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Grade Inflation

Posted by Arjendu on May 14, 2011

Carleton faculty have been discussing grade inflation recently: The data indicates an approximate increase of about 0.14 grade points a decade in the average grade at Carleton over the last 30 years, bang in the middle of the pack of one of the better studies and we are going through one of those periods where considering what this means and what we might do about it seems appropriate. But don’t worry, of course there are people who say that there is no grade inflation at all. (You can read about all sorts of things related to grade inflation at the Wikipedia site, for example, though of course, caveat lector and all that).

Why and how has this happened? There is the ‘the world is going to hell in a hand-basket (we’ve screwed up undergraduate education and no one learns anything anymore)‘ argument from Stuart Rojstaczer which  you can use as a baseline.

Then there is another whole different set of arguments that (speaking from the Carleton perspective) notes that (a) we’ve tremendously increased the support structure for students: They have access to writing support centers, math skills centers, reference librarians, information technologists … and other such personnel and resources that didn’t exist previously; (b) this sort of support system extends outside the purely academic side: We have a different and more thoughtful ways of tracking their progress through the Dean of Students office, and of providing help through Wellness Center counselors and elsewhere that was simply not possible earlier (c) The students are better trained on average coming in to Carleton than they’ve been (SAT scores keep creeping up) and finally (d) Our pedagogy has improved tremendously.

This last perhaps needs to spelled out a little more: It’s not that current faculty are claiming to be better intrinsically teachers than the various legendary professors who have gone before us. It’s that the way we teach has benefited tremendously from research on how students learn. The simplest example of this that speaks to the grade inflation question directly is that in writing intensive courses, we’ve learned to give students opportunity to revise their work, sometimes multiple times, and working with writing assistants and professional support staff as well as the faculty member in question before submitting their final paper. Is there any wonder that these grades are a lot better than they would be if based on the first effort?

None of these arguments discounts the possibility of a natural ratcheting effect: Assume that there is something, anything, that leads faculty to grade slightly more generously than they were themselves graded. Perhaps it is because they believe, correctly or otherwise, that their students are learning more than they ever did. Or anything else, it doesn’t matter what it is. Once you have that assumption, then you can see how grades ratchet up, generation after generation, with or without a ‘real’ improvement in student learning.

Next, why should we do anything about it? If you assume that current grades are NOT earned, then the reason is straightforward.  We shouldn’t be doing ‘false advertising.’

And if so, how would we tackle it?

Well, how would we find out if the grades are earned? One way would be to introduce standardized tests of some sort to calibrate, and then re-set our grading system accordingly. Let’s assume we mean a standardized exam that is sort of cumulative and tests skills across the board. It turns out that there are some national attempts to talk about such things. I’ll let you hunt down these ideas on your own because of what I’m about to tell you: Carleton students broke one of the better-designed-and-known diagnostics when it was administered to them. They scored so high that the tests had to be renormed (twice, I believe) to accommodate our student scores. And then they hit the ceiling again (after which the test-makers refused to budge). We can’t talk about the details of this in public, so I’ll let it hang as a mysterious allusion. Unfair, I know, but my hands are tied, in this case. Anyway, what we learned from this exercise so far is that we can’t quite tell how well our students would do on an abstract external evaluation (compared to their internal grades) but they do extremely well.

So far, no reason to doubt our high grades with external benchmarks. In the absence of a benchmark telling us what our grades ‘should’ be, it’s hard to move forward except on some abstract principle, and some ‘gut-level’ feel of what is right. This hasn’t prevented various schools from trying different strategies. I refer you to a Princeton experiment (and ongoing consequences, including fears that it is affecting job-placement rates) which mandates that only a certain percentage of grades can be As. Will we go this route? Unlikely, but stay tuned.

I’ll note in passing that there has been no suggestion of standardized/external examinations at the microscopic level, for each course because of the idiosyncratic nature of our courses.

However, even if the high grades are earned, a second strong reason for doing something about grade compression is that we are starting to lose the ability to distinguish between student performances: If everyone gets an A, then even if all were over the ‘excellent’ bar, surely there are differences in performance that are being made invisible because the system is saturated by this compression.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory is the thought that I’ve read an article that said that while grade inflation did indeed compress grades within a class, averaged over a student’s career, differences showed up in the final GPA. In short, the argument was that you might have to look at more digits beyond the decimal point than you used to, but you could still find differences. I can’t track down this article, so I just throw that out there.

Triggered by this, I have been idly throwing around one way in which we can decouple the second issue (distinguishing performance) from the first (is it earned): Decimal grading. That is, instead of going with As, Bs, and Cs, (with pluses and minuses as you like) which then get translated back to their numerical equivalents, why don’t we just assign numerical grades on a 4.0 scale? That allows us to distinguish with much better resolution between students.

Or perhaps you can think of other imaginative versions of the ‘revaluation’ of currency that happens when there has been hyperinflation when you just redefine 100 of your old currency thing-bobs to be 1 of your new currency thingy-bobs.

Of course the asymptotic consequence of decimal grading is … a ‘grade’ or report that presents your scores on a 100 point scale (or a 1000 point scale, your choice, but reducing it to percentages is ultimately sensible). Exactly the one I grew up with, in India.


5 Responses to “Grade Inflation”

  1. Bitsy said

    At the end of this I’m left with a number of deeper questions about grades. I’ll throw them out there.
    What information do grades contain? What information do people think they contain / how are grades being use by people at Carleton and in the outside world? What information would we want them to contain? Why do we give grades, is it primarily for the signal to the outside world, or is it primarily a motivator to a person to actually do the work? And the practical, how do the answers to these questions affect the policy that one makes?

  2. My argument is that “we’ve screwed up undergraduate education and students are learning less” not “no one learns anything anymore”. Sheesh. Other people make the “no one learns anything anymore” argument, not me. Note well a conversation I had with someone who looks at graduate school applications regularly. “We used to get Carleton students applying and their grades meant something. Now it seems they all have A’s and who knows if they are good or bad. Is that really so?” My answer to him: “Probably. I can’t divulge the percentage of A’s they hand out, it’s confidential info they’ve sent me, but they are high.” So independent of the fact that your students are learning less (like everywhere else), grade inflation is, at least with a sample of one, causing people to second guess applicants from your school. That’s not a good thing. Also, numerically there is inherent noise in a GPA – random factors mean that a 3.6 is essentially the same as a 3.8 – making attempts at trying to distinguish between one A student and another impossible. You have a lot of A students. Given that your median graduate is an A- student, you are essentially saying to the public that at least half of your graduating class consists of outstanding scholars. That’s simply not believable. Even your fellow Minnesotan from Lake Woebegon wouldn’t go that far. Carleton has a problem. It is, in fact, grading in a way that’s divorced from reality. It can solve that problem or not. But whatever it does, temporizing, equivocating, and excuse making doesn’t help. I hope that this mini-screed doesn’t cause Carleton to stop sending me its grade information, which I truly appreciate receiving for research purposes. Thanks for that.

  3. Arjendu said

    Stuart: Thanks for the response. And apologies if I hyperbolized your argument. In response to your general comments about Carleton’s grade inflation: as I said, we are discussing/debating/reacting to this issue on campus, even if too slowly for your liking. And I won’t try to represent all the arguments here, nor defend everyone’s grading policy or philosophy. That is, I am NOT speaking as an Associate Dean here.

    But while I continue to struggle (pace Bitsy’s comments) about the broader philosophical meanings of grades, I can and *will* defend the grades I award, as a Professor, and for those in my Department. More specifically, if a student gets an A of any sort in my courses, that means that they have earned over 90% of the credit available, including the most rigorous examinations and problem sets I could devise on the material I have taught. And if they manage to maintain that in general, and in particular graduate with an A- across the physics classes I teach then I can promise that they have demonstrated the ability to excel in whatever physics test you can throw at them.

    Further, since you bring up graduate schools: There are ways of validating these issues beyond just faceless transcript grades; there are the GRE tests that our students take (despite the fact that our philosophy and pedagogy is almost antithetical to these timed rapid-fire multiple-choice tests, once they decide they are going to study for those and succeed at them, they do). Apart from the GREs, many of our students move on, using these grades, and the letters of recommendations I write for them, to work with people I know, admire, and respect, in the finest graduate programs in the nation and the world. So the meaning of my grades is tested yearly — and with my personal reputation on the line — in the way these students perform when/if they move on to these programs. And if I overestimated their potential to succeed I expect to be told so, or see the fall-off in acceptance rates to the graduate programs. And nothing of the sort is happening; if anything, quite the obverse.

    [I note here for the record that I mention graduate programs only because these provide further testing of my students’ technical physics skills, not because that’s the only way to use your physics degree. It’s also entirely possibly that we’re also screwing up graduate education and everyone’s learning less, of course.]

  4. If I had a dollar for every professor who maintained that their A’s were reserved for excellence….The numbers say that professors’ appraisals of their grading bear no relation to reality. Collectively they are fooling themselves.

    I’ll be blunt. Since you’re a dean and someone who has a numerical background, I’m flummoxed as to how you can look at the numbers and not say, “This is nuts.” Because that’s exactly what it is, plain and simple. Nuts. Loopy. Crazy. The numbers say exactly that. Look at the numbers. If you can tell me that the x% (I’ll be true to my word and not print what that percentage is) of the grades that are A’s at Carleton represent real academic achievement, then I really do think you need a brain transplant. The even crazier thing is that the percentage of A’s still keeps going up.

    You folks need to stop over-intellectualizing this problem. It’s simple. Your grades are too high, way too high. They bear no relation to reality. You can either throw up your hands and say we have a problem we can’t solve. Or you can actually do something. But all the intellectualizing is worse than doing nothing because it’s simply a waste of time.

    You can talk about grades and what they mean for forever, but the fact is that graduate schools and professional schools use them in a simple way to judge talent. Some of the same people who argue with a straight face that grades have no meaning/are worthless also sit on committees in graduate schools and use grades to dole out scholarships. The reality is that grades are a real currency in academia. Your school has a responsibility to not advertise falsely about your students. It’s a real responsibility. Collectively, you should take it seriously. You aren’t. That’s a fact. The numbers bear it out.

    Carleton students are now paying over 200K for their four years when all is said and done. That’s a ton of money. They should get something real for that money, a quality education. Yet they are getting less in terms of an education than they received in the 1970s when students were paying one tenth of that amount for their four years. They are studying less, far less. Less is demanded of them in terms of achievement. Those are facts. You get some very bright students. I know. I’ve hired them. Why are you no longer consistently challenging them?

    Here is a Carleton story from the 1970s, probably apocryphal, but interesting. A professor wrote two books over a short time span. The second one had been recently published. He got a call from Carleton’s president’s secretary to arrange a time to meet with the president. The professor thought that the president was going to compliment him for his recent book. Instead, when he arrived for his appointment, he was blasted by the president. “I see you’ve written two books recently. What the hell are you doing writing books on my time when you should be teaching and working on your lectures?” Now even if this story isn’t true in its details, the fact that a Carleton president would be included in a narrative berating a professor is interesting. If it is even partly true, it suggests a course of action vis a vis grade inflation. Carleton’s current president would be completely justified in calling a meeting of the faculty, and saying, “What the hell are you doing giving out all those A’s?”

    I’m off my soap box now. Thank you.

  5. Arjendu said

    Stuart, apologies for the delay; end of term issues in the Dean’s office.

    To be honest, I don’t know what to say to your comments. Look, the only thing I offered in defense of my grades was external tests, some objective, and some subjective. Now you may argue that I haven’t done enough of it, or that I am lying or indulging in wishful thinking, but what exactly else exists to norm my grades?

    Some of this may come from having grown up with a very different system of grading, but I don’t have the (clearly, given the feeling in your words above) visceral reaction to a grade that you seem to.To reiterate, an A from me means the student has earned 90% of the credit available with the most rigorous testing possible; I see nothing wrong with helping as many students get there as I can, and I try my damndest to pin it to external norms as often as possible. What else can I possibly do?

    Perhaps you believe that grades should be intrinsically ‘curved’ and that only a certain percentage of students should get As, etc. In which case I’ve missed that in your arguments somewhere, but I can see why you react the way you do. Unless you say that, I don’t see how ‘the numbers bear it out’.

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