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Confession of an Ivy League teaching assistant
December 13, 2013 12:50 PM   Subscribe

The revelation that the median grade at Harvard is an A- prompted lots of discussion, especially among Ivy-league educated journalists. Some speculated high grades reflect intelligence. Others say professors just want their students to get jobs, or, selfishly, they want favorable teaching evaluations. As a teaching assistant in the economics department at Columbia, I too inflated student grades, but for none of those reasons. I just didn’t want to deal with all the complaining.
posted by latkes (164 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought the fact that A- was average was pretty well known before. A professor at my University said years ago about his grading scheme "An A is an A, a B is a B, and C is an A at Harvard." C is supposed to be an average grade, after all.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:55 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a teacher, I inflate grades. I tell parents this ahead of time.

I explain it like this:

- Other people inflate grades. Your child will be competing for academy slots against students who have inflated grades. There is no rational reason to impede a student's chances at educational opportunities they might deserve as much as the next person to 'stand on the principle of the grading scale.'
- As long as you and I understand the scale, the actual labels are unimportant. I assure you - if your child is getting a C in my class, their work is failure-quality and needs to be improved.
- I want students to be enthusiastic about my class. The stress of a statistically locked bad grade ruins enthusiasm. I'd rather students see the ability to do well and improve rather than impose arbitrarily agreed upon failure labels.

Additionally, actual-failure causes the following things I hate:

- Stigma on failure. We penalize failure socially in an inappropriate fashion.
- Paperwork. Ugh.
- Parent complaints. Usually the parents know their kid is a dud at my subject, but if I'm the one to break the news, there's usually some violent squirming, which is a drag.
posted by Fuka at 12:57 PM on December 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


Wow. You [the author] can't deal with all of the complaining? What a stupid reason for handing out grades students don't deserve.

I'm sure the students who do stellar work and actually deserve the good grades appreciate it when they're competing with their numb-nuts buddies for the plum jobs and everyone's got an indistinguishable "A" on their resume.

I teach an undergraduate class. And I hand out Cs when they're deserved. And I'm actually just fine with students reaching out to me to complain about the grade: If they have a reason why I might be mistaken. I'll happily correct grades. But. I'll also happily defend my actions to the student. And to be fair, if I hand out a shitty grade, I should justify that to the student (if they felt they deserved better). That's a great moment to explain to a student what they did wrong and how they might do better in the future -- which is, unless I'm horribly mistaken -- an extremely critical part of education.
posted by chasing at 1:00 PM on December 13, 2013 [20 favorites]


Anything that accelerates the common understanding that grades are inherently meaningless - including all sorts of confounding variables and thus representing a quite wide range in mastery and knowledge of the material at hand - is fine by me.
posted by downing street memo at 1:03 PM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Wow. You can't deal with all of the complaining? What a stupid reason for handing out grades students don't deserve.

It's not just complaining. They will go over your head, and you will be overruled and maybe yelled at.

Source: Married to a grad student who taed at Columbia.
posted by PMdixon at 1:04 PM on December 13, 2013 [27 favorites]


Wow. You [the author] can't deal with all of the complaining? What a stupid reason for handing out grades students don't deserve.

According to my friends who taught at schools in wealthier districts, this is actually a pretty common reason for high school principals to "encourage" teachers to inflate grades. When a large minority of the parents of your students are calling/emailing daily to complain about reasonable standards like, "Do homework in a timely fashion" or "No, you can't retake a test you failed for full credit," it wears the resistance down, and suddenly it seems reasonable to just give every kid with a C- a C+ instead.

On preview: They will go over your head, and you will be overruled and maybe yelled at.

Yeah, exactly. Grade inflation doesn't come from individual teachers or professors. It comes from the top.
posted by muddgirl at 1:07 PM on December 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


I had an engineering professor rant against grade inflation before he went on to say that he would grade on a strict curve. I had a B+ going until the drop date, then I had a D.

So, lots of people at Harvard do A work ? No shit. Most of the cyclists in the TdF are good at biking. It's a self selected group, not a random sample.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:08 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


We all cared about teaching and fairness. But the real reason so many of us inflate grades is to avoid students complaining.

These two statements are hard for me to reconcile.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:11 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I liked her description of the British solution to this. Curious to hear from British professors (and students) if this actually works.
posted by latkes at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I teach at a large Canadian university. We have grade standards that apply to large classes. These vary a bit depending on the level of the class as it is assumed that fourth-year students do better than first-years. Generally we aim for around a C+ to a B- at lower levels and somewhere in the Bs for upper-year courses but, since many of the upper-year courses are seminars, grades do creep up, especially for honours program students, although there many of the lower-performing students are forced out but he program standards.

In terms of dealing with complaints from students, the most difficult to deal with are B+ grades from students who just have to have that A, as described in the article. C students know what to expect and either don't care or are inured to it. Now, I'm a tenured faculty member so if I want to dig my heels in on a grade there's not much a student can do and they do know that.

I've got mixed feelings about the idea that grades are meaningless, though I'd agree that there often isn't much to differentiate a B+ and an A- student.
posted by sfred at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps this is the place to mention that in a recent class, my professor (a grown man!) recounted that he had twice (recently!) been physically threatened by students over grades. This at a perfectly conventional large university and in a rather ordinary field.
posted by Frowner at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


I get why pass/fail exists, but what's the point of grades?
posted by rue72 at 1:14 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not just complaining. They will go over your head, and you will be overruled and maybe yelled at.

I have never had this happen. I do know one particularly egregious example, but I don't think it's terribly common at my school.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:14 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, lots of people at Harvard do A work ? No shit. ... It's a self selected group, not a random sample.

There's something to that, there are a lot of people hanging out wasting time in Harvard Square, but not that many of college age. (and of the demographic that would be attending the corresponding institution).
posted by sammyo at 1:16 PM on December 13, 2013


So, lots of people at Harvard do A work ? No shit. Most of the cyclists in the TdF are good at biking. It's a self selected group, not a random sample.

Yeah, but they're being judged in comparison to other Harvard students. We don't judge TdF cyclists against everyday bikers either.

We all cared about teaching and fairness. But the real reason so many of us inflate grades is to avoid students complaining.
These two statements are hard for me to reconcile.


The middle sentence was left out. "We cared more about our research and having time to do it than teaching or fairness."
posted by jeather at 1:16 PM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


My (very talented, very hardworking) cousin actually just got his acceptance note from Harvard this afternoon. Huh.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:16 PM on December 13, 2013


When I briefly taught college kids my policy was: You get what you get. If everyone does the best work they are capable of, you all get As. If you fuck up or don't try, you get lower. Who cares what other people in the class are getting? If someone writes the best paper they are capable of, they deserve an A. I'm grading your work in comparison to your capabilities, which as the authority on this subject I am able to judge.

I've never heard an explanation of why there was anything wrong with that. My responsibility as a teacher should be to teach the students the skills the class purports to deliver, period.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:17 PM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


So, lots of people at Harvard do A work ? No shit. Most of the cyclists in the TdF are good at biking. It's a self selected group, not a random sample.

Even if we assume Harvard students are more self-selecting as a group, it stands to reason that, as a result, there should be more variation in ability among them compared to students at other, ostensibly less self-selecting institutions. To see what I mean, sample the top 1%, say, from some hypothetical bell curve of ability, and you'll see that there's a much bigger gap in ability between the bottom and top of that sample taken from the top 1%, compared to the bottom and top of a sample drawn from the middle 20% or whatever. So, if you assume part of the rationale behind going through all this rigmarole of grading on a curve is to be able to capture and express that variation in terms of grades, and do so fairly in a way that reflects ability relative to one's immediate peers, that just makes the case for a harsher curve at self-selecting places like Harvard all that stronger.
posted by un petit cadeau at 1:19 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I get why pass/fail exists, but what's the point of grades?

to grade how well someone understands the material
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:19 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also if you have not personally dealt with these people, you really cannot comprehend the level of entitlement, bullheadedness, and lack of anything resembling intellectual curiosity a certain type of Ivy/quasi-Ivy student can bring to bear. It's quite impressive in a certain way.
posted by PMdixon at 1:22 PM on December 13, 2013 [28 favorites]


I also really hate the formulations "I gave you a B" or "you got an A." I evaluate my students, but they earn those grades. They are not a gift; they are the result of successful work.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:25 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I did my PhD at Duke. Not only are parents frequently involved in grading disputes, lawyers are sometimes involved, too. Not for all the money in the world would I ever teach at such a place again. Here at Regional Commuter College You've Never Heard of, I give a few As, some Bs and Cs, and a fair number of Ds and Fs. People who pass my class with a C know they have earned that C. And that's called "doing my job".
posted by hydropsyche at 1:27 PM on December 13, 2013 [22 favorites]


This leapt out at me, having just calculated final grades myself for a new class at a new institution:

[I]n Britain [...] the brunt of your grade came from a single essay at the end of the year.

I was surprised, myself, at how narrow the distribution of grades was for my own students. A couple of students really bombed the class; a few seemed to sleepwalk through it. Overall, though, a plurality of students earned an A- or B+. (I only handed out a couple of uninflected "A" grades.)

But my students' final grades were based on much more than a single exam or paper. They took three exams over the course of the semester, and submitted two different papers (one of which included a rewrite). Attendance and participation were a component, too. This may be a lot of different moving parts or not so many, I don't know, but based on my own experiences as an undergrad and a TA it's not an atypical breakdown of the different elements that make up the final grade in an undergraduate course in the U.S.

I had several students begin in the low B, C, or even D range on the first exam or paper and improve significantly on the second, and the third. If their first and only opportunity for evaluation were that first assignment... yeah, the distribution would probably be somewhat closer to a bell shape. But if you're at an institution full of kids who are generally bright and motivated, and they have multiple chances to change their approaches to the work as the semester goes on, I don't see why it's surprising that so many of them end up receiving grades that are above average.

This absolutely isn't meant to discount the complaining that does go on, or the entitlement, or to suggest that grade inflation isn't real. I just think that the approach to teaching and evaluation at a liberal arts college versus the one-off evaluation that the author is describing virtually guarantees that grades will skew higher for all students except for those who show "zero effort or even hostility to the class," and I'm not convinced that that's a bad thing or an inaccurate measure of learning.
posted by Austenite at 1:28 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've never gotten in trouble for not inflating grades, but then again, I don't teach at Harvard!

This is pertinent to me as I sit here neck-deep in final exams and pages and pages of notes from the 50+ oral interviews I did this week. I always like to say that I wish my email server would just break for the week after grades drop. By the time I get there, I am a broken shell of a person and cannot handle the slightest bit of whining.

But here's why I don't inflate grades. My very first year of teaching I had a student in my beginning Spanish class who was hopeless. Hopeless! I am firmly convinced that some people don't have the second-language-gene, and he was one of those people. At the end of semester 1, he had a 58%. Now, a D (a passing grade) begins at 60%, and I am kind and start it at 59.5%. 58% is not high enough to round up, but I felt bad for this kid. He was taking 6 classes, mostly engineering, and he needed the class to graduate, so I gave him the D.

This in turn spawned an EVEN WORSE PROBLEM as he was then stuck in my semester 2 class, which, if you have ever taken a language before, you know is hell. Seriously, the first class is all, oh, let's learn how to say hello! and colors! and family members! And the second class is all, AND NOW HERE ARE 50 BILLION VERBS. Engineer kid knew he was out of his depth and turned to me for help.

I did all I could. I met up with him every Saturday for 2 months to tutor him for free. FOR FREE. This was when I was adjuncting and teaching 7 classes per semester. I always gave him the benefit of the doubt. But Kid didn't help himself either - he would do things like not turn in his workbook activities. I was like, dude, this is a college class, we only have 3 workbook turn-ins! This seriously hurts your grade! And I barely look at those things - I just make sure you haven't written "banana" on every page and I give you full credit!

Finally at the end of the semester came the exam and, surprise, surprise, Kid didn't even make a 50% on the final. He hadn't even mastered half of the material I spent the semester teaching him. His overall grade was a 51% and I put my foot down and gave him the F.

Cue the most guilt-trippy email I have ever received, including emails I have gotten from my own mother. "I neeeeeeeever thought that a professor would FAIL someone who tried their hardest!" I wanted to respond, "This is a 4-year university, a research institution, you idiot." But I just never responded. He didn't graduate on time, and he had to re-take Spanish 2 in the summer (with a teacher, mind, who inflated grades, and he got an A. An A!!!!)

Now whenever I feel like I want to inflate a grade I think of that kid way back when, and the idea of NOT giving Engineer Kid the D and then giving this poor sap in the present day an unearned higher grade makes me feel slimy. So I never do it!

God, my students must hate me.
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:33 PM on December 13, 2013 [40 favorites]


It's not just complaining. They will go over your head, and you will be overruled and maybe yelled at. - PMdixon

This I get. But I don't think it absolves teachers of their job to assign what they consider to be fair grades. If the student goes over your head, fine. If those people change the grade, that's their business, I suppose. But as long as you can justify the grade, I don't think it's reasonable to hand out unfair grades just because you feel threatened.
posted by chasing at 1:33 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anything that accelerates the common understanding that grades are inherently meaningless - including all sorts of confounding variables and thus representing a quite wide range in mastery and knowledge of the material at hand - is fine by me.

At least from my anecdotal experience, you'll find a significant number of educators, especially at prestigious institutions, who agree with you behind closed doors. The problem is that scholarship boards, nonprofits, politicians, and parents rarely agree. The notion that academic performance can be easily, consistently, and simply metricated across multiple institutions and disciplines is too convenient a fiction for too many stakeholders outside the classroom (not to mention for many of the students themselves).

in any case, at places like Harvard the real evaluation happens at the admissions process, after which it becomes work to do significantly worse than everyone else. If you're teaching basic skills education or working at an institution with weaker gatekeeping, grades really do have to become approximate metrics of scholastic aptitude or achievement.
posted by kewb at 1:33 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Doonesbury is relevant.
posted by The Confessor at 1:36 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


When I was a TA at a very good university my big frustration was professors who would write "lazy exams." The questions might call for a rote regurgitation of the basic outlines of, say utilitarian and deontological views of morality, without calling on the students to do anything more challenging. So when it came time to grade exams, I would have eighty blue books with roughly the same answers. And if I was going to come up with any respectable grade distribution, I would have to make super nitpicky distinctions between A grades and B grades and so forth. It really sucked because I would end up giving the highest grades to students who were just really good writers, but whose answers weren't really substantively better than many of the people who got lower grades.

There would be the students whom it was easy to give poor grades to, but a huge mass of students whose answers were pretty much undistinguishable from each other ... But I couldn't give 80% of the class A's.
posted by jayder at 1:37 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not universal. Check out the average grades at Purdue. In 1976 average was a 2.81. In 2006 it was a 2.80. Fancy that. Average was a C.
posted by COD at 1:37 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, but they're being judged in comparison to other Harvard students.

Not if they're doing things like applying to grad school. Harvard can't control the fact that a 3.0 GPA there often gets treated as though it's equivalent to a 3.0 at Directional State University.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 1:39 PM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Grades are just a problem, generally. They mean something, maybe, to compare you with other people who took the same class at the same time with the same teacher. What else do they mean? When I was in law school, our class had a markedly lower GPA top end of the GPA range because our first year, we had a couple new professors who graded really bizarrely--it was still a forced curve but the best students were walking out with C's and some people who barely knew the material with A's. Result: Even the top people in the class weren't pulling all A's. Compare us to job seekers from our own school who hadn't had the same professors and we looked like total slackers. Compare us to job seekers from schools that didn't force curves and we looked like morons. But fixing grade inflation alone helps that only a little--we've still got totally different classes, totally different professors, it's still easy to manipulate by taking only easier classes, etc.

I no longer grumble about instructors giving higher grades for the sake of simplicity, because if they're not going to mean much anyway, it's a pretty terrible hill to die on.
posted by Sequence at 1:40 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


But I don't think it absolves teachers of their job to assign what they consider to be fair grades. If the student goes over your head, fine. If those people change the grade, that's their business, I suppose. But as long as you can justify the grade, I don't think it's reasonable to hand out unfair grades just because you feel threatened.

Here's where you're wrong: A grad student may like teaching, but I guarantee you 9 out of 10 of them would say their job is research. Wasting hours, brain cells and ulcers dealing with Buffy McMoneyton does not further that.
posted by PMdixon at 1:40 PM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's not universal. Check out the average grades at Purdue. In 1976 average was a 2.81. In 2006 it was a 2.80. Fancy that. Average was a C.
posted by COD at 1:37 PM on December 13 [+] [!]


It really has to be a cultural thing. It is difficult for individuals to drive a reasonable distribution of scoring for a course if the school culture is that, short of egregious behavior, everyone gets an A. A few tough profs may stick to their guns and grade on a curve, but they put up with a lot of crap for doing it and probably do fairly regurgitative testing to deflect challenges. If the culture is that all courses have a wide range of grades, as appears to be the case at Purdue, then the beefing is rare and ineffective.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:42 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The most fucked up thing about grade inflation to me is the class aspect. Rich kids get good grades, poor kids fail unless they are exceptional. To me, this may be the only thing about grade inflation that matters.

Here's an example: I went to a community college, associate degree nursing program in Oakland (working class/poor/primarily people of color). My program failed more than 75% of my class. Literally half washed out after 8 weeks of the first semester. One of those who failed out happened to be a rich white girl who had the means to apply to my local private 40K/yr nursing school. After failing out of the community college program in 8 weeks, she got literally all As at the private school. She was absolutely and undoubtedly paying for those As (and will be paying for them for some time!)

If grade inflation isn't one of the major factors perpetuating multi-generational class and race inequalities, I don't know what is.
posted by latkes at 1:43 PM on December 13, 2013 [69 favorites]


So, if you assume part of the rationale behind going through all this rigmarole of grading on a curve is to be able to capture and express that variation in terms of grades, and do so fairly in a way that reflects ability relative to one's immediate peers,

If grades are supposed to reflect subject mastery, then it doesn't make sense to grade against a curve. It's not a race, it's an education. Performance can, and should, be measured in (more) absolute terms.

I gave a great example of how broken a curve for high performing classes is - The day before the drop date, I was a B. The day after, I was D. Same work, same class, just a different measurement.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:43 PM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


This I get. But I don't think it absolves teachers of their job to assign what they consider to be fair grades.

What if, in your job as a junior trainee widget designer (remember: TAs are students first and foremost, and untenured faculty are nearly as far down the food chain), most of the clients you deal with bitch and whine about how they have to pay for too many hours on the project (hours they demand!) and every time you show them the documentation for the number of hours, they go over your head to your boss or bosses, who in turn tell you to take X number of hours off the timesheet. Is it within your power to change the system all by yourself? Do you get any support or backup from your bosses? No? If bosses are unwilling to back the decisions of frontline staff, I think the blame should not all fall on that staff.
posted by rtha at 1:46 PM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


I should probably not write this, as I am still steaming, but: pre-med student in my class with a very consistent non-A brought in Daddy, lawyer from across the country, at the last minute to make the rounds across campus ( my chair, several Deans) to complain. I am pre-tenure. I have been assured that everyone has my back ... but still, that's what's out there, in the classroom. Entitled doesn't begin to describe it.
posted by Dashy at 1:49 PM on December 13, 2013 [37 favorites]


It's sometimes useful to think about the consumers of grades, and this isn't something that's static. At the beginning of a course, the student is the primary consumer since you want to give them some indication of their performance. The final grade consumers aren't just the students, but they're also graduate and professional admissions committees, employers (occasionally), etc. So, if I give a student an A early in the course I'm indicating to them that they are on the right track to do well. If I give an A overall, I'm indicating to a graduate program that I think they are ready for graduate study (and I'll probably end up writing a reference letter for them as well). Grades serve multiple functions as do the assignments and tests we build that end up being graded and this is one of the things that makes teaching at the university particularly difficult sometimes.
posted by sfred at 1:53 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Dashy, when I was in graduate school one of the undergraduate students brought in a high-powered criminal defence lawyer to represent them at a plagiarism hearing.
posted by sfred at 1:56 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


latkes, the class aspect is a great point that I had not yet fully appreciated. Thank you for bringing it up; it will inform my future decisions.
posted by Dashy at 1:57 PM on December 13, 2013


Dashy, when I was in graduate school one of the undergraduate students brought in a high-powered criminal defence lawyer to represent them at a plagiarism hearing.

Ha, my boss (a lawyer) was asked to do this for a friend, and he said it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever done as an attorney.
posted by yasaman at 1:59 PM on December 13, 2013


I don't think it's reasonable to hand out unfair grades just because you feel threatened.

I don't know if you realize just how precarious and marginal the bulk of academic labour is nowadays. Tenured professors can, within reason, tell their higher-ups to go to hell. Adjuncts and TAs may as well walk into the Dean's office and piss on his desk right before his astonished face.
posted by erlking at 2:01 PM on December 13, 2013 [27 favorites]


I graded at an Ivy League university. The students were talented, but the grades were still inflated beyond the merit of the work. About 1/2 of students were doing A-quality work, but we gave A or A-minus to 2/3 of the students. Basically, we bumped anyone who would have had a B+ at a public university (like the non-selective university where I did my undergrad) up to an A-, Bs went to B+, any C to B-, Ds to Cs, and Fs to Ds. The only people I taught who ever failed were plagiarists, and even then I let the professor handle it (three in one class).

Part of it was evaluations. When I tried to "hold the line" and grade with my conscience, my evaluations dipped considerably -- and in my field, teaching evaluations matter a lot.

But we also did it because some professors believed the university's propaganda that their undergrads were all the best and brightest at everything. They were all bright and capable of being good students, but they weren't little Leonardos, some lacked important essay writing skills, and (more importantly) a lot didn't give every class their full effort. (Which is why the worst work I ever saw, including from previously excellent students, was in the one "gut" or "bird" course that I TA'd.)

Some professors were interested in grades that truly reflected the ability and effort of their students. But others were not. After teaching a few semesters, and learning how I would suffer if I didn't grade inflate (including being reported as an incompentant TA to the instructor), I taught for a class with four TAs, two of them teaching for the first time. I duly grade inflated my classes; they did not. Then they were told off by the professor for grading too hard and that they should have had a spread like mine (about 2/3 As). I tried to tell him that I grade inflated, but he wouldn't listen to me. So we had to regrade and double grade all our papers, without extra time. I did it, because I realised that this professor respected me less than he respected his undergraduate students.

I took grading very seriously when I was a TA. I agonised over being fair, comparing students not just to each other but the work that I and other students had done at my previous university (we all read each others papers in our seminar class). I hoped that their grades would be an accurate reflection of their ability and effort, even though I knew that students at elite universities already had a great deal more support when it came to studying. Not all were from elite families, but all had what students from poorer universities didn't: better libraries, better study spaces, better physical supports.

None of them had to do the following (all true stories from my undergrad uni, though different people): travel an hour to another university and then wait 2 hours just to read a book essential to your project, commute 2-3 hours everyday because you can't afford to live on campus but instead live with extended family (good for getting readings done, not for sleep), work 20-30 hours a week to contribute to your family's rent, go to class hungry because you forgot to pack lunch and can't afford to buy it.

Whereas, every undergrad where I taught had (for at least the first year) a dorm room on campus and a full meal plan. I couldn't imagine such luxuries when I was an undergrad. Some had huge debts, but none living on campus (and most did) went hungry.

But lots of us still achieved A averages despite less grade inflation and more challenges -- and so it made me bloody angry when people claim that Ivy League students are just so talented they should all get A's, even without putting in the same amount of effort. The A students I knew at my undergrad (and the nearby other public university) never went out socially for most of the semester because we were too busy writing all our papers after commutting and/or working. We took the "reading week" our uni had instead of "spring break" seriously, and spent it at the library. The idea of having non-academic college "experiences" was foreign to us - we were there to study and it showed in our work.
posted by jb at 2:01 PM on December 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


(and then go looking for a job at age 35 with no connections and no recent non-academic working experience)
posted by erlking at 2:02 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


when I was in graduate school one of the undergraduate students brought in a high-powered criminal defence lawyer to represent them at a plagiarism hearing.

At some universities the punishment for proven academic misconduct can have far more of an effect on your life than many criminal convictions. This doesn't seem unwise, especially if the evidence is not in the student's favor.
posted by grouse at 2:03 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not universal. Check out the average grades at Purdue. In 1976 average was a 2.81. In 2006 it was a 2.80. Fancy that. Average was a C.

Isn't a C- 1.7, a C 2.0, a C+ 2.3?

I'm giving your comment an F.
posted by bukvich at 2:07 PM on December 13, 2013


we bumped anyone who would have had a B+ at a public university (like the non-selective university where I did my undergrad) up to an A-

A lot of public universities make the intro courses really hard in order to get rid of people, but the grades given at the university where you taught don't generally indicate that the students are more able than they truthfully are.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 2:08 PM on December 13, 2013


(Undergraduate grades, that is. Graduate programs vary wildly.)
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2013


kids who are generally bright and motivated, and they have multiple chances to change their approaches to the work as the semester goes on

I think this is actually the most important function of grades. They are feedback to the student to let them know how they are doing with the material. You are supposed to correct your performance based on that feedback, and so the very act of grading, and of handing back graded papers frequently, should serve to compress the distribution of final grades and drive it higher. (Now I'm thinking that education is like a servo...)

I had one teacher in high school who would let you re-write a paper over and over again in hopes of getting a higher grade. And what is wrong with that? It was a lot of work for the student, but if you were willing to work that hard to get it right, you were earning the grade, in his opinion. Of course, the reason most teachers/professors don't do this is that it's a lot of work for the grader as well, who has many students all writing many versions of essays...

In Britain they actually award different degree classes (mainly based on your exams at the end of your final year.) "First class" "2.1" "2.2" and "Third class". They serve a purpose roughly similar to that served by GPA in the US. But the "grades" you get in your first year? Don't count at all. And in your second year? Don't count for much. And all the homework? Doesn't count. But you still get evaluated so that you can know how you're doing.

When I was a TA I would often reflect that the main difference between taking a class and reading a book or downloading a lecture series is that in the class, someone grades your work. I think that's really what people are paying $40,000 per year or whatever for -- the grading. The feedback. Because it's much harder to learn without it.

The signalling functions are secondary -- and noisy.
posted by OnceUponATime at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


I think there's a pretty vast area between "grading on a curve" and "inflating grades." I went to a college where I feel like most professors neither graded on a curve nor inflated grades. If every student in the class did A-work, we all got A's. If we all did C-work, the professor tried to figure out where the disconnect was between what they were trying to teach and what we were learning. Maybe this is an easier balance to maintain in a technical program where there are definitive Right and Wrong answers.
posted by muddgirl at 2:15 PM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


This I get. But I don't think it absolves teachers of their job to assign what they consider to be fair grades.

As several others have pointed out, the teachers in question are often graduate students or adjunct faculty who are vulnerable to not being hired again if they have bad evaluations. If their department does not support them, they have no power.

As for culture in grading: that's a huge factor. I taught in a department widely known for grade inflation; our classes had an A- average, other departments at the same university had B averages. The students in our department were inherently harder working or more talented, but the culture from the tenured professors supported grade inflation.

Some of them felt pressured into it. One professor told me that he had given up on the A- actually representing (as the guidelines said it should) "excellent work", due to grade inflation in the department. He would give A- to work that really deserved a B or B+, but assuaged his conscience by "holding the line" at the full A, reserving it for exceptional work.
posted by jb at 2:17 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


//Isn't a C- 1.7, a C 2.0, a C+ 2.3?//

4-A
3-B
2-C
1-D

I graduated from Purdue with a 2.80. If anybody asks, I tell them that was B-. However, I'm full of shit and I know it. 2.X on a 4.0 scale is a C. You can argue about where the line is for a C+ vs C-, but the root grade is still a C.
posted by COD at 2:19 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was a student, I would *never* complain about a grade I received, or argue for extra points. Even if that grade was poor. If a grader ever made an actual error, I might have, but I never found any such error in four years of college assignments. Maybe this was because I was in an engineering program, where most problems in assignments and tests were binary; either you had the correct, numerical answer, or you didn't. But even for more ambiguous answers, like proofs or the occasional essay, I'd lose points for being not rigorous enough or not whatever enough, and my reaction, weirdly enough, was 'well, I guess [the grader] kind of has a point, this IS a bit lacking, I should probably do better next time'. It certainly wasn't OMG YOU ARE RUINING MY FUTURE.

More and more these days I can't help but conclude that most Americans are just overgrown children. I'm not sure they ever grow up; if they do, it certainly isn't until after they leave college. If they do something wrong, it's never their fault; they'll just complain, and complain, until things go their way. And if they don't, they get their parents--their parents!--to do some more complaining for them. Because I guess it works. Apparently, that's reason enough to do it.
posted by Androgenes at 2:20 PM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


To those that think, naively in my opinion, the harvard student population has somehow self selected itself to make those A grades valid and meaningful, could you please explain how or why that same behavior isn't observed at, oh say top tier engineering schools?

I guess, to me anyway, the issuing of valid grades (you know, the ones where people actually might fail our not shine like diamond anyway) at one place and not the other, could be for numerous reasons but at least there is some recognition of the issue and how it's not a great way to actually differentiate between ability levels. Maybe this is becoming more of a thing everywhere... But I hope not because it isn't a good thing.

Oh, and, not that my experience in academia is wide or deep at all, I've heard first hand from two professors who previously taught in Ivy League schools that said the grade inflation was rampant and a problem.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:20 PM on December 13, 2013


It's funny, I was just talking to my friend who recently graduated from Columbia as an undergrad about this. He told me about one course he took, one of the core classes I think, where he just obviously and aggressively did not care. Making snarky comments to TAs, half-assing papers, not doing the readings, the whole works. He wound up with a B minus, which might as well be failing according to the article. "But you know," he told me, "I didn't really deserve that B minus. I should have failed that class."

It's cool to me that my friend has this degree of self-awareness, this ability to acknowledge that his B- came in large part from inflation and a certain measure of educational privilege. But I also sure as hell believe that there are people at Columbia who'd raise hell over failing: wealthy parents threatening to withhold money, lawyers, what have you. As a TA in a school like that, how do you differentiate between students who can own up to failure and students who'll throw a shitfit about it? Much as I hate to admit this, I can see how it becomes easier to just inflate grades across the board than try to make the distinction.
posted by ActionPopulated at 2:21 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was a student, I would *never* complain about a grade I received, or argue for extra points.

Me neither. In related news, the surgeon general advises against prolonged exposure to copies of my transcript.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 2:23 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, lots of people at Harvard do A work ? No shit.

There's a real kernel of truth to this. I know that if I'd maintained the same standards from when I was TA-ing at Duke when I took my first proper job at North Texas, more than half of the students would have failed my introductory course (instead of about 20% of them).

Yeah, but they're being judged in comparison to other Harvard students.

Not by sane people. Sane people are judging their mastery of the material on an absolute scale.

So, if you assume part of the rationale behind going through all this rigmarole of grading on a curve is to be able to capture and express that variation in terms of grades

It isn't. The purpose of grading on a curve, in the strict sense, is to avoid having to think about grades and to have them generated in an entirely deterministic way by an arbitrary algorithm.

Strict curve grading is, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb. It means that in a class where nobody has mastered the material, whoever did the least-bad job still gets an A, and that in a class where everyone has mastered it, whoever did the least-great job gets an F.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:25 PM on December 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Maybe this was because I was in an engineering program, where most problems in assignments and tests were binary; either you had the correct, numerical answer, or you didn't

Off topic a little bit, but I kind of hate when people say this. I graded intro physics and engineering classes, and this is not how it worked. If we didn't give partial credit for "right approach, wrong answer" everyone would've failed.
posted by OnceUponATime at 2:28 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is that how GPA works? I'd think of a student with a 2.8 GPA as a B student - not even a B minus, because they clearly have more 3s than 2s making up that average. I graduated with a 3.925 GPA, and I thought of myself as an 'A' student, because I had 37 of them on my transcript, versus 3 B grades.
posted by erlking at 2:28 PM on December 13, 2013


The most fucked up thing about grade inflation to me is the class aspect. Rich kids get good grades, poor kids fail unless they are exceptional. To me, this may be the only thing about grade inflation that matters.

Compounding this is that nonrich kids who've come up as unexceptional students in unexceptional public schools often don't have the agency or confidence to contest grades.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:32 PM on December 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Not by sane people. Sane people are judging their mastery of the material on an absolute scale.

Yes, but the material is going to be different than it would be at a different school. It will be harder, and there will be more of it. There's a happy middle ground between "every course must have a bell curve for its grade distribution" and "if you're smart enough to get into Harvard, of course you deserve an A in every class here".
posted by jeather at 2:32 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Off topic a little bit, but I kind of hate when people say this. I graded intro physics and engineering classes, and this is not how it worked. If we didn't give partial credit for "right approach, wrong answer" everyone would've failed.

Well, to be fair, yes, there were plenty of times when I got partial credit for writing out my figuring but still got an incorrect answer. But--sorry if it was stated poorly--this is what I meant by saying that the answers were binary: I got the problem wrong. So how do I have the right to argue that my incorrect figures deserve four points out of five rather than one point out of five? I know I have no ground to stand on when arguing with the professor, so I don't.
posted by Androgenes at 2:41 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Grades are not just a reflection of ability, they are also a reflection of work. The most brilliant student who doesn't do the work still fails the assignment.
posted by jb at 2:45 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


So how do I have the right to argue that my incorrect figures deserve four points out of five rather than one point out of five?

Seems arguable to me, since as a TA I was deciding whether to assign four points or one point based on the mood I was in, the legibility of your handwriting, how many other people made the same mistake and whether I remembered making it myself... If it's not arguable I guess it's because it's too subjective rather than because it's completely objective.

Though we did have rubrics for the exams to try to impose some uniformity among graders, so that the most common mistakes all got the same number of points deducted. Even so, almost everyone made some creative mistakes as well...
posted by OnceUponATime at 2:57 PM on December 13, 2013


Here at Regional Commuter College You've Never Heard of, I give a few As, some Bs and Cs, and a fair number of Ds and Fs. People who pass my class with a C know they have earned that C. And that's called "doing my job".

And this is what I find frustrating about this whole thing, as someone who went to an ordinary "Regional Commuter College" type of school.

It doesn't impact me in any way at this point in my life, but buh-wahhhhhh? So the world -- or, really, grad school applications -- is defined by wealthy/lucky kids who attend elite institutions and thus have inflated grades handed to them for fear of lawsuits, with an underclass of the poorer/less lucky kids who attend ordinary institutions and have to actually earn our grades?

(This is nothing against the person who posted it. I'm just railing against the system that has resulted.)
posted by Sara C. at 2:59 PM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


If grades are supposed to reflect subject mastery, then it doesn't make sense to grade against a curve. It's not a race, it's an education. Performance can, and should, be measured in (more) absolute terms.

I think it varies a bit by course. I teach a mostly skills-based course. At the end of the semester, they have either mastered the material (as expressed by my various criteria) or they haven't. I once had a 23-student class where something like 20 or 21 earned As or A-s, because they did everything I asked of them. It was pretty delightful -- not only were they fun to teach, not only did we get to some advanced stuff because they had the basics down, but A final projects are much, much easier to grade than Cs or Ds. Now, I have also had classes where a large percentage earned Ds and Fs (or dropped the class halfway through because they just would not do the work), so I suppose it evens out. But I dream of that really great class and hope each semester will bring another.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:04 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I graduated from Purdue with a 2.80. If anybody asks, I tell them that was B-. However, I'm full of shit and I know it. 2.X on a 4.0 scale is a C. You can argue about where the line is for a C+ vs C-, but the root grade is still a C.

Since you graduated from the school in question, I'll of course defer to your interpretation of their average. But this correspondence is not universal. At my home school, for example, 2.0 is an unadorned C; 2.3 is a C+, and 1.7 is a C-. This is the published policy.
posted by stebulus at 3:04 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Quantity drives our quality: give everyone an A and the letter grade soon becomes meaningless.
I recall a great scholar--published outstanding stuff but had scant academic credentials--who asked his siminar students aqt the beginning of a term to put the grade they wanted on a card, turn it in, and then, that done, said: that is the grade you will get. Now let us get down to learning.
posted by Postroad at 3:08 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was a student, I would *never* complain about a grade I received, or argue for extra points. Even if that grade was poor.

I've always been good at taking tests for whatever reason, especially if I know the material. In graduate school I was particularly annoyed by the number of students who would crowd the front of the room to lobby for more points after graded tests were handed back. I expected this from the pre-med students in my physiology courses, but even the statistics students did it. One time I noticed a mistake on my grading that gave me two extra points (out of 100; I had scored a 98), so just to pimp those grade grubbers, I pushed my way into the scrum and demanded that the professor take those two points off my score and snarked that he might want to reallocate them to one of the supplicants crowded around. He looked up at me a little dazed, and said, well that's a refreshing change. We both laughed and I left him to deal with the whiners. That was a high point.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:16 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


But I couldn't give 80% of the class A's.

Why not? If the exam asked students to answer a rote regurgitation question, and 80% of the students regurgitated the correct answer to your satisfaction, then great, 80% of the students are doing awesome at this class as the prof is actually teaching it, and they deserve As.

I don't get the point of unfairly penalizing students who did exactly what it said on the tin, because, like, it would be aesthetically unpleasing if at least 10 of them didn't do C work.
posted by Sara C. at 3:20 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


OK, after reading Mental Wimp's comment I'll share a story about a psychopathic high school math teacher I had.

After a test we would review the answers together, then for the last 10 or 15 minutes of class he would let students discuss their grades. First rule, was if you ask for more credit you got a re-evaluation that might lead to a lower grade. Second rule was that he intentionally inserted several grading errors in the students favor in the exam. If your exam contained one of these grading errors and you didn't own up to it and ask for the lower score, your score would be reduced by an entire letter grade.

He also claimed that he would give a perfect score to anyone who could answer all of the questions incorrectly on a multiple choice exam. A choice appealing mostly to those unable to calculate the difficulty of doing so. I can't remember if anyone actually tried this though.

He was a bit of a jerk but at least he took a lot of it out on the grade grubbers.
posted by Wood at 3:27 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


First rule, was if you ask for more credit you got a re-evaluation that might lead to a lower grade.

I do this with my (university) students.

I did what the subject TA did all the time and for the same reason. As a professor, I have a rule, based on this fact: ALL grade inquiries are complaints about grades. ALL of them. Nobody "wants to discuss" an A. The ONLY reason a student wishes to "discuss" a mark it because he or she is unhappy about it. And so my rule is that ALL mark inquiries must be put in writing. Neither I nor my TAs (especially my TAs) will "discuss" marks. Period.

This move has made my job and my life, and my TAs' lives, much easier.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:33 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Regarding the curve and statistics my intro classes doing CS at Cal were often several hundred students. I see nothing wrong with a forced curve where the class size is large enough.
posted by Wood at 3:34 PM on December 13, 2013


I graduated from Purdue with a 2.80.

In engineering? Doesn't matter. As long as you get out of an accredited engineering program your GPA matters not at all. Congrats.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:34 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Princeton has had a grade deflation policy for some time now. So it's not like all Ivies are the same.
posted by polymodus at 3:41 PM on December 13, 2013


This is all so very foreign to me - I went to hippie college where we had no grades.

Which isn't to say that there weren't problems with the evaluations system (rampant favoritism and its evil twin - grudge holding - being the most obvious) but arbitrary inflation wasn't among them.
posted by sonika at 3:42 PM on December 13, 2013


I work (as a non-academic) at a college that doesn't award grades. At all. (What instead? Narrative evaluations.)

I took a class here over the summer, and the process of working on my self-evaluation, meeting with my faculty, and then reading her evaluation of me -- it was all very informative and reflective. And to be honest, it was a lot more like the better kinds of work-based evaluations I've had over the years. I'm not an expert on the whole process, where it came from, how it works for everybody, but it seems like a much more thoughtful experience.

On the other hand, mr. epersonae was once a student here, and I've seen his transcript. It's a HUGE stack of paper.

On preview: sonika, did you go here?!
posted by epersonae at 3:45 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I did my PhD at Duke. Not only are parents frequently involved in grading disputes, lawyers are sometimes involved, too.

I TAed at an Ivy. We frequently had parents involved in grade disputes but never lawyers. I never felt any vulnerability as a TA, because all of the pain and misery of those disputes rolled onto the poor professor who had to do the paperwork and meet with the dean -- pre-tenure and visiting faculty felt completely vulnerable and would openly have us grade inflate to help their evaluations. We kept good records and graded openly and consistently, which took the steam out of the most entitled of complaints. I certainly changed grades for people who could show that a mistake was made, but I never heard of a grade being changed once a parent was involved, though I suspect some might have gotten "fixed" by the dean's office.

Talking to people who still teach there, things have gotten worse in terms of entitlement -- the "student as consumer" model implies a clear return on that tuition investment, and it takes a lot of the joy out of the work for many professors.

Regarding grade scales and whether a 2.8 is a b, c, or what, most schools have a published gpa scale for converting between number and letter grades.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2013


epersonae: Nah, I went to Hampshire. The OTHER hippie college ;)
posted by sonika at 3:54 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Princeton has had a grade deflation policy for some time now. So it's not like all Ivies are the same.

Princeton announces committee to review controversial grade deflation policy
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:55 PM on December 13, 2013


I have never had to submit evaluations prior to a final mark being assigned, but I'm Canadian - is this the norm in US schools?
posted by sid at 4:12 PM on December 13, 2013


As a teaching assistant at an Ivy League, I think grade inflation is bullshit. I TA for a large intro class based on 4 exams, homework, and attendance. The class average is a mid-to-low B. A handful of people (who deserve it) fail. People who work hard and do good work get As.

I've heard some stories (from the prof I TA for) about students who have brought in lawyers or daddy's money to the dean, and the profs have the power. Anyone he failed remained failed.

As a student who attended a public university before transferring to an Ivy, I can attest that my classes at the Ivy are, on average, much harder. At the state school, I had a 3.93 average. My lowest grade was a B+. The average class had a few hard workers, a bunch of people who sort of cared, and a few who didn't give a shit.

At the Ivy, I work harder to maintain a lower GPA (3.54). The average students is a hard worker, with a few people thrown in who don't give a damn. In general, the classes are harder, the students are brighter and work harder, and the level of competition is high. It's anecdotal, but it's the reason I transferred to an Ivy.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:19 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's interesting to compare the average Harvard grade stats with George W. Bush's roughly C+ average at Yale and at Harvard Business School back in the late '60s.

Broken system is broken, and there is no incentive or process to fix it. Force the teachers to sort all the students from best to worst instead, based on a few criteria... and let those results determine the grade.
posted by markkraft at 4:28 PM on December 13, 2013


DoubleLune: I'm glad to hear that your department is offering a challenging program.

But the tell in your comment is that the class average is a B. The class average in departments with grade inflation would be an A-, like it was in my department, and A- was being given to work that would have been B+ at my state uni.
posted by jb at 4:32 PM on December 13, 2013


jb, I've taken classes in several departments. I have more experience in the sciences - for ex, averages for intro physics and intro chem tend to be a low B (and tend to be lower in the beginning of the semester, before everyone who fails the first exam drops). Anything pre-med-related tends to be very competitive.

I'm not saying that no grade inflation happens - it's just not rampant.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:38 PM on December 13, 2013


The university (very competitive, top-ranked Japanese national university) where I teach introduced US-style GPA this year in the most psychopathic way possible. The guidelines make it impossible to be fair.

1. Each class should have an average of 75/100. 60 is passing. Average of 80 is really the maximum. This is regardless of course or class size. If more than 10% of the students in any class receive 90% or above (A 4.0) you will questioned.

2. Students must pass every required course and full elective credits during first year or they will not be promoted to second year. (First year is a liberal arts program. After that they specialize in medical, dental, nursing, etc. There is no room in the second year program for making up missed credits.) Try really hard not to be the one guy who failed a student. It's OK if they failed everything, but if they only failed your course, you will hear about it.

3. The university established a new, elite leadership program this year. Students accepted to this program get special courses and other opportunities. There is a required minimum GPA. I think 3.2, but it might be 3.0. Either way, try to match that with a required C average for all courses.

4. Students are streamed by proficiency in English (my area) so all of the top students are in one class. Most of them are in the leadership program. I can get away with an 80% average here.

5. Students in the leadership program must maintain the high GPA each and every semester or they will be dropped.

6. The university wants more students in the leadership program. (Grant money from the Ministry of Education, etc.)

I expect to bend the rules and grant 4 A's per class of 25 at the end of the year. Then 17 or 18 students will come begging. Even a B may not be enough to save them if they have a couple of Cs in chemistry, math, or physics.

Before this, grading was purely a feedback exercise. As far as anyone outside the course was concerned, all that mattered was passing. An A or a C didn't matter much. I used to negotiate grades with students regularly. I'd ask them to grade themselves and I would grade them and we'd discuss the similarities or differences. I would make the final decision, but students were honest about their perceived grades because there were no consequences. Discussing grades was only about discussing how much one had learned in the course or performed on certain tasks. Now, it's all about opening or closing off future opportunities.

I expect the C average policy to wither away eventually, but for the next few years grading is going to really suck.
posted by Gotanda at 4:41 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is why nobody should be allowed to pay for their education. Everything in this discussion is really about the money and I could rant for pages about it, but I guess at the end of the day, everyone knows.

So I'd like to say something else. In my view, grading isn't really difficult. I've learnt a lot from my students, and they have taught me to write transparent objectives and follow those up in my teaching. Most students want good grading. Where I teach, there was no grading until the late 90's. The students' organization forced it into daily life. And they hate grade inflation, because it subverts their intention. They wanted grades, because they couldn't understand our advice. We always started off friendly: your idea is good, but…. And only a few privileged students ever got whether the "but" was at an A level or an F level.

Well, heck, I was a student once as well, and I remember how confusing university was, as compared to secondary school, because suddenly there was no obvious right and wrong, but at the same time, there was clearly a right and wrong with some invisible rule-set.

Currently, I can hear my TA is really worried we won't give fair grades, and I think that is based on his own experience as a student. Which, without going into details, had a lot to do with the money. Happily, I can promise this will not be the case during this semester.

A final point: I have no idea how I can get my students to understand that a bachelors degree with a C or lower is a dead end. At our institution, we are not allowed to say that out loud. But reality is that students who are just passing might as well go look for that retail job right away. So yeah, if I could get my students to a point where they all had As and Bs, I'd be a happy teacher
posted by mumimor at 4:43 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


My problem with grades in my undergraduate classes is that I never got a sense that the work translated quite directly to the grade I ultimately got. Some classes I worked very hard and did not get an A. A few other classes I did not work hard and would get an A. Maybe it was inflation, but for some classes, I think just showing up and trying earned a prof's esteem.

What I remember most are the graduate classes where I bust my ass and got the A. At that level, I knew I earned that evaluation. But at the undergrad level — I don't know.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:53 PM on December 13, 2013


To those that think, naively in my opinion, the harvard student population has somehow self selected itself to make those A grades valid and meaningful, could you please explain how or why that same behavior isn't observed at, oh say top tier engineering schools?

(a) It is. Average grade at MIT in 1999 was 3.2, only 0.2 under the oh-so-horribly-inflated grades at Harvard.

(b) Even if it weren't observed in at least some top engineering schools, the tendency of engineering schools and physical sciences to use strict curves is well-known. And as I said before, all that grading on a strict curve does is guarantee without any thought or effort that no more or less than 15% (or whatever) of the course will get an A, completely irrespective of how many students achieved full mastery of the material.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:00 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


//In engineering? Doesn't matter. As long as you get out of an accredited engineering program your GPA matters not at all. Congrats.//

Well, I started in Engineering technology, but after two years of that I did have the 2. part of the GPA. The part to the right of the decimal was a long way from .80.

I don't know if it was the change major, a sudden burst of maturity, or more likely a little of both; but I did much better my last two years.\

Although my engineering friends that barely graduated do prove your point. It didn't seem to hurt them at all.
posted by COD at 5:02 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was a teaching assistant at an elite (Russell group, but not Oxbridge) British university in the early 00s. I taught and marked a first-year computing course. I do not recognise the author's description of how British universities mark: I marked my students, and no-one else. I am not aware that a different process was followed for other years or courses or departments. There was a meeting where students with failing marks were reviewed: but only failing students, and to see if they could be bumped up.

So "British universities do double-professor marking", as per the article, is wrong, I think. "Some British..." or "Oxbridge..." or "University of London..." or "Every university except alasdair's" may be true, I don't know.
posted by alasdair at 5:21 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have never had to submit evaluations prior to a final mark being assigned, but I'm Canadian - is this the norm in US schools?

The norm at places I am familiar with is that the students complete the evaluations at about the end of the teaching period (with paper evals it was usually the last class of the semester), but before finals and well before grades are assigned. The instructor sees the evals only after submitting the grades.

Grade inflation comes into it because students can usually make a fair guess at their final grade situation from their marks on papers, midterms, and other assignments through the semester. The accepted wisdom was that grade inflation on those assignments produced higher evals, so the pretenure faculty I TAed for graded that way. I never saw the evals so I don't know if it worked.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:24 PM on December 13, 2013


I have never had to submit evaluations prior to a final mark being assigned, but I'm Canadian - is this the norm in US schools?
posted by sid at 4:12 PM on December 13 [+] [!]


At UVic they're done in the last couple of weeks of class, before final grades.
posted by klanawa at 5:34 PM on December 13, 2013


Not by sane people. Sane people are judging their mastery of the material on an absolute scale.

...completely irrespective of how many students achieved full mastery of the material.

Bullshit.

There is no such thing as an "absolute scale". There is no such thing as "full mastery of the material". Hell, after 15 years of teaching, 20 years of research, over 100 publications, and promotion to full professor in a top-5 department at a top-5 engineering university I'm nowhere close to "fully mastering the material".

Sane people compare people with different records using all the data available to them. Sane people know that a B+ from Harvard is probably a stronger indicator of progress than an A from the University of South Dakota at Hoople, but a weaker indicator than a B from Harvey Mudd. Sane people examine both the content of the courses and the relative performance of past students when they compare grades from different institutions. Arguing that every student at Harvard deserves an A is equivalent to arguing that every student at USDH deserves a D.

And sane people don't rely on grades to search for excellence. That's just idiotic.

(However, I will freely admit that a lot of powerful people are insane idiots.)
posted by erniepan at 5:43 PM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Arguing that every student at Harvard deserves an A is equivalent to arguing that every student at USDH deserves a D.

I don't think anyone's actually arguing that, but there do seem to be people in this thread who think that the median grade at Harvard being an A-, and the median grade somewhere else being a B, means that Harvard is less rigorous. And that's a conclusion drawn from scant evidence.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:51 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Alasdair, it is possible your uni double marked anything that counted to a student's final mark but not the first year module you taught as that wouldn't. That's the case at my institution.
posted by biffa at 5:58 PM on December 13, 2013


I don't think anyone's actually arguing that, but there do seem to be people in this thread who think that the median grade at Harvard being an A-, and the median grade somewhere else being a B, means that Harvard is less rigorous. And that's a conclusion drawn from scant evidence.

Except for the evidence of having been there, and having been the grader in question. The author of the FPP was a grader and said that she inflated grades; I was a grader and I inflated grades -- I awarded A- to work that would have had a B+ or B at nonselective university, and a B- or C+ in a truly rigorous program.
posted by jb at 5:58 PM on December 13, 2013


Except that the university where you were the grader was a rigorous program, so I don't see how you can say it would have earned two different grades simultaneously.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:01 PM on December 13, 2013


If you want to look at the grade distribution for any course with more than 5 students in it at UW-Madison going back 17 years, you can find that data here. Amazing transparency. Does any other large university allow full access to course by course grade distributions like this?

The class issue raised upthread is an interesting one. There is little doubt that less selective regional state universities grade harder than elite schools, based on D, F, W rates. At my university we have intro science courses where the D, F rate is in the 30-40% range, particularly for calculus based physics. But then again, we have a huge range in student ability--much more than what typically exists at an elite school. The upper 10% of students at my university could easily be at an ivy. They are exceptional. But they are sitting next to students who are not ready for college and have, in my opinion, 8th grade math and writing skills. Those students represent maybe 20% of the student body. So a lower course average grade is to be expected. If we gave that bottom 20% A- or B+ grades, we would lose all credibility with grad schools and employers, because OMG, they are really unprepared. At Harvard, the bottom 20% is still a very skilled student, so that degree of inflation is easier to hide (I didn't say justify). It sucks. And I feel so sorry for that 20% sitting before me. But just handing out high grades like Harvard candy isn't going to help. In fact, it would do tremendous damage to the prepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds at my University. They do well. And we (faculty) owe it to them to make their degree credible in the eyes of those looking at the transcripts.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:17 PM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


It is.

Well, kinda, there's alot of data to wrangle but I think there's a fair argument to be made, and this is really the specific argument I was trying to draw attention to but didn't do a great job because I was typing from my phone, that the statement that the student bodies of Ivy League schools are somehow able or aptly placed enough that a grade like that makes sense can't compare to what I also consider as another group that is just as able and skilled at.

Don't get me wrong, I think the grade inflation thing happens everywhere to a certain degree but once you take a look at graduation rates between the two, the picture begins to form up that the Average Grade you stated from MIT isn't as direct of an apples to apples comparison because you're looking at a value that is still lower and is also from a subset of the initical sample group (ie those that were at the top and are still around as the years progress) that is more severely culled than that at an Ivy School that has a higher graduation rate.

I guess that's what it boils down to and I can only chalk up to privilege or money or power or whatever you want to call it. Insofar as the people at the bottom of the barrel (as on preview Zamboni mentions) get a failing grade and have to retake the class, or even the boot via admin rules or scholarship loss, in a tough class outside of the Ivy 'elite' schools, whereas if that same student did poorly in their class at *insert ivy here* they would get a B and go about registering for the next semester. I say that again because I do not give any whit of credit to the idea that incoming students at upper-tier-ivy school are any better (or worse for that matter) than incoming students at upper-tier-non-ivy and/or prestigious-technical/engineering school.

And as I said before, all that grading on a strict curve does is guarantee without any thought or effort that no more or less than 15% (or whatever) of the course will get an A, completely irrespective of how many students achieved full mastery of the material.

We're on the same page here, I agree completely that curve usage, well reliance, is generally a sign that a professor goofed, perhaps by having a question on the test that stumped every single student (which is a sign to me that something could have been wrong on her/his part), or that said professor isn't doing their job properly at all. By that last part I mean that 60% of the class fails or, honestly, 95% of the class gets an A. Either of those indicates a problem. Or that the system is broken enough to require the treatment of a symptom rather than the illness, which is the whole topic here I suppose. Full circle and all that.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:26 PM on December 13, 2013


I don't think anyone's actually arguing that, but there do seem to be people in this thread who think that the median grade at Harvard being an A-, and the median grade somewhere else being a B, means that Harvard is less rigorous.

I don't think Harvard is less rigorous than other schools, but I'd argue that -- especially in low-level or non-major courses -- it's not significantly *more* rigorous. A lot of the rigor is in the admissions process for anyone who's not a legacy. People who can't make As or high Bs in Harvard also can't position themselves to get into Harvard, and that makes much of the difference.

Even at an Ivy League-level schools, my experience is that moderate attention to lecture/reading and punctuality with assignments tends to get most undergraduates through anything short of a senior thesis or an advanced seminar with a fairly high grade.

Schools like Harvard provide staggering resources to students who need or want them. They provide writing centers, tutoring setups, study spaces, technological resources, networking opportunities, extraordinary libraries, high-end internships and other external partnerships, counseling resources, high levels of ongoing graduate and postgraduate research, and lifestyle amenities that most schools don't. That makes a big difference too, especially when the point of comparison is a comparatively lower-budget university or college that can't give their students the same sort of academic safety net or the same level of resources.

Once you're in, the Harvards and Dukes and University of Chicagoes do everything in their power to get you through and to get you through well. You have to work against the culture and the institutions of the university to do badly, or you have to be one of the comparatively un-vetted, well-connected folks who skipped the line during admissions.

Regional schools may grade as hard as or even a little less rigorously than Harvard, but their students also don't have the same resources inside or outside the university. Teaching someone at a regional college with a small library, limited database and journal access, and little to no significant research agendas around campus means teaching someone who simply will not gain the same kind of experience with reading or producing college-level material in their field.
posted by kewb at 6:28 PM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


There is no such thing as "full mastery of the material".

There is such thing as mastery of the material presented, and I think we agree that in our syllabi, we should define an expectation whereby students can fully demonstrate that much mastery. Fair's fair.
posted by Dashy at 6:47 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is no such thing as an "absolute scale".

This will come as very big news to the organizations that design and administer professional licensing exams.

There is no such thing as "full mastery of the material".

Congratulations! You have figured out how to use a different meaning of that phrase by pretending that it wasn't obviously in the context of undergraduate grades.

Arguing that every student at Harvard deserves an A

Further congratulations! You have successfully refuted an argument that nobody actually made!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:28 PM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


I see nothing wrong with a forced curve where the class size is large enough.

There is zero reason to assume that mean, median and mode will coincide. My grades almost always come out bimodal. One hump for the students who applied themselves, one hump to the left for those who did not.

I'd agree that there often isn't much to differentiate a B+ and an A- student.

With maximum carefulness, my hope is that if I graded the same stack of papers twice the grades would be +-3%, 19 papers out of 20. Those error bars would get a lot broader if a different grader did the second pass. Now ask whether each student's grade would be identical if the assignment was worded differently, or if different questions were asked, or if the material were taught differently by a different instructor. Some would do better, some would do worse...

If there is any signal that differentiates A- students and B+ students it is completely buried in noise.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:58 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The nice thing about a strong curve is that it requires all universities to use the same scale. Any institution is free to make whatever claim they wish as to how their 20s rate against the average 50. The sucky thing about grade inflation is the loss of differentation. The people that it impacts are the high-achiever and above average at these universities. But if you're a high achiever at Harvard you probably have a variety of options.
posted by Wood at 8:04 PM on December 13, 2013


Strict curve grading is, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb. It means that in a class where nobody has mastered the material, whoever did the least-bad job still gets an A, and that in a class where everyone has mastered it, whoever did the least-great job gets an F.

That's how the real world often works. Law school grading is curved, and I was fine with that. I wouldn't advocate it for every subject or field, but to characterize it as dumb misses its point.

pre-med student in my class with a very consistent non-A brought in Daddy, lawyer from across the country, at the last minute to make the rounds across campus ( my chair, several Deans) to complain.

No offense, truly, and maybe it's because I'm a lawyer myself, but I'd be curious to hear the other side. For every story I've heard about some crazily entitled student, I've also heard one about an arbitrary or unfair professor. Sometimes I wonder how often they're two sides of the same anecdote.
posted by cribcage at 8:08 PM on December 13, 2013


Entitled is as entitled does. That's doubly true at Harvard. The one thing you get at a place like Harvard, or Stanford - or the other "top 20-30" schools - that you don't get at places like Emporia State or Chico State, is the Rolodex of connected names that you leave with. Who needs an "A"?
posted by Vibrissae at 8:18 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It means that in a class where nobody has mastered the material, whoever did the least-bad job still gets an A

While I disapprove of a strict curve, I have seen its value once. I was taking a midterm in engineering electromagnetics taught by a brilliant but merciless ex-Russian professor. As I was writing it I could hardly stop myself from laughing. I knew I was one of the best and best prepared students in the class. I credited myself with getting two out of ten questions right, plus plausible guesses at another two or three. My eventual grade was over 90%.

The message was quite clear: you may be the best student in this room but you are not world-class. It was a much subtler message than grading usually gets across.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:26 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was at the equivalent of an Ivy university in the UK, and I agree with the author that grade inflation isn't as big a problem there as much as it seems to be in the US - not sure whether my 1st and 2nd year exams were graded on a strict curve, but the percentages of the classes are similar from year to year: 1st class if the absolute grade is above 70%, a 2:1 if 60-69%, a 2:2 if 50-59% and 3rd class is everything below that. Usually around 20% of the students get a first, and the next 30% get a 2:1, 40% get a 2:2 and the rest gets thirds. (Although, upon googling, there has been inflation.)

All of the people I knew who got firsts were brilliant and usually very hard working - a competent essay drawn from course contents will only earn you a solid 2:1; to get a first you will need to be doing a lot of outside reading (e.g. scientific papers, journals) and drawing the material together in an original or insightful way. And a first can be awarded "with distinction" - sometimes given to the top 1 or 2 students in the year, but we get years without any. This system does mean that truly exceptional work can be differentiated from the merely good more easily than if the students were all getting A's. (If you're getting marks in the high 70's or even 80's you're probably a certified prodigy.)

So yeah, I don't think that every competent student should have an A/A- grade, nor that effort should be prioritised over actual output.

The medium of examination also helps - we get fairly difficult essay prompts that allow a lot of variation in answering instead of only questions that require us to regurgitate lecture notes, and the more mathematical subject exams are usually set so that the last third of the problems can only be completed by a few students. The exams are not marked by your own lecturer but some other professors from the same department (and an external examiner in the final year), so nobody I knew ever approached the lecturer to argue about their marks.

The one big downside to this is that you don't get many second/third/fourth chances if you screw up the finals due to sickness or whatever (you can get an aegrotat under mitigating circumstances), but I definitely got feedback throughout the year from the essays and assignments I submit to my supervisors, so most people have some idea what level they're at by the time May rolls around. I remember slight grade inflation in the final year though - with almost everybody squeezing past a 2:1 since that is the lowest requirement for getting a job, but the number of people who got firsts actually decreased to around 10%.
posted by monocot at 8:30 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The point made upthread about class difference is important.

I teach high school English, and last year moved to a high-performing (mostly entitled rich white kid) school. For most of my colleagues, grading was a joke. However, it was a joke for different reasons. One of my students took another teacher's English class and submitted the same essay at the end of every unit, only with the names of the characters and relevant plot points swapped out. They got an A on it every time. Another of my colleagues decided that there should only be two A's a semester, and so arbitrarily graded students down so he could give out the two A's and give everyone else a B, C, or D.

There was also a 20% failure rate. You want to guess which kids made up that failure rate? That's right - the low-income, minority, and special education students. So I come in, having taught at schools where instead of 20% of the population, those students made up closer to 85%, and I set to work to help those kids - all my students - succeed. I didn't have a single student fail my class, despite teaching classes with 35-45% "at risk" students. I had more A's than I have ever had, because I had so many outstanding students.

I wasn't brought back this year. They refused to give a reason, but I think my grading has something to do with it. They like to pretend that the high failure rate is the fault of the student, and I messed with that picture. They also like to believe that they can't fix the problem.

Which is obviously a sack of shit.

But the most heartbreaking thing about it was that I would sit in parent/teacher conferences with those students (arranged because they were failing most of their other classes) and hear the teachers call them lazy, lecture them about the importance of responsibility and preparation, and tell them that they just weren't trying hard enough. And those parents, unlike the parents of the entitled students who would argue an A- up to an A whenever possible, those parents would blame the student for his/her failure. See, they had been raised to believe that schools and authority figures shouldn't be questioned, especially when the school is as "good" as the one their child attended. So they accepted the failures, and eventually went to the continuation high school or dropped out.

It's easy to see the higher end of this issue - Harvard students getting too many A's - and miss the fact that many students work their asses off in a system designed to call them lazy and push them out so they become someone else's problem. And their parents had the same thing happen to them, more than likely. But when you don't speak English as a first language, and your culture is very deferential to authority...you just assume that the problem is your kid, not the system.

I also believe that grades should be eliminated in favour of narrative feedback, but I am on the radical fringe on that issue (and many others) and don't expect most people to agree. However, it is much harder to inflate narrative feedback. And it requires WAY more individual assessment and depth of knowledge of a student. And that means fewer students in a class, which means more money spent, etc.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:32 PM on December 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


I went to Cornell and Stanford as a student and have graded at Stanford and 3 different state schools of very varying quality (I am an art historian). My students at Stanford were, in general, very good and very dedicated. My students at the excellent state school were also very good and very dedicated. My students at two middle-of-the-road state schools have been widely ranging, from excellent to literally illiterate. In all cases, the differences were mostly about two things: how prepared they were by their grade schools, and how much they were committed to the idea of learning for its own sake. Both of these things are heavily inflected by class, parent attitudes, and economic opportunity -- and all the nuances that go into those things. But the fact remains that if you took an average Stanford student and dropped them in my class at Oklahoma State, they would blow the OSU students out of the water. So yes, the "A"s I give at OSU would be "C"s at Stanford -- and although I was once told I was not allowed to fail a student, I was never told to inflate grades generally or that I graded too harshly there. I guess that means to some of you that the grades I give my students at OSU are inflated. I sometimes think so myself. But even if it's true, it doesn't really matter.

The fact that even my best students at both middle-of-the-road state schools are nowhere near as good as my best Stanford students is directly attributable to things beyond my control and theirs -- and as a result, every time I see this conversation about grade inflation, I can't help but think that it's a way of scapegoating the Evil Professors/Evil Ivy League/Evil Rich Kids With Lawyers -- instead of truly addressing the rampant inequality across the board. People don't get rich because they got "A"s in college, they get rich because they are embedded in elite systems and ideologies from the time they were small (and often because they started rich). Sure, it's an oversimplification, but it's not a total red herring, like conversations about grade inflation are.
posted by obliquicity at 8:35 PM on December 13, 2013 [29 favorites]


I'm curious what percentage of Harvard students are legacy admissions. Because obviously none of those students "earned" their place at Harvard although of course they are likely to have started with a ton of educational and economic advantages that would make better grades easier for them.
posted by latkes at 8:38 PM on December 13, 2013


Ah, I guess the biggest reason why people don't/find it harder to argue about grades in my UK uni is because the single final exam has questions on ALL the modules you took throughout the year, taught by a bunch of different people. And the broad essays (around 50% of your grade) can (or should?) be answered using materials from a few different modules and marked by 2 or 3 profs who may not be the lecturers, so there isn't one person a student can immediately complain to if they get a bad score.
posted by monocot at 8:51 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


One student once cornered me and said: “I hope you’re happy you’ve destroyed my chance at Goldman and ruined my life.”

I couldn't even finish the article, I was seeing red after reading that. I would've slapped the hell out of that little shit and happily went to trial, and damn who his Daddy is, no jury in the universe would convict. Jesus H. Tebow, these are the absolute worst people to have ever existed.
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:29 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's pretty much how I feel about course/professor evaluations. They'll figure out it was me if it's handwritten (even if it's anonymous) and it just a lot of thinky work that won't benefit me personally later (I know, it's supposed to be for the good of education and society and subsequent classes). It's just so much easier to say nice things about a professor who is trying to do his/her best.

I mean, if it were a robot up there I guess I could be more objective. But I've always ended up liking my profs as people and know it takes time and practice to be able to be the prof everyone raves about.
posted by discopolo at 11:27 PM on December 13, 2013


One thing that's worth keeping in mind in this type of discussion is that academic departments vary a lot in their grading conventions - not even necessarily by "rigor" as in "intrinsic difficulty of the subject matter" but also just by that department's culture. That's part of the reason I think we're seeing somewhat divergent anecdotes about e.g. Ivy League TAing practices.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:44 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


There were a few guys in my high school who were clearly set on the Ivy League track, 4.0 GPA and everything, some of them even already owned boat shoes. Makes me a bit frightened to know they likely went on to earn more As at Harvard or wherever. I'd hate to have to work with someone who had never failed at anything in their whole life. Life is going to hurt, Ivy League kids. Better to get your taste of it before it really matters.
posted by deathpanels at 12:29 AM on December 14, 2013


>Also if you have not personally dealt with these people, you really cannot comprehend the level of entitlement, bullheadedness, and *lack of anything resembling intellectual curiosity* a certain type of Ivy/quasi-Ivy student can bring to bear. It's quite impressive in a certain way.
posted by PMdixon at 1:22 PM on December 13

How or why would someone, supposedly smart, lack curiosity? I would hope that such a University would give kids plenty of resources to remedy any boredom that could be a cause for "lack of curiosity". How does a kid who lacks curiosity earn high grades anywhere? This seems to show that school is just a ritual for them to go through before starting a high-paying business-related career [?].
posted by RuvaBlue at 12:41 AM on December 14, 2013


You can track the data on grade inflation here

It clearly shows that private schools give the children of rich parents the grades that their parents pay for and that public schools are slowly dragging their standards down to keep up. This phenomenon is class warfare writ large and embedded into our society's future. When the appearance of talent and drive can be payed for, the only people who look successful will have money and they will be mind-numbingly incompetent.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:30 AM on December 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


Ivy-league schools are famous for grade inflation, but "all the complaining" frequently comes from the administration, not the students. A friend who did her postdoc at Stanford complained that the administration's mandated grading scale required her to give As to some students she felt should fail.

I haven't taught at my current posh U.K. employer but their 98% graduation rate makes it impossible to imagine the degree meaning anything besides "I got in". And many students never learn much. What value does "Her is where my high school teachers con admissions?"

I vehemently prefer the continental European model in which university's admit basically everyone who graduates high school, although frequently university faculty set the high school exist exams, but the universities fail out whoever the faculty consider weak. Just infinitely more accurate and fair.

My undergrad institution Georgia Tech had four-year graduation rate of 24%, roughly in-line with European schools. Also, I was expected me to fail around 30% of my class on their first attempts at the final when I taught a fourth-year course on mathematical logic in Germany, that's only ever happens for freshman and sophomore classes at most U.S. schools now.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:58 AM on December 14, 2013


I look at it from a game theory perspective. If you are elite, why risk a C when you and your friends can all agree to share As and A-s. These kids have much more to lose than to gain by a competitive grading system if their goal is Goldman or an Ivy grad school. The institution simply follows the preferences of the students who along with their families are the real stakeholders in the system. Elite institutions are elite because they can consistently attract elites.
posted by fraxil at 4:30 AM on December 14, 2013


Except that the university where you were the grader was a rigorous program, so I don't see how you can say it would have earned two different grades simultaneously.

I did my undergrad at a nonselective university. I did well enough there to be admitted to a PhD program at an Ivy League university. I am talking from direct experience of those two grading cultures, having been a student in one (and talking to other students) and a teaching assistant and grader in the other.

I said that I graded some papers as A- which would have gotten a B or B+ at my undergrad university. Thus if the Ivy League program had been even harder than my undergrad, the grades would have been lower.

In all, it was really bad for the students - quite a few of them - who really were doing A work. I had lots of good students whose letter grades ended up being the same as others who weren't doing the same quality of work, whether by lack of aptitude or lack of effort.
posted by jb at 4:40 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


For the Brits in the conversation:

1st = A

2.1 = A-/B+

2.2 = B/B-/C+

3rd = C or below

I once taught for a British professor who still graded in the British mode, so I learned to translate.
posted by jb at 4:54 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


How or why would someone, supposedly smart, lack curiosity? I would hope that such a University would give kids plenty of resources to remedy any boredom that could be a cause for "lack of curiosity". How does a kid who lacks curiosity earn high grades anywhere? This seems to show that school is just a ritual for them to go through before starting a high-paying business-related career [?].


From my University experience and studying with different groups there are different types of 'smart'. There were people that just wanted to know, exactly what the teacher wanted them to know for exams and papers. They were excellent at memorising and regurgitation. They're good and smart at doing school. Multiple choice tests? Yeah that's what we like. This type of 'smart' wasn't so good at taking the knowledge outside of the classroom and relating to other subjects or other things in general. They were not interested in learning or even discussing things related to the subject being studied unless it was going to be graded. They could easily get excellent grades because they met the specific expectation laid out for the course.

Then there was 'smart' where things being taught for the course were jumping off points that led to questions about other things that could be related. People that would question what they were being taught and why. They wouldn't just want test and paper answers but as I would describe it explore the material in a deeper way.

I returned to University as a mature student with life experience under my belt. I fell into the latter category. I was also very involved in things related to what I was studying at the University and out in the community. I took advantage of Professors invitations to 'come talk in my office' because I had questions about class material but more so about things that class material sparked. I wanted to get their academic opinion on things I was working on outside of class. Most of my profs were incredibly welcoming to this and a couple told me point blank that very few students did what I did.

In few courses I ended up getting great marks even though I didn't complete all the specific class work. I never had the expectation of those marks because I consciously made the decision not to hand in this or that. I never went with an excuse. In one poly sci course I got an A+ even though I didn't do the final paper which was worth 30% of the grade. I ended up going an asking the prof about it because I couldn't understand why I got it. He told me that he was disappointed that I didn't finish it because he wanted to read it but decided that in terms of the course material I knew it inside and out, and then some just from our discussions. He told me that he hoped I never lost my intellectual curiousity because it was something that over his 30 years of teaching he was seeing it less and less. More and more students just want to get told what they need to know to pass the class and that's it.
posted by Jalliah at 5:13 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


But once the professor is tenured, are they not free then to fail people without repercussions?
posted by Renoroc at 5:35 AM on December 14, 2013


In addition to the amenities and support systems in place within the institution, part of the gap between the "high-end," usually private universities with high average grades and the "low-end," usually public colleges with significant percentages failing out or dropping out connects to faculty teaching loads and pay.

Most junior colleges, community colleges, and even many regional state universities use "teaching-oriented" to mean anything from 4/4 -- a luxury -- to 6/6 if the budget has really been cut down. (Yes, there are state systems where regional or commuter universities and community colleges aren't even given the pittance to hire a sizable precariat, and even the full-time faculty are treated as a fixed cost in exchange for which you extract as much labor as physically possible.) Elite universities? 3/3 is considered a heavy load, both because tenure-track faculty are "really" being paid for research and because *that keeps the teaching standards up*.

For that matter, high-end universities pay higher for adjuncts, too. Your adjunct instructor at Harvard or wherever makes anywhere from two to four times what the adjunct instructor at the community college makes (the four times figure is due to the astonishingly low adjunct pay -- sometimes less than $1500 per class -- at some community colleges). Which means, of course, that they're teaching fewer classes, shuttling between campuses less often, and so on.

Even within the new academic precariate, there's a high end and a low end and it affects outcomes. The fulltimer teaching 6 classes a term of 25-30 students each or the adjunct teaching four classes on three campuses will not be able to do what the research-oriented prof with a TA or even the adjunct with three classes on two campuses can do for struggling students.

Add in the various personal and extracurricular instructional and research resources, not to mention the entire lifestyle orientation towards education that results from these, that separate the rich end of education from the working-poor end and you have a pretty good explanation for what looks, from the outside, like it's just grade inflation or grades-for-pay. That's there, too, but it's one factor among many.
posted by kewb at 5:36 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


But once the professor is tenured, are they not free then to fail people without repercussions?

Nope. I mean, of course they can fail anyone they are willing to do the paperwork for, but there are definitely potential repercussions and pressures. Promotion and advancement, for example. The need by a department for higher course enrollments and numbers of majors. Unwritten but real pressure to grade in keeping with the practices of other people in the department. Pressure from administrators concerned over 4- or 5-year graduation numbers and the connected issue of alumni satisfaction and giving rates. Etc.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:57 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nope. I mean, of course they can fail anyone they are willing to do the paperwork for, but there are definitely potential repercussions and pressures.

Among the resources provided by major universities but harder to find at underfunded or smaller institutions are a robust student grievance process, a student judiciary system, and a strong ombudsman. It's harder to fail a student or to process, say, a plagiarism claim because the paperwork may have to go through some form of due process, often involving student or administrator arbitration.

This is good and bad. It protects students from lousy professors or from grudges, but it can also work as a way to disempower faculty in favor of tuition dollars or to create a culture where all but the grossest instances of plagiarism are treated like academic misdemeanors. I've seen professors at elite universities circumvent the plagiarism report process in cases with obvious Google-cut-and-paste because they felt, rightly or wrongly, that the in-house process was a drain on their time and resources and might reject even clear evidence of wrongdoing.

I'd say that most professors in analogous departments at two such institutions preferred idiosyncratic responses of their own. In one instance, this meant grading that one paper to an unfairly high standard to give a "normatively" low grade like a C-, and then quietly let the student know that he or she needed to run notes, drafts, etc. by the professor for future assignments due to "issues of quality." In other words, plagiarism that would have been a fast F and a permanent strike on the student's record at regional state university or the local community college became a place where an informal academic support system kicked in instead to prevent future instances of plagiarism.

On a personal note, as seriously as I take plagiarism, that strikes me as a better way to deal with a first offense than the automatic F/minimal-to-no-appeals policy I've seen elsewhere. It shows the student that plagiarism leads to poor quality, obviously bad work and creates a system in which the student will essentially have to learn how to do the work honestly and well. And it's also something that only worked because the professor had two TAs and a co-teacher -- also tenured faculty -- in an introductory class of around 60 people.
posted by kewb at 6:25 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This I get. But I don't think it absolves teachers of their "job" to assign what they consider to be fair grades.

The problem here is that "what are grades?" and "what is a university professor's job?" each have multiple answers, and for each question, some of those answers are in direct conflict with others of those answers.

For example, the comments so far show most of the many answers to the "what are grades?" question. Grades should measure some actual accomplishment or state of knowledge (summative evaluation)? Grades should give feedback to students to assist them in their learning (formative evaluation)? Grades help various external stakeholders (employers, grad schools, scholarship granting agencies) compare students, when those external stakeholders might have little expertise in the area of education, or not have time or interest to base a comparison on more in-depth assessments. Grades can be tied up with students' self-image to a way unhealthy degree, especially for students who have been trained up to pay lots of attention to these sort of unnuanced external evaluations. Whether or not it is true, students may believe that grades determine their career prospects after university, and as Western economies become increasingly more unequal, as a university degree is no longer a near-guarantee of a stable middle-class job but is still a pre-requistite for even a hope of finding such a job, students can feel like their entire future is riding on that one grade (in my experience this is more the case for students from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds - they have some expectations of success and somewhere to fall, but lack the sort of family and personal connections that will ensure life will turn out okay (economically at least) no matter what.) On a university's end, grade distributions and average grades send certain signals to prospective students and their families that are important for marketing purposes. They send different signals to potential employers of graduates that are important for marketing purposes in different ways. Depending on the university's funding model, an administration may be viewing students' families as the "customers", maybe alumni, maybe a small number of specific alumni with large pockets, maybe state/provincial governments, maybe a few major employers with whom they have a cozy relationship, and in a few cases the students themselves. Each of these groups have slightly different interests in what grades should mean, and what average grades and grade distributions at a given university should look like, and university administrations can quite effectively pass those pressures on to, nowadays, most of their teaching staff, because at modern universities tenured (i.e. tenure-track and have been at the university for over six or so years so have had the chance to actually obtain tenure) professors are a decreasing proportion of teaching staff.

On the question of what is a university professor/instructor/TA's job, some conflicts of interest from different components of even just the classroom instruction part of the job arise more obviously and immediately. It is a university instructor's job to ensure that as many students as possible learn as well as possible - well, is it? There are so many important factors in learning that are way beyond the control of an individual instructor, but are somewhat under the control of their employing university. It was noted upthread that some universities can and do provide physical environments (dorms, food) to help ensure that students aren't obstructed from learning by commuting distance, home situation, hunger. Availability of need- and ability-based scholarships ties in to this too. Most people working at most public universities would like to do more to help provide a stable physical environment conducive to learning for all students, but don't have nearly the funding for that. Which has to do with the desires and priorities of *their* bosses in state or provincial government. Then there's the issue of program structure. If a university was truly concerned about student learning, and had the resources, individualized attention and flexible programs would be most effective. I mean, we *know* that not all students learn, eg., calculus in the same manner and at the same standardized rate. A small number of universities (those hippy ones with narrative evaluations, for example) provide this sort of individualizable yet still structured learning environment. But even most private colleges with giant endowments don't. So what do they do? Well, they set up regulated challenges - courses on proscribed schedules, common to all students - and, provide some supports to help students through the challenges, and then evauate students via an easily rankable and comparable scale that obscures any details of what went in to producing that evaluation, how it might differ across disciplines, how it relates to the student's own effort and varying strengths and weaknesses, etc. That is, predominantly, what the stakeholders who are paying for higher education in its varying forms are purchasing. That is the system in which university instructors are employees.

And there's an inherent conflict of interest between educating students/learning and credentialing students/getting that degree. Learning requires challenging yourself and taking intellectual risks. If your goal is obtaining a credential - because all the adults in your life say that you will be a personal failure otherwise; or that you risk being the first generation to experience a drop in socioeconomic status and you don't really necessarily know what being poor or working class is like but clearly it's scary because all the adults around you express either pity or approbation toward "those" people; or you know exactly what it is like and exactly how hard everyone else in your family worked so that you, the smart one who everyone's hopes are resting on, can have this opportunity - then taking intellectual risks is risky.

So what is the actual job of an instructor for a university course? What are the actual goals and interests of the stakeholders who are actually paying for higher ed (who, by and large, are not students themselves)? If the institutional goal were actually widespread, effective education, it seems to me that we'd have significantly different institutions.
posted by eviemath at 6:38 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


So maybe elite universities have grade inflation. Maybe that's based on pressures from entitled students. Certainly many students at elite universities are from a socioeconomic background that correlates with entitlement. But those students aren't paying the bills. So where does Harvard get its funding from (as I understand it, a mix of parents, alumni donations (both individual and foundations), and university endowment (money from long-dead people who aren't around to enforce their own agenda)), and what are those sources' interest in grades? Maybe those across-the-board higher grades help sustain a narrative that the US is still a meritocracy, and that the levels of wealth inequality that we have are okay and not immoral, because the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. Or maybe Harvard is elite enough that they can give high grades as a way to de-couple credentialing pressure from the educational process, so that their students are more willing to take intellectual risks, and thus get a better education? If so, who does this benefit, and who does it benefit that students at less elite universities don't have the same opportunities? What are the funding sources for state universities (less and less "the pubic", or state governments themselves; more and more a mix of tuition (which at state universities is still more often parents, but with a chunk coming from students themselves) and private/corporate donations), and what are their interests in grades? In fact, the fastest growing funding source for public universities in recent years has been industry "partnerships" and donations, which, even if it doesn't make up a majority chunk if the funding, can still be impressive to university administrations worried about budgets, and can have a perhaps outsized influence on their decision-making. So what grading policies benefit corporations/future employers, and maybe how does this vary by industry?
posted by eviemath at 6:43 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


1. A friend of mine taught at Harvard (in grad school) and claims that one strong motive for inflating grades is that, if you give all 'A's, you don't really have to read the papers/exams. Nobody questions an 'A'. OTOH, if you give anything less, you have to write copious comments justifying the grade, and may have to meet with the student and so on. I certainly see this strategy employed by some of my colleagues even where I teach now, which is not Harvard by any stretch of the imagination.

2. Contrary to what some have said above. grades are in no way meaningless, so long as they accurately represent the quality of a student's work.

3. Grade inflation is a fucking plague upon the land of academia. People complain that students don't learn much, don't work hard enough, drink too much, etc. This is largely the fault of professors for inflating grades. The average student will do as little work as possible in most classes so long as s/he gets the grade s/he needs. It's professors who build the incentive structure.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:49 AM on December 14, 2013


Grade inflation is a fucking plague upon the land of academia. People complain that students don't learn much, don't work hard enough, drink too much, etc. This is largely the fault of professors for inflating grades. The average student will do as little work as possible in most classes so long as s/he gets the grade s/he needs. It's professors who build the incentive structure.

As an individual instructor, I don't build the incentive structure. I can have a small influence, but if my incentives and expectations for the students aren't generally in line with everyone else's (particularly my more senior and more male colleagues), that can and has had (fortunately only minor to date) negative consequences for my career and job security.
posted by eviemath at 6:55 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


(But I agree that students don't build the incentive structure either, and are largely just reacting to it.)
posted by eviemath at 6:57 AM on December 14, 2013


Likewise, if university instructors at all levels are grading more and more "easily", or just lazily, and this is a broad trend, it's a good bet that that is the behavior that is rewarded by their conditions of employment. In other words, that's in fact their job. So what are the incentive structures for university instructors, and who sets them?
posted by eviemath at 7:03 AM on December 14, 2013


I said that I graded some papers as A- which would have gotten a B or B+ at my undergrad university. Thus if the Ivy League program had been even harder than my undergrad, the grades would have been lower.

It still sounds like you're saying that if the Ivy students woke up one day in the equivalent program at your undergrad and vice versa, the Ivy students' grades would have dropped in your undergrad program and the students from your undergrad would have risen at the Ivy.

obliquicity's comment is closer to the truth.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:17 AM on December 14, 2013


I teach at an okay-for-its-region community college, and even here there is a lot of pressure to push grades up. From administration, the messages are subtle, but clear. I am currently filling out my grade distribution form for this semester, which shows how many of each grade was received in my classes. For each F I have to mark whether it was an "earned F" (work submitted but it was bad work) or an "unearned F" (work not turned in). No one has ever come out and said why we submit these forms--all these grades are submitted on computer; it should be trivial to generate a report of grades submitted by each instructor. But we have to fill it out by hand, sign it, and give it in person to the dean's office. On the other side of things are the student evaluations, which are a major part of our performance reviews and can be the determining factor in gaining tenure. Students know this, to the extent that after one class badly bombed a test, several said out loud "You'd probably better curve this one or your evals will be terrible." Here, anyway, students generally evaluate a class based on 1) how easy it was to get an A and 2) how interesting they personally thought it was. You can imagine how that affects classroom atmosphere.

In short, we instructors are surrounded. Our bosses want the grades to be high. Our students want the grades to be high. And there is an efficient system in place for them to collaborate together to push them up. The only reason to grade accurately is a deep sense of personal responsibility and a certain level of masochism. Those happen to be my defining characteristics, so I pass out a ton of C's, but I also apply for every open college teaching job within 800 miles.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:41 AM on December 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


A lot of this complaining misses out that this is an entirely solved problem. People who need to make intelligent decisions regarding recent Ivy League students have no problem doing so.

First, people who need to make decisions on the basis of Ivy transcripts know what the curve is for majors and key classes, and know what extra-curriculars (and gradation of extracurricular attainment) are meaningful, and what are not. That anecdotal kid who complained about a grade blacklisting him from Goldman demonstrates that.

Second, standardized test scores are available and widely used as a complementary raw measure. Recruiters looking at seniors know to ask for SAT scores. Graduate schools have LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, and GRE to look at, as well as some intervening work experience in many cases, and also recommendation letters (because professors know how to write strong and not-so-strong recs).

Third, drawing fine distinctions based on intellectual prowess in the middle 70% of the distribution at the Ivies has pretty limited utility even if grades were able to represent it highly accurately, because in reality the 15th percentile Brown kid and the 85th percentile Harvard kid actually span a range of total aptitude / potential measurement that goes from about 99.1st percentile to 99.7th percentile -- not meaningful at all. Other measures overall have to be relied upon in any event. Obviously the bottom 15% and the top 15% probably starts to give you a lot more valuable information about complacency or heavy-thumb-on-the- admission-scale in the former and the potential of real genius in the latter.
posted by MattD at 7:48 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It still sounds like you're saying that if the Ivy students woke up one day in the equivalent program at your undergrad and vice versa, the Ivy students' grades would have dropped in your undergrad program and the students from your undergrad would have risen at the Ivy.

obliquicity's comment is closer to the truth.


Yes, that is what I am saying, and it is just as much the truth as obliquicity's comment. I did not teach at the same university or in the same discipline. Given that grade inflation is often very uneven across one university, I'm not surprised that our experiences were different. My roommate's department did not grade inflate, and the class average tended to be a B/B+; my department had a class average of A-. They were both humanities departments, had a lot of overlap in the students. Did they magically become less capable in her classroom? or did her department have higher standards?

As for the grades that my students would have gotten at my undergrad:

Some of them would have received the same grades or a bit higher. They were genuinely turning in A/A- work, and not all professors at my undergrad graded the same way. (I've received a low A- for better work than what has been awarded an A+, depending on the professor).

But some of the essays I graded as a low A- would have been a B or B+ at my undergrad. They were good, but not excellent (as their classmates were doing). The grading criteria at the Ivy League university said that an A- was for excellent work, but we awarded it for good or even just competent work because it wasn't worth the punishment we received to try to enforce standards. And ones that I did give low B's to probably would have had C's at my undergrad university.

Thing is, I'm not even talking about the majority of the students. At least 1/2 of my students really were doing very good/excellent work, which is much more than my undergrad uni, of course. But their efforts were devalued by the fact that their teachers were pressured to give the same letter grades to merely good work, just to keep the peace. As for the bottom end, I've read essays from Ivy League students that didn't have a thesis, or that would have been a good essay in grade 10 or 11. I had one student lift whole sentences from her sources without putting them in quotation marks; she didn't believe me when I tried to explain that this was plagiarism, because she had also cited them. I had another student who didn't understand why I gave him a low grade for an essay that simply repeated what was said in lecture and neither added any thought or answered the question of the essay.

These were just a few students out of generally very good and dedicated crowd. They weren't bad kids; okay, some were just blowing off that particular course, but others needed some academic guidance. But they wouldn't get it and continued to be passed class to class and would graduate without having developed the critical thinking skills that are supposed to be at the heart of a liberal arts education.
posted by jb at 8:02 AM on December 14, 2013


Second, standardized test scores are available and widely used as a complementary raw measure. Recruiters looking at seniors know to ask for SAT scores. Graduate schools have LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, and GRE to look at

Except when standardised tests do not correlate with future performance - like how the GRE does not predict success in graduate school.
posted by jb at 8:08 AM on December 14, 2013


Yes, that is what I am saying, and it is just as much the truth as obliquicity's comment.

I'm not saying you can't find cases of what you're talking about if you cherry-pick the circumstances, but it's certainly the exception rather than the rule.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:16 AM on December 14, 2013


I have graded history essays at Cambridge, Yale, and the University of Toronto.

Grade inflation at Yale was widespread and frankly shocking. Essays that would have received C's in Toronto got B+'s at Yale. Essays that would have been given B's were given A-'s. There were basically three grades at Yale: B+, A- and A for the really good papers. Why did I participate? Because I needed to to keep my job. In every institution, you grade according to the grading system set out. B+ at Yale History means 'weak paper', while it means 'very good paper' at other places. Once you know that, you can correctly interpret a student's marks based on the institution they attended.

Indeed, having had lots of contact with highly selective universities and non-selective universities in Canada (Canada really doesn't have selective universities in the way that the US and UK do), the difference was this: highly selective universities cut out the very weak students. The best students at Cambridge and Yale were the same as the best students at non-selective Canadian universities. The middle students were the same as the middle students (albeit generally less hard working and responsible due to privileged upbringings or having been totally repressed in secondary school). The weak students at Canadian universities got selected out. Not that these students were 'bad' -- some of my favourite students at the U of T were not high performers, but wonderful people -- but they didn't have the specific talents to make it through the vetting process and therefore aren't there in Oxbridge or Ivy.

Bottom line: students at highly selective universities are not necessarily smart, but are almost never dumb. The best students are the same everywhere. The exclusively stellar marks at top US schools are the product of shocking and cynical grade inflation rather than merit, and many very average students got excellent grades they didn't deserve.

For the record, here are the grading scales we used in history at Cambridge, Yale and the U of T, scaled against one another: (each letter is at the bottom of where it appears in the scale, so the space between 2.1 and 1 is used for 2.1 essays)


C   | Y  | T 
===================
    |    | A+
    | A  |
    |    | A
1   |    |  
    |    | A-
    |    | B+
2.1 |    | B
    | A- | B-
    |    | C+
    |    |
    |    | C
2.2 |    |
    |    | C-
    | B+ | D+
    | B  | D
    | B- |
    | C+ |
    | C  | D-
3   |    |

posted by Dreadnought at 8:18 AM on December 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Note: perhaps some of the confusion in this discussion is that grade inflation is not linear at all. Some papers which would be a D elsewhere might get an F in a grade inflating department, even as B papers get an A-, because the professors see their class as rigorous, but also have an idea that 1/2 or 2/3 of the class should get As.

I'm not saying you can't find cases of what you're talking about if you cherry-pick the circumstances, but it's certainly the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, I cited exceptions. But there still was an unspoken rule in my department that B/B+ work was given an A-. When I tried to actually grade by the stated criteria, and awarded A's to only 1/2 my class (rather than 2/3), I got in trouble. So I went back to including the B work with the A work, and giving B's to C work, etc.
posted by jb at 8:23 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


In every institution, you grade according to the grading system set out.

That's a good way of phrasing it. Letter grades aren't a standardized system of measurement like length or weight. Grade inflation may indeed exist; but if you're looking at the issue expecting one school's A to be the same A everywhere else, you're mistaken and therefore possibly misjudging what's inflation and what isn't.

There's a law school here in Boston that uses narrative evaluations instead of grades. There is no class ranking, although students can still earn honors. But the system has evolved buzzwords, which the local legal market has learned. So it's just a different kind of A, B, etc., and if a professor uses/omits that word, the student will be rewarded/penalized in the marketplace.

I imagine a law professor could come along and take a principled stand against using those words. And I don't imagine he'd last very long in his job, because he wouldn't be working within the system that exists at his institution.
posted by cribcage at 9:20 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I liked her description of the British solution to this. Curious to hear from British professors (and students) if this actually works.

She doesn't get it quite right. Double-marking is usually practised, but the second marker will generally be working at the same university as the first. The two markers will then have a discussion to agree a mark or will agree not to agree. There is a system of external examiners who will generally take a look at work (papers or exam scripts) that is borderline or work on which the two markers cannot agree. So in some cases there will be three markers.

The role of the external is variable. In some institutions, the external is only permitted to moderate the marks within the range of the two internals. At others, the external is permitted to impose a mark outside of that range, which can cause problems. An exam board is able to map average marks to degree classes where the examination regulations permit, but must convince externals that they are acting in accord with their regulations.

Few students in the UK are aware of the workings of the system in my experience. They do not receive the raw marks that each internal has assigned. If they did get them it wouldn't necessarily tell them the whole story since they would not have had access to the conversation that's taken place between the two internals, a conversation which is a reasonably good check on the arbitrariness of any one marker at any point in the process.

This whole concept of a mark being disputable by a student and arbitrarily re-assignable by an academic in response to a complaint is utterly alien. I've also taught in the US and the first time a student showed up to dispute a grade, I was dumbfounded. How are you supposed to learn if you won't accept your teachers' assessments of your work? Doesn't that just assess pushiness?
posted by GeorgeBickham at 10:05 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


We need a website that maps GPAs onto a Gaussian distribution based upon that institution and department, effectively providing a grade translation system like what Dreadnought just did.

I'd absolutely agree with "Students at highly selective universities are not necessarily smart, but are [rarely] dumb. The best students are the same everywhere. The exclusively stellar marks at top US schools are the product of shocking and cynical grade inflation rather than merit, and many very average students got excellent grades they didn't deserve."

Except, there are many schools that cannot provide the same opportunities as a large state institution or Ivy league place, making their graduates ultimately some what weaker, not though personal failing, but through lack of offerings. So the best students may start out "the same everywhere" but lack of opportunities hurts students at small state schools and liberal arts collages.

I consider the liberal arts collages about the worst offenders here because they rarely teach the courses that transition STEM students from undergrad to graduate work but they frequently charge more than large state institutions that offer everything.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:41 AM on December 14, 2013


Except, there are many schools that cannot provide the sam opportunities as a large state institution or Ivy league place, making their graduates ultimately some what weaker, not though personal failing, but through lack of offerings. So the best students may start out "the same everywhere" but lack of opportunities hurts students at small state schools and liberal arts collages.

I consider the liberal arts collages about the worst offenders here because they rarely teach the courses that transition STEM students from undergrad to graduate work but they frequently charge more than large state institutions that offer everything


As someone who got a BA here, went on to get an MS and PhD in biology, and now teaches at a public teaching college, I'm really not sure what you're talking about.

My students go to grad school despite the vast insufficiencies that you claim we provide them in our classes of 24 students whose names and life stories I know, classes which are full of hands-on science and discussion and outside of which I devote hours of work to active pedagogy and providing extensive feedback on every assignment.

As a Duke PhD, I was always amazed by how many students there managed to succeed academically despite the fact that their professors didn't care even slightly about teaching their classes of hundreds of students and sponged as much teaching off onto grad students as possible so that they could spend 60 hours a week writing grants.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:58 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


How are you supposed to learn if you won't accept your teachers' assessments of your work? Doesn't that just assess pushiness?

But isn't that actually exactly what you're supposed to learn?

Goldman or wherever doesn't want an employee who, as a college student, didn't care about gaming the system and didn't push to get his way.
posted by rue72 at 11:10 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I don't think it absolves teachers of their job to assign what they consider to be fair grades

The job is "teacher." It is not "grade-assigner."

Grades are a fucking plague on education and should be killed with fire.

Certainly, part of educating someone is providing them with meaningful and useful evaluation and feedback regarding their progress in learning the material, but assigning a largely-arbitrary letter is useless.

No student ever learned anything from the letter "B" written in red ink at the top of a paper, or at least nothing that isn't much more usefully conveyed by "You have a well-formulated thesis which you support with some interesting evidence, and aside from a few comma splices your paper is well-written. However, you haven't fully engaged with current research in the field, and your argument would be more effective with better structure." (Translate to your field as appropriate.)

Additionally, as we have learned in this thread, that "B" is utterly meaningless given the wide variety of ways in which those letters are assigned.
posted by dersins at 11:19 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


This whole concept of a mark being disputable by a student and arbitrarily re-assignable by an academic in response to a complaint is utterly alien.

But it's not, if you think about it in more constructive terms than just the abstract formulation of {assignment --> submission --> grade}. What's actually happening when an assignment is conveyed, completed, and assessed? It's a series of communications back and forth. Maybe the student misunderstood something, through his own fault or the teacher's, and what looks like a B+ paper from one perspective is actually an A- paper from a different, equally relevant angle. Or maybe the teacher misunderstood some part of the student's work, and an A- paper becomes a solid A once it's clear that a particular observation or concept was indeed present.

It doesn't even strike me as unreasonable to approach a teacher about a final class grade and say, "This grade lowered my GPA. I realize I could have done better on those first two tests, but I think that's counterbalanced by my overall performance in the class. Here's why..."

The idea that students' role is to accept grades quietly seems, for lack of a better word, docile. In most cases, sure, the grade given is probably the grade earned, and the student should try to learn what could have been done better and improve. But not because of some underlying idea about professorial judgment being infallible. That would run contrary to the idea of learning to think critically.
posted by cribcage at 11:45 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or your grader was being capricious and/or didn't give a shit, like the Physics I TA who gave me a 0 for a correct force diagram because the gravity arrow was not facing "down" (i.e., the bottom of the page).

Then again, my grades were apparently inflated beyond recognition because I am an entitled brat whose 1-percenter family paid for my undeserved credentials, so what the hell do I know.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:13 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The idea that students' role is to accept grades quietly seems, for lack of a better word, docile.

They don't have to accept them quietly. They can curse and scream as much as they like: I know I have done when I got an unfair mark and I still get angry when I think about some of them now. Learning to understand and evaluate criticism, including the subjectivity of certain forms of assessment, is part of the process. Students are absolutely entitled to feedback and it is regrettable that the focus is overwhelmingly on grades when teachers would ideally provide narrative assessment as well, or even alternatively. But if students go away thinking that their assessment (as opposed to learning how to critically reflect on that assessment) is a collaborative process then I repeat: they are unable to learn from the assignment and the teacher has failed them – for real, not just in terms of what grade they got.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 3:46 PM on December 14, 2013


For every story I've heard about some crazily entitled student, I've also heard one about an arbitrary or unfair professor. Sometimes I wonder how often they're two sides of the same anecdote.

Well, of course they are, but that's really the crux of the issue - should the teacher have authority?

It used to be seen that the teacher was fulfilling a position like mentor, parent, coach, director, boss - the one who makes the rules and assesses progress. Over more recent years, teachers have been understood in almost a customer service role, where students have just as much claim to assess teachers.

Or perhaps the whole thing is more generally focused around the issue of worry over self esteem - a misguided hope that praising students gives them confidence that will lead to success.

Either way - the classic arrangement was that a student accepted the judgment of the teacher, by virtue of the fact that they were the teacher. A student could prove that teacher wrong after the fact - succeed when the teacher had predicted they'd fail - but they couldn't alter the assessment that the teacher provided. That doesn't mean the teacher's grade was "infallible" - it means it's what that teacher assessed. But attitudes have shifted in many circles, for various reasons.
posted by mdn at 3:53 PM on December 14, 2013


How are you supposed to learn if you won't accept your teachers' assessments of your work? Doesn't that just assess pushiness?

But isn't that actually exactly what you're supposed to learn?

Goldman or wherever doesn't want an employee who, as a college student, didn't care about gaming the system and didn't push to get his way.


I know you're being ironic, but what do you say to someone who, in all honesty, actually thinks this way? Is that really how Goldman (or whoever) works? Isn't it more likely that you and your organisation will only thrive through this attitude in the short term? Granted, these days you can earn enough in such a job to retire at 40, but even Goldman needs people in it for the long-term. And there is no way that a curriculum can be structured around satisfying the perceived short-term goals of an above-averagely sociopathic student. No matter how hard the more agile universities try, they just aren't as good at it as such a perversely ideal student would demand of them.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 4:02 PM on December 14, 2013


But even with bosses and mentors, there are usually checks and balances so that people who feel that they've been unfairly treated have opportunities to get reevaluated. And at work, employees absolutely do collaborate in their own evaluation: at many jobs employees are expected to promote and defend the work they've done in the past year during their reviews, for instance. Adults also at the very least can change or terminate relationships where they feel that their work is consistently underappreciated, so that a single negative evaluation doesn't become some kind of albatross. So I don't really see that much divergence here.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:04 PM on December 14, 2013


Leaked! Harvard’s Grading Rubric
posted by tonycpsu at 12:30 PM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


okay, that made me cackle out loud. Tony, you get an A+ with garlands.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:07 PM on December 15, 2013


Ah, of course the Harvard faculty complainer is Harvey C-Minus Mansfield.
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:11 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


srs, Harvey Mansfield is basically a professional troll.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:19 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Found this thread after seeing an old classmate link to tonycpsu's "Leaked!" on facebook.

I'd just like to state for the record that this:

Once you're in, the Harvards and Dukes and University of Chicagoes do everything in their power to get you through and to get you through well.


Is not necessarily true. At least not at the University of Chicago. They don't even give A+s there. Ever. For anything. They just don't exist. (Oh, if you could have heard the plaintive cries from the first years after they found that out...)
posted by phunniemee at 2:42 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Heh, yeah, the A+ doesn't actually exist at Harvard either. At Princeton it does exist, but you need to fill out a special form and write a paragraph or so about why your student is so particularly awesome, and it is counted as a normal A in GPA calculations anyway. *rainbow* the more you know

Also, okay, I have to push back some against this also: You have to work against the culture and the institutions of the university to do badly, or you have to be one of the comparatively un-vetted, well-connected folks who skipped the line during admissions.

This is just not true in my experience. In fact, I've noticed that people from less well-prepared backgrounds often do not do as well as the kids who went to, for instance, a fancy magnet or boarding school. For one thing, people from better-prepared backgrounds often come in just plain knowing more, which means they can strategically sandbag to keep their GPA up (i.e., taking multivariable when they already took it at Stuyvesant). They tend to have better study skills than people who went to less-challenging (often = less wealthy) schools. They are generally not worrying about money over the course of the term, so they can afford to eat out if they have a lab scheduled during dinner hours or are just on a roll in the library or are across campus. They often know which extracurriculars will bear fruit for employment or med school admission and which ones are just vampiric time-sucks. They have no hangups about using tutoring to improve their grades, and know where to get it and how to get what they need out of it. And finally, many people I knew who came in "better prepared" just played the game better - they were very, very loath to take hard classes unnecessarily because of the potential GPA impact. (It turns out this is actually pretty rational because of course GPA is evaluated in pretty absolute terms, not in the context of which courses you selected.) Though I guess you could argue that "taking unnecessary difficult classes" is "work[ing] against the culture," at least if you know a lot of pre-meds.

It's true that actually failing out of HYP&c is definitely uncommon relative to state schools -- though dropping out or taking extra semesters isn't -- but nobody gives a shit if you don't do well. (Maybe even particularly if you aren't a legacy admit.)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:33 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is not necessarily true. At least not at the University of Chicago. They don't even give A+s there. Ever. For anything. They just don't exist. (Oh, if you could have heard the plaintive cries from the first years after they found that out...)

They also give every student two academic advisers, have a specialized advisers for people who want to go on to graduate school or particular professions, and a suite of mentoring programs, each with its own staff. They offer a tutoring program, a counseling center, and an academic skills assessment program.

Just having the Regenstein Library is a considerable advantage, and the culture of the school is notoriously grind-y. But the university itself is undeniably offer a stronger support system and much better resources and amenities than, say Directional State University.

It's true that actually failing out of HYP&c is definitely uncommon relative to state schools -- though dropping out or taking extra semesters isn't -- but nobody gives a shit if you don't do well. (Maybe even particularly if you aren't a legacy admit.)

The fact that you count "not doing well" against "failing out completely" says a lot, though, doesn't it? You're comparing the dynamics *within* an intensely privileged environment with the real possibility at low-tier schools of losing the opportunity for a degree wholeseale. The "floor" is much lower; that's part of what I mean about the culture of the place protecting you from doing too badly. At the community colleges and regional colleges I've been to or taught at? You can just plain flunk out; they will simply let you fail in a way the elite schools won't.

I agree that students from less privileged backgrounds don't know how to game the U of C or Harvard systems for all they're worth, but they do not fail out if they stick around.
posted by kewb at 5:11 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree that students from less privileged backgrounds don't know how to game the U of C or Harvard systems for all they're worth, but they do not fail out if they stick around.

For what it's worth, that doesn't mesh with my experience.

I went to a school very, very similar to U of C, and the studious culture and academic resources were huge advantages that helped me get a lot out of my education there. I learned a lot, and I loved it.

But there were very few students there from even marginally working class or poor backgrounds. The vast majority were at least solidly middle class, with a professional parent or two. Besides myself, I can only think of three students off the top of my head who were receiving a significant amount of need-based aid -- two failed out by the end of sophomore year, and one managed to graduate, through massive amounts of work and force of will, but is de facto unable to ever work in her field (a hard science) because she couldn't get the GPA or recommendation letters necessary to apply to grad school.

It's not that once you're in a top school you're part of the upper class and everything is champagne and rose petals, it's that many of the students at those top schools are *already* in the upper class, and everything *continues* to be champagne and rose petals for *them.*

For the most part, how you come up is how you stay. So even if you get past one gatekeeper, that doesn't mean you're in the garden.
posted by rue72 at 5:52 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know people who failed out of fancy private liberal arts colleges due to stresses around class differences along with not knowing how to work the system (let alone game it). 'Course, one of the advantages of a attending a more privileged school can be the opportunity for a face-saving transfer to a lower-tier, often public college or university, so doing poorly enough at fancy school that you get put on academic probation doesn't necessarily mean quite as final an end to your higher ed aspirations as, say, being put on academic probation at the local community college might.

But... I had to transfer out of the private liberal arts college that I initially started at due to finances (rather than academics), and was strongly considering taking some time off from university, maybe to do some Americorp work or something. I mostly continued (at my state university) because a professor who had been an exceptionally proactive mentor for me (and continued to be for many years; I was very lucky in finding her) talked me out of it. I'm not sure if I would have eventually gone back to university had I taken a break. It potentially would have put me on a very different life track than the one that led me directly to grad school after undergrad and thence to becoming a professor myself. Most students, even at elite private colleges and universities, don't have the benefit of that sort of personal mentorship that I had; especially most students from a more working class background whom faculty (who are still predominantly from upper middle class backgrounds, especially at elite universities) might not feel the sort of personal connection with, and vice versa, that enables the sort of personal mentorship that I benefited from.
posted by eviemath at 8:00 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I had a couple of comments that got eaten by the server, but fortunately eviemath and rue72 said more or less what I was going to. You're right that people don't often fail out of an Ivy, but often if you're doing poorly (and not fitting in with your surroundings) there's pressure to self-select out, either by changing fields or leaving school, before you fail or get placed on academic probation. The only person I knew who struggled to the point of dropping out while I was an undergrad was definitely the least-privileged of my circle of friends on a number of levels, which I don't think is a coincidence.

(This also says nothing about the additional social stress of integrating into the Ivy-league environment as a student from a "non-elite" - let alone underprivileged - background, which I think is considerable.)

Undoubtedly community colleges are underfunded and overstretched for the number of students they serve; to say they lack the resources of an Ivy would be a laughable understatement. But they're so different I'm not sure the comparison is totally illuminating. I think for a really one-to-one comparison of grade inflation, I think you would want to look at students who were admitted to Ivies but chose a state school instead, and then compare the distributions of their grades.

To some extent this has actually been studied - not in terms of grades per se, but in terms of things like future earnings. The evidence is actually more equivocal than you might expect; people from name-brand private schools don't appear to be hugely more successful than their public-school counterparts when you account for their socioeconomic status and individual achievements going in. I interpret this as meaning something like what rue72 said: in broad strokes, the differences in opportunity that you see between students probably exist well before they end up choosing a college, the flipside of which is that if you weren't privileged growing up. you don't necessarily acquire much of that privilege by going somewhere "elite." (Of course, most of the research on this issue took place before the massive slashing and burning of public school budgets that's taken place over the last few years and I wouldn't be surprised if today the difference between opportunities afforded by Yale vs. one of the SUNYs is considerably starker.)

I also have to lol a bit about academic advising. My first academic advisor just checked to make sure I had enough credits; my next never even returned any of my e-mails. The sum total of the academic advice I received in undergrad could probably be printed on one side of the contents of a fortune cookie, with room for lucky numbers and the Chinese character for "melon." I did end up getting some actually useful guidance from graduate students and my undergrad PI along the way, but my understanding of undergraduate academic advising at research universities is that it's largely a waste of time for all parties involved.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:15 PM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


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