So the real problem here is that college classes serve several purposes. One of those is teaching you something, at least in theory. One of them is determining whether you have learned enough to be successful in the subsequent class in the subject. One of them is helping graduate schools identify the students who’ll be the best fit for their programs. One of them is helping employers tell who knows enough to do well in a job.
Most of these are not zero-sum at all! It’s totally possible to have a teacher who is so effective at teaching material, and a curriculum that’s so accessible and well-defined, that 90% of the students taking that teacher’s course will learn all of the material they’re expected to know, will be prepared to excel in the subsequent class on the subject, and will be prepared to use those skills in the work world. In the work world, you can have accommodations, so providing you with accommodations doesn’t provide less information about your ability to succeed in the work world.
The one thing where differentiating ‘learned the material and is now a competent master of it’ and ‘learned the material without accommodations’ is more important than, generally, knowing what a student is capable of is grad school. And since the vast majority of college students are not going to grad school, it is kind of a disaster for our entire way of measuring the other three goals to be set up around the goal of helping grad schools with their admissions.
In general, I’m not convinced that accommodations do screw over the students who want to go to grad school. Firstly, accommodations will exist in grad school too, or should. Even if everyone has the resources they need to get an A, consistently getting an A communicates a lot about you, and recommendations seem to exist precisely to help grad schools tell the difference between ‘learned everything we taught’ and ‘has a particular gift’, which grades are otherwise kind of too noisy and complex to fully communicate.
I sometimes kind of feel like the point of no-accommodations is to demonstrate your preparedness for future no-accommodations systems that don’t have a better reason to be no-accommodations, and we could just be accommodating, to the extent we can afford and logistically manage it, all the way down.
But even if our current system is perfect for grad school….then I think we need to confront the fact that we are forcing tons and tons of kids through college who have zero interest in grad school and will happily live their whole lives without interacting with our higher education system again as soon as we let them escape from it. It’s one thing if we’re screwing them over because we don’t know how to measure how people learn and measure how much people know, but if we’re screwing them over because colleges have decided that their real purpose is as admissions departments for grad schools, then what are we even doing? Let’s build grading systems in college around the goals of that college, and since the vast majority of people won’t go to grad school the goals of the vast majority of colleges should not be grad school.
The point of a grade isn’t to certify mastery in an absolute sense, it is to get jobs or get into graduate programs or whatever it is a person does after college, and those are always zero-sum competitions.
That’s not actually the case. One: Grades ARE meant to certify mastery if the program is any good. Two: Skilled people aren’t really competing that much with each other – two engineers will (hopefully) produce twice as much value as one, creating twice as much surplus to divide between each other.