The Grading of America

Restaurants, the bay and now cars get letter grades

September 01, 2010

School is back in session. Could that be why it seems like everybody is handing out report cards these days?

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issues an annual report card with letter grades rating the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay. It said that in 2009, the overall health of the bay improved to a "C," up from the "C-minus" of 2008. Better, but still not quite good enough for the honor roll.

Recently, restaurants in New York City were required to begin displaying 8-by-10-inch placards displaying the letter grade — "A," "B," or "C" — given them by health inspectors for cleanliness. Some jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, have been doing this for years. Not surprisingly, restaurants that get an "A" are happy to plaster the grade on the front of their establishment, while those pulling a "C" have been less enthusiastic about telling the world how they ranked.

Now, the letter grade fever may even be spreading to new cars. One proposal put forth this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation calls for giving new vehicles grades ranging from "A-plus" to "D" based on their fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. The grade would be placed on the vehicle's window sticker. Another proposal calls for putting the same information on the window sticker but without the grade. The chosen proposal would go into effect on 2012 vehicles.

Some in the auto industry have criticized the grading system, saying that it is a value judgment that conjures up bad school-day memories about passing and failing (although it should be noted that no vehicles, even ultra-polluting, low-mileage behemoths, will actually "fail"). Others have suggested that the government should grade on the curve, comparing big SUV to big SUV, and not to the itty-bitty, battery-powered vehicles that are sure to garner "A-pluses."

As any schoolteacher knows, once you award letter grades, you get complaints about playing favorites and grade inflation. Some say the highly rated electric vehicles look like the teacher's pets and should be taken down a notch by making them account for the environmental impact of generating the electricity used to charge them. Competition for a good grade can be vicious.

Of course, grades don't tell the whole story. That is an argument used by every kid who ever got a "C" in math, but it has some truth to it. When choosing a new vehicle, factors such as cost, safety and style also figure in the decision. That has always been the case, and it will remain so whether environmental grades are slapped on windows or not.

We applaud the proposals to add more data to the new car stickers. Those stickers have basically remained the same for the past 30 years. We think that car buyers are smart enough to process information about new vehicles without the help of a letter grade. But if that is what the public wants — and the EPA and Department of Transportation are accepting public comments on the proposals for a 60-day period — then so be it. Letter grades have been applied to other industries and facets of our lives without serious repercussions.

What we don't want to see are bumper stickers that read: "My car is smarter than yours."

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