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Grade inflation, or brain boom?

“Thirty summas at UP commencement,” was the banner of a news story last week, in reference to the annual graduation rites of the University of the Philippines Diliman. Apart from the 30 who graduated summa cum laude (with highest honors), there were 325 who graduated magna cum laude (with high honors), and 936 cum laude (with honors). In a Facebook post of the story, somebody quipped, tongue in cheek: “Meanwhile the nonhonor grads, all three of them, will be in charge of serving refreshments.”

In 1975, UP Los Baños produced the third (and first male) summa cum laude in the university’s then 66-year history, breaking a 28-year drought, as this second largest UP campus last produced summas in 1946 and 1947, both women. He was the lone summa cum laude graduate in the entire UP system that year. Last year, UP Diliman alone had 29 summa cum laude graduates; this year’s crop broke that record. Nowadays, it seems that having over 20 summa cum laudes in a graduating batch has become the trend for the country’s premier university. “Sampu sampera na ang summa,” commented a netizen. Latin honors almost seem like the norm.

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Are students getting smarter? Or are we seeing a phenomenon of “grade inflation” that one netizen laments as “diminishing the value of the so-called honors”?

James Flynn, a New Zealand political studies professor, documented a rise in average IQ scores over time, in a phenomenon now known as “the Flynn effect.” But averages can be misleading. The rising averages need not mean everyone is getting smarter. In fact, studies have shown that the Flynn effect is more concentrated on the lower IQ scores than the higher end. Those who would have been called “stupid” no longer are. Better education systems, better programs supporting students, better nutrition, and better access to information all help in bringing up the IQs of the masses. So, the Flynn effect cannot be the sole explanation for the seeming boom in brains.

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Can it be that the more sociable and image-conscious millennial teacher is more nurturing and grade-lenient than the terror professors in our past? Many schools have adopted automated test checking, reducing “show your solution” problems to mechanical multiple-choice questions. The internet has made plagiarism criminally simple. Technological study aids are cheaper and more widely available. Anyone who grew up with library card catalogues and now uses online search engines knows how much faster it is to do research now. Copy-paste no longer involves highlighters and hours of taking notes. Information arrives distilled and precise, reducing the need to pore over pages and pages of text to find answers. It’s just so much easier to be smart these days.

The issue of grade inflation has been discussed over the years. In 2011, UP Diliman revised its General Education program because it blamed the ease of getting honors on the freedom to choose “uno-able” courses (i.e., where getting the top grade of 1.0 is easy). But five years later, the double digits are still there, so there must be something else. Also, the record breakers like Tiffany Uy, John Pelias and Mikaela Fudolig aced traditionally tough courses in science and math.

Perhaps it’s simply because they are millennials—this generation that has also been termed the “‘me’ generation,” the “selfie generation,” and the “entitled generation.” Articles have been written about how millennial employees significantly differ from their seniors and how employers would best handle them. Now, people stay in a company not so much out of loyalty as for purpose, appreciation and advancement. They are tech-savvy and used to multitasking, having grown up in a world filled with distractions from the internet and TV. They are as ambitious as they are impatient. It is as if this generation was built for success, defined in the traditional sense.

That more students now earn Latin honors could be due to a millennial character that older generations might consider capricious: passion. Tiffany Uy says she found her inspiration as a child. She recalls how she met an accident in kindergarten that had half of her face bleeding, and a doctor had to stitch her up while she was conscious. “I was really scared,” she relates. “[The doctor] was the one who reassured me that everything was going to be OK. I got out of that surgery wanting to be just like her.” John Pelias’ favorite quote as posted in Facebook is from mathematician Bertrand Russel: “Mathematics may be defined as the subject where we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true”—reflecting a seeming awe and fascination for the science of numbers. Millennials are a generation of opportunity. They are globalized. They have the benefit of finding their place in the world because the world is an open book to them. They excel in their niche because their niche is their passion.

Whether this generation is truly significantly smarter than those before them is a complicated question with no straightforward answer. Multiple intelligences need to be evaluated and defined, and even then, the fluidity of intelligence makes it difficult to pin down. For sure, the millennials are in a more privileged position than those that came before them: They are better able to choose their place in the world they face.

To the generation for whom Google is a verb and not a marvel of human technology, to those who can now imagine vaster and dream bigger, Mikaela Fudolig had this to say in her 2007 UP valedictory speech: “Take not the road less traveled. Rather, make new roads.”

These new summa cum laudes appear poised to do just that.

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TAGS: education, grade inflation, graduation, school honors, University of the Philippines
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