be technologically innovative and economically competitive."

Exaggerated GPAs and depreciated college degrees -- the byproducts of rampant grade inflation -- have turned America from the country of opportunity into the country of underachievement. Our culture of consumerism has created a subculture of grade inflation, and the culture of grade inflation has conditioned us into a generation of fools who demand an A-plus for C-minus caliber work. What we have left is a rapidly depreciating stock of human capital, an inventory of ingenuity too meager to meet the demands of competitiveness and interdependence in a globalized society. And yet we think we'll cultivate the generation that will cure cancer, create world peace and solve global poverty? Thomas Jefferson is surely rolling over in his grave.