Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Grade inflation

In addition to my wildly successful wine writing career (ha!), I am an adjunct environmental science/geography instructor at area universities. One thing that my students often complain to me about is that I am tough grader.  I am a firm believer that most people are average (myself included). A smaller percentage are above average and a select few are exceptional. Much to the chagrin of my students, this philosophy is reflected in my grading. In a way, I am glad that our American society has taught us to think that we are the best of the best, but only when we strive to achieve excellence instead of simply expecting it. So many students expect to receive "A" grades. It is sad when a "B" is now considered a subpar grade. When did above average become a bad thing? A "C" is the kiss of death to one's GPA.

I am seeing the same grade inflation when it comes to wine scores. Maybe I'm just a grade inflation curmudgeon but I can't stand how many 90+ scores are out there! Now, I am not a believer in points, though I will admit I am intrigued and perhaps easily departed with my money when I see a high (94+) score. For this reason, amongst others, I prefer the terms flawed, average, good, very good, exceptional (and perhaps if ever review a transcendental wine I will have to add a new term) instead of numerical ratings. Saying that a wine is good sounds so much better than giving a wine 83 points. I know most people only publish the highest scores so as to not bruise the delicate winery ego by saying, "I'm 74 points on that" (there is nothing wrong with being average, unless you think that you are making amazing wines or you're a salesperson!). I think more lower scores need to be published because you can find a 90+ score for almost any wine (ahem, J. Newman). Perhaps if the public sees lots of low 80s scores for XYZ Winery and only one 93 by Joe Schmoe they might actually be better informed consumers. You don't see school teachers only count and return A-worthy assignments to students! Unfortunately, giving A grades is easier than dealing with the consequences (such as only 77% of students pass the military's enlistment exam).

I think that a big part of the score/James Suckling debate that has picked up in recent weeks (e.g., here, here and here) goes hand in hand with the grade inflation epidemic that has swept through the industry. Such is the power that democratic sites like CellarTracker/GrapeStories offer against the reigning wine dictators. So many people are peeved when Jay Bob Pucklingchuk gives a wine 96 points, but it doesn't match their palate. Perhaps if people read the prose that accompanied the score they might have determined that they in fact don't like blackberry liqueur and vanilla cherry cola in their Riedel. Also, comments on why a grade was earned is much better feedback than just a simple numerical grade. In school, you can figure out which teachers are easy graders and which are the tough ones. While it is nice to get a good grade without working hard, do you actually improve yourself (or I have I been misinformed that is the purpose of education)? I argue that we should seek out those tough graders so that we can actually improve our wine education.

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