Thursday, May 30, 2019

Grade Inflation

What does a grade signify?  I addressed that topic two weeks ago:
Some might say that a grade represents student achievement, how much a student has learned in relation to the course content standards—but that’s not exactly accurate. If it were, a student’s grade would be his/her grade on the final exam. So, in reality, a grade is sort of a weighted average of how much a student has learned in relation to the course content standards as well as how well they were able to “stay caught up” in that learning—periodic test and quiz grades, for example. Some say that if a student didn’t know the material last week, but knows it this week, the student’s grade should reflect that. Again, the logical conclusion of that line of thinking is that a semester grade should reflect what a student knows at the end of the semester—it should be the final exam grade.
Grades are important.  They should tell us something significant about a student's achievement.  I do not "round up" or any of that other silliness that some teachers do in order to artificially inflate a student's grade.  If you want an A-, earn at least 90% in the course.  OK, since our grading program compels me to round, I set it to round to the nearest tenth of a percentage point rather than to the nearest percentage point; thus, an 89.95% will round to a 90.0% A-, while an 89.94% will remain an 89.9% B+.  Minimum percentages to earn a certain grade (e.g., 80% for a B- or 83% for a B) are chiseled in stone for me, and students who want a higher grade know that I don't fudge grades for any reason.

OK, there's one caveat.  So that no student ever has an excuse just to give up, saying there's no reason to study or try because it's impossible for them to score 60+% and pass the course, I'll give a passing grade (D-) to any student who scores at least 70% on the final exam but whose overall grade is still not at least 60%.  If you can score 70% on my final exam, there's no reason to retake the course--you get a gift of a D- and on you go.

I doubt too many people will fault me for that policy.

So no, I don't artificially inflate students' grades.  I don't want to contribute to grade inflation.  but grade inflation is not just a high school phenomenon, not by a long shot:
Since the late 1960s, universities have increasingly suffered from grade inflation and an emphasis on ensuring that all admitted students graduate. At the same time, schools have become more liberal about accepting applicants based on unorthodox qualifications, from athletic ability to nonacademic accomplishments, disadvantageous backgrounds, and demonstrated social "awareness."

If these changes were simply used to admit a wider range of individuals who in the past would likely have been overlooked but who, given the opportunity, were capable of meeting the strict existing standards, this would be a laudable development. But that is not what has happened.

The old academic criteria, imperfect as they were, were in fact doing a reasonable job of selecting individuals able and willing to handle the rigors of traditional college. The blunt fact is that the majority of people who scored below a 1200 on the verbal and math sections of the SAT would have found it difficult or impossible to handle a curriculum like that required to earn a state-school engineering degree or comparable certification. Today, thanks to grade inflation, such students can and do pass through top schools with top honors, especially in the liberal arts...

Though grades have always been lower in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects than in the arts and humanities, graduating from a good school with a degree in any major did not use to be a cakewalk. Average GPAs have risen by a full point or more since the late 1960s. shows that at Michigan State, for example, the percentage of As doubled to about 30 percent of all grades from 1963 to 1973 and then rose again by about 50 percent from 1983 to 2013. This is consistent with other research on the widespread change in grading standards nationwide...

Standardized tests are frequently derided for advantaging the rich. But in fact, they are often the primary way for those without money and connections to make their case. Just imagine if the SAT were so easy that everyone got the same score. Who would more likely win admission to a top school: the wealthy world-traveler with prestigious extracurriculars (and a parent willing to donate a tidy sum to the university's endowment), or the scrappy straight-A student who spends his summers working for minimum wage to help cover his tuition...

Many will chide me and say that the U.S. system of higher education is the envy of the world. As an academic, I answer that this is only half-right. The U.S. higher education system is admired for its faculty research and the products of its graduate programs, not for its level of basic teaching—and the former areas, lucky for all of us, remain overwhelmingly meritocratic. Students at the doctoral level are selected with minimal regard for the "holistic" considerations so prevalent at the undergraduate level. They're generally drawn from around the world without attempts to represent different groups equally. If you doubt this, see how far your lacrosse championship or volunteer experience will go in compensating for low GRE math scores when applying to a Ph.D. program in economics or physics at a top-20 university.

The corrupt undergraduate admissions process at most schools today can flourish because the higher branches of the American academic tree are so good. But the lower branches are rotten with grade inflation and social promotion. The move away from an emphasis on genuine academic achievement and meritocratic promotion has done a disservice to the least well-off while offering more opportunities for the rich and connected to buy the trappings of success for their offspring.
A well-written article.


Anonymous said...

We are now experiencing the results of that whole "self esteem" movement. Society was more interested in making students feel good about themselves than holding them accountable. They are now adults and "just can't handle the truth" or accept responsibility for their actions.

Darren said...

Regarding the self-esteem movement, for years I've said, "Self-esteem is the result of achievement, not the cause of it." What a disaster that was.