Is it time to move beyond grades?
February 18, 2009 12:15 PM   Subscribe

There's a growing sense that the current system of college grading is broken beyond repair. With grade inflation and student entitlement running rampant, is it time to explore some creative alternatives? Or is grade inflation just a myth?
posted by you just lost the game (108 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
It shouldn't be called grade inflation. If it was just that the people who got As in the 1960s would now be getting AA++ s.

A better term would be grade compression.
posted by sien at 12:24 PM on February 18, 2009 [7 favorites]


Thanks for the Kohn article, I hadn't seen it before. Interesting counter-analysis.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:25 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Maybe if tuition were free, students wouldn't perceive an education as a credential that they've purchased.

Maybe they might view that education as a body of knowledge and skills that they've earned.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:28 PM on February 18, 2009 [7 favorites]


It's as though intellect, reason, creativity, critical thinking and learning didn't map nicely onto a single linear axis!
posted by freebird at 12:29 PM on February 18, 2009 [33 favorites]


If higher education weren't so incredibly expensive, the meritocratic gamble of attending wouldn't be so bitter to lose.

I'm happy as can be that I completed undergrad without a GPA, and not really a great fan of the all-A's status quo of my graduate program, nor the pressure on me to grade on a neat curve ending at C when I grade undergraduate papers. So, yes, in short, get rid of the grades. Pay teachers or TA's enough for their time, so they can actually observe students' work and judge it attentively.

More money for teachers, less money to attend... maybe the whole system has just metastasized.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:30 PM on February 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


The two philosophy professors at my college were both adamant opponents of grading, and therefore they demanded that the school give the students the choice to take all philosophy classes pass/fail. The unintentional side effect was that philosophy majors would still have GPAs, but their GPAs would be derived only from their non-philosophy classes.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:32 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


My poor writing right now is a result of a fever of 102 degrees, and not necessarily representative of the dumbing down of western academia and its members.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:32 PM on February 18, 2009


While we're at it, we should do away with basing our education system on one's ability to commit a bunch of facts to short-term memory for 24 hours.
posted by diogenes at 12:33 PM on February 18, 2009 [23 favorites]


“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in? If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?”

How about this: the point is you're a dumbass.

I so hope this guy doesn't go into any field where the end result actually matters to other people, like medicine or computer programming or the drive-thru at McDonald's.
posted by grounded at 12:33 PM on February 18, 2009 [14 favorites]


Denis Rancourt, Physicist at the University of Ottowa, tends to agree. He told students in his class at the beginning of the semester that they will all be given A+'s.

"It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons, he reasoned."

...

“Grades poison the educational environment,” he insists. “We're training students to be obedient, and to try to read our minds, rather than being a catalyst for learning.”


Of course, he has been suspended for his actions...
posted by clearly at 12:41 PM on February 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


When I was at McGill there was a lot of moaning and groaning from pre-meds about the fact that McGill refused to adopt a real A+ (4.3). The pre-meds all complained. Since Univ of Toronto, etc, etc, all had it, then McGill students wouldn't be able to compete, GPA-wise, when applying at those schools for graduate study. Personally, I was always pretty proud that McGill maintained at least that bit of academic integrity.

BTW, As a programmer, it was nice to see you include us in your list, grounded.
posted by mbatch at 12:42 PM on February 18, 2009


The kind of student entitlement described in the article makes me a little sick.

At my college full of very smart people, most things were graded on a pretty damn strict curve. The first semester was pass/fail to prevent people from being suicidal at getting their first 32% on a test, but after that there were letter grades - and a C meant you were in pretty good company.

This kind of sucked for people trying to get into grad school, since so many OTHER colleges are full of people getting 3.5s for being able to breathe, while I'm DAMN proud of my 3.2 overall GPA.

There were some classes that I, despite spending 12 hours or more a week on (with a 5 class schedule), simply couldn't do better than average on. So I got a C. Sometimes I even got a D, and even after a lot of prep that was hard to take for someone that never got less than an A in high school.

I think the reason this is hard to fix is the interfaces between different stages of schooling. How do you reconcile the vast differences between high school, college, and grad school if the first two use grading system that look identical but should be anything but in reality? The differences between individual high schools and colleges in hard enough, but to me an A in any high school is not even vaguely comparable to an A at a highly competitive college - nor should they be.

Maybe the nomenclature needs a change.
posted by flaterik at 12:45 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


The higher education institutions have positioned themselves as the gatekeepers to prosperity; if you don't get a degree, you're destined to a future of ridiculously low-wage jobs. Pay the schools and get a degree, and you're all set.

And then they act all surprised when the people who are paying good cash money for the degree that functions as a ticket to the middle class want to just pay the money and get the degree.

The universities' function as a class barrier is interfering with their ability to act as educational institutions.

Color me shocked.
posted by MrVisible at 12:45 PM on February 18, 2009 [56 favorites]


> Maybe if tuition were free, students wouldn't perceive an education as a credential that they've purchased.

My wife was a university TA about ten years ago and this is exactly the attitude that drove her up the wall. At least the kids in the Times article are holding themselves up as having done the work; the ones she taught expected B+ or above simply because their parents had paid a lot of money for them to be there. And who the fuck was she to say otherwise? Just some underpaid loser TA.

>“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in? If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?”

I would be ashamed to admit to this attitude, much less to admit it to a reporter for a newspaper read by millions of people. One time when I was in library school I was assigned a partner for a cataloguing class project. When we got the assignment back, marked B-, she was appalled and wanted to appeal the mark. When I pointed out that ALL TEN of our entries were incorrectly completed (piddly stuff like semi-colons and dashes being out of place, but that's cataloguing) and that there was no way I was going to demand a higher mark for an assignment we'd screwed up, she looked at me like she was going to cry and said "But we worked so hard!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:48 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Right now, I am taking a physics class. The homework is given on WebAssign, which only accepts the right answer, whose value is often either completely wrong, or out of context of the wording of the problem.

For example, it'll say: "Determine the angle going clockwise from the X-axis"
So you find the angle, type it in and get a red X for Wrong. You rack your brain, do the calculations again, and come up with the same answer. Finally, you realize that this is a dogshit computer program, you take (360 - your answer) to determine the counter-clockwise angle and you get a completely unsatisfying green check mark for Correct!

Basically, what I am trying to say here is that plugging in numbers to formulas and then out-smarting a computer entry form is an absolutely negligible skill when compared to actually understanding the theory behind the numbers.
posted by clearly at 12:48 PM on February 18, 2009 [8 favorites]


In my experience teaching at an elite private university, many of my students perceived their education as a fee-for-service enterprise: their parents paid tuition, they showed up, and in return I gave them As so they would get into law school.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:49 PM on February 18, 2009


There's a growing sense that I really, really hate the catchphrase "there's a growing sense."
posted by mwhybark at 12:49 PM on February 18, 2009 [10 favorites]


Egads, I hate "these kids today are spoiled, not like in MY day when we walked fifty miles uphill to school, and a hundred miles uphill back home! For a C! And we LIKED it!" kind of stories.

Which is all the "grade inflation" shit is.

It's quite true that grades are jive and we would be better off without them, though.

I attended a grad school which was on a pass/fail/incomplete/honors system. Basically everybody got a pass; it was very difficult to fail and even more difficult to get honors. Incompletes were temporary.

It was a very well-thought of and academically respected department.

Strangely enough everybody worked their asses off despite the fact that there was little or no threat of getting bad grades if you didn't.

It's almost as if they cared about the subject matter and about increasing their own knowledge and competence in it, even without grades.

Thanks for the Alfie Kohn link. Reading his books changed my understanding of the way things work on a whole lot of topics. Good to see his work linked here.
posted by edheil at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


I so hope this guy doesn't go into any field where the end result actually matters to other people, like medicine or computer programming or the drive-thru at McDonald's.

The first two years of many medical schools are graded on a pass/fail basis. I'd argue that there is a definite need to be able to fail students in the occupations you've mentioned, as well in the humanities, but as others here have pointed out, performance is very hard to accurately quantitate in a single letter or number. If you argue that this approach favors mediocrity, then feel free to set the bar for passing as high as you like.
posted by monocyte at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]



Maybe they might view that education as a body of knowledge and skills that they've earned.


Is that what people in Scandinavia and other places where education is free think about their education?
posted by spicynuts at 12:53 PM on February 18, 2009


While we're at it, we should do away with basing our education system on one's ability to commit a bunch of facts to short-term memory for 24 hours.

I had a roommate last year with a 3.96 or so GPA in a Criminal Justice program. She studied for a whole semester for the LSAT with the mindset that she could just memorize a bunch of facts and theories. She failed.

An undergrad degree represents more the ability to show up and follow instructions than it does the command of a body of knowledge or the skills required to apply that knowledge.
posted by clearly at 12:54 PM on February 18, 2009


I went to state college. Why did I perceive none of this while I was there?

If you say "because you could only get into state college" I will give you such a smack.
posted by JHarris at 12:55 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I once taught a class at the university where I did my postgraduate degrees, and I was instructed by the other professors never to assign a grade higher than 80%. 80%, I was told, was considered a perfect mark. "Oh", I said, "so 80% is equivalent to 100%?"

No, they said. 100% was still 100%.

"But you've set an arbitrary glass ceiling set at 80%; that means a passing grade is what, 35%?"

They all looked at me funny.

Now I think I understand why.
posted by LN at 12:55 PM on February 18, 2009


I blame the educators on this one.

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Here's how I read this: There's a "hidden curriculum" at work, that says that hitting all the stated marks will earn you a C, while reading the professor's mind will earn an A. The student is saying, I did everything you asked of me, so why isn't the result what you told me it would be?

This is like the manager at Chotchkie's telling you that, while 15 is the minimum, you should want to express yourself and wear more pieces of flair, rather than hew to the stated goals.

So, why not make it transparent? Here's what an A means, here's what a B means. Now get to work.

In other words, Stan, if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, like your pretty boy over there, Brian, why don't you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:56 PM on February 18, 2009 [21 favorites]


The universities' function as a class barrier is interfering with their ability to act as educational institutions.

(Most) universities now bear the same relationship to universities of 150 years ago that being knighted by the monarch of England now bears to being knighted eight hundred years ago. University graduates may or may not be well-educated, in just the same way that Richard Branson and Paul McCartney may or may not be skilled at the joust.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:56 PM on February 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


Denis Rancourt, Physicist at the University of Ottowa, tends to agree.

Sure, but the University of Ottowa is not highly ranked. You can get a degree by sending a hundred and fifty bucks to a postal box in Hull.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:57 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I was in college 20 years ago, I clearly understood that getting an A was the result of turning in excellent work. A B was given for decent, satisfactory work, and a C was for mediocre work. Anything less than a C was for truly subpar work. Sometimes you could ask for extra credit to bring up your grade; other times you were stuck with it. And there were some classes I just couldn't ace. I don't remember ever blaming the professor for that. I knew what my strengths (qualitative work) and weaknesses (quantitative work) were. I knew that everyone has limitations and that it is OK.

When I became a TA in grad school, which I went to about 15 years later, the undergrads I taught had what I considered a crass, bottom-line mentality about grades. They expected to get an A for turning all their work in and having good attendance, regardless of the quality of their actual work. In my pedagogy class, I was trained to "work with" the students, allowing them to rewrite papers ad nauseam until the papers were A work. When they came to me they were writing at about an eighth-grade level.

This was excruciatingly boring for me, but it did help the students learn to write, and helped them learn that getting an A should be directly related to the quality of learning. Critical thinking skills were built into the curriculum. I had a very smart pedagogy professor who knew exactly what today's academic environment is like.

In short, I was teaching what was essentially remedial writing to young adults who had been told all their lives that they were smart and deserving of --even destined for -- infinite success. They all seemed to think the world would end if they didn't get all As. They were worried they'd never get into grad school or get a good job otherwise. They were incredibly stressed and pressured, and they had the idea that if they paid for a class, an A was the commodity.

It was sad and frustrating and I will never, ever teach again. I had a young man come up to my desk with tears in his eyes over a C+. I had a couple of young women hurl verbal abuse at me over Cs. I just felt that inflating their grades was unethical and doing them a real disservice, but most of them didn't care about learning, all they wanted was an A. And I could NOT believe the disrespect with which they spoke to me, like I was a peer, not their teacher. I would never even have thought of saying "fuck you" to a professor when I was their age.

I don't know how things got this way, but I think it's part of the total breakdown of society into nothing but consumerism and entitlement. I'm very lucky that my educational experience (in experimental open schools, gifted programs, gradeless college classes, and a bit of homeschooling) fostered in me a love of the challenge of learning. My life is much the richer for it. I feel bad for students whose imaginations and intellects are killed by today's educational system. Most of them deserve better.
posted by xenophile at 1:00 PM on February 18, 2009 [26 favorites]


But letter grades/point systems are great for covering up the inability of the professors to teach, in my experience. There probably is a better way to rank students like issuing written evaluations, but that's more work and against the status quo, so it's an uphill battle, especially in math, science and engineering.
posted by peppito at 1:01 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Which is all the "grade inflation" shit is.

I graduated in 2001. I don't think things have changed substantially since then, and I think that things had been like that for a while when I started college. My story has zero element of "back in MY day". I got the feeling it had been moving in that direction for a while while I was in college.

I attended a grad school

None of us are talking about grad school, and I specifically excluded it from my comparison of grading systems, simply noting that there's a third, still different one after undergrad. Comparing grad school to undergrad is like comparing apples to desk chairs.
posted by flaterik at 1:03 PM on February 18, 2009


Grades make sense in some cases and don't make sense in other cases. For example, in my programming courses in college, you got a grade based on how many of the correctness tests passed when run with your code. So if your code didn't compile, it was worth 0 points (or an F), and if your code kind of worked you would get a B or C. That kind of grading made sense.

What didn't make sense was when I got a paper in a cultural studies class back with a B and no comments or markup on it, asked the TA what I could have done better, and instead of receiving any constructive criticism was told that the grade could be bumped up a few points to an A- if I wasn't satisfied with it. That kind of grading could be done-away with.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:05 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whether you want to call it "grade inflation" or not, the grade system is completely out of whack. If MIT is a tier-one school, and a community college is bottom-run, then even a C (average?) student at MIT should be performing at a higher level than an A student at the community college.

Instead, C is essentially failing, as Ds don't even seem to exist any more, and an F is handed out only for a flagrant disregard for the course as a whole, a failure to even show up rather than a failure to grasp the material. In graduate programs, a single C can mean a risk of being removed from the program.

It has become essentially impossible to grade anyone any longer, as the entire curve has become compressed into a meaninglessly small range. If everyone is an A student, doesn't that just mean that no one is?
posted by explosion at 1:06 PM on February 18, 2009


I don't understand the relevance of grades. Shouldn't colleges and grad schools just look at the person's rank in their high school or college when determining who to admit?

Who cares if you have a 3.9 at State University if that puts you in the 35th percentile of their ranking system? What about someone who has a 3.4 at City College but is ranked in the 9th percentile at that school?

Shouldn't colleges and grad schools look at the class rank and combine that with some sort of weight that they give the school overall? For example, maybe 10th percentile at Harvard equals 4th percentage at State University. And so on.

Wouldn't that system just do away completely with concerns about inflating GPAs?
posted by flarbuse at 1:07 PM on February 18, 2009


"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma."

I believe the movie that that quote is from was made in 1939.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:10 PM on February 18, 2009 [7 favorites]


From what I've heard, what most people refer to as "grade inflation" is really just the practice of schools letting students re-take classes that they failed, and then not having the original grade show up on their transcript. My school allowed this, and I don't see any problem with it at all. In fact, I think people who do have a problem with it are insufferable snobs.

All that matters is that you understand the material. If you understand it well enough to get a passing (or better) grade, why should it matter that you tried before and failed?

I had to take Calc II twice. I dropped it the first time because I knew I would be getting a D or a "gentleman's C-", and I wasn't happy with that. So I took it again over the summer, which was pretty intense - since it was an 8 week class, we had a 2hr lecture class every day, plus a lab. But I worked my ass off and got an A. You wanna know why I got that A? Because by the end of the summer I *knew* that shit.

And then of course, I graduate only to find out that nobody cares what grades you got in school. Except for *maybe* your first job. And even then, who actually calls and requests transcripts? But that didn't matter to me. I didn't work my ass off in college to get grades. I worked my ass off because I actually wanted to learn something.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:11 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


In graduate programs, a single C can mean a risk of being removed from the program.
(...)
If everyone is an A student, doesn't that just mean that no one is?


Yeah, and it's really up to us as students to determine if we're in the right field at all, or just wasting our time, since there's so little useful feedback. My MA program began with a required Professionalization Seminar that did some of that work. Of course, when the teacher seemingly arbitrarily gave out a few B's for the coursework, people flipped out and had them changed.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:13 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


A modest proposal: separate "gateways to the middle class" and actual institutions of learning. If you just want a piece of paper that says that you can wake up on time, put forth a modicum of effort when called upon and know how to read, then go to the first. If you want to actually engage in intellectual life then you go to the second. It would be like having vocational school for people who work in offices.
posted by ND¢ at 1:13 PM on February 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


Comparing grad school to undergrad is like comparing apples to desk chairs.

Citation?
posted by swift at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


The first two years of many medical schools are graded on a pass/fail basis. I'd argue that there is a definite need to be able to fail students in the occupations you've mentioned, as well in the humanities, but as others here have pointed out, performance is very hard to accurately quantitate in a single letter or number. If you argue that this approach favors mediocrity, then feel free to set the bar for passing as high as you like.

monocyte, I'm not sure what you're saying here. Pass/fail is fine with me and actually, I favor it in things like medicine and engineering because it's very important to have competency to a particular standard.

My example was more about the relationship between effort and success. If you're slated for surgery to remove your appendix and you wake up to find your doctor explaining to you that he/she removed your colon instead, you wouldn't be placated by their pleas that they'd put 100% of their effort into your accidental colostomy.
posted by grounded at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2009


AAAAAAAA++++++ WOULD TEACH AGAIN

I took a couple of physics and engineering courses in college where no one in a class of about 30 people scored above 80%. The professors had a difference between what they thought they were teaching us and what they thought they were testing us on. We all thought the liberal arts kids were the ones who showed up half the time and still got A's.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2009


A+++++++++++++++++++

WOULD EDUCATE AGAIN!
posted by delmoi at 1:23 PM on February 18, 2009


Maybe my school was unusual, but I can't say I saw any grade inflation during my time in college. The 101 type courses were pretty much designed to wash out the "wooo! I'm away from my parents, time to party!" crowd, and in the real courses grading seemed quite fair. I saw several people flunk out, drop after seeing their midterm grades, etc.

The only exception I can think of to this was my mandatory 101 level Art History course, which seemed engineered to let the most drunk fratboy and the dumbest football players get at least one A. No exaggeration, the professor [1] once spent 15 minutes teaching the class a rhyme to remember how to spell Renaissance.

Maybe other schools suck [2], but I'm inclined to suspect that "grade inflation" is just another way of saying "you kids get off my lawn".

Or maybe its all post-grad stuff that has the grade inflation?

[1] I have no idea how a man as demonstrably stupid as this got a Ph.D, I assume he got someone else to write his thesis. He was an *ART*HISTORY* teacher, yet during his discussion of Roman art said that no one knew why the Romans wrote S.P.Q.R. on everything, or what the mysterious letters stood for. When a student (not me) pointed out that bloody everyone knows what S.P.Q.R. stands for the prof insisted that the student was wrong and that the letters were a mystery.

[2] Seems doubtful, my school was not a highly rated university.
posted by sotonohito at 1:23 PM on February 18, 2009


Ugh, How did I miss mdb1mdb1's comment in my scroll through.
posted by delmoi at 1:24 PM on February 18, 2009


Thanks for the Kohn article

Seconded. It's the best thing I've read on the subject, and nobody should allow themselves to bitch about "grade inflation" without having read and absorbed it. Pull quote:
Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily -- Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity. ... One of the chief obstacles to raising the standards of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work.

-- Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard, Harvard University, 1894
That's right: 1894. Kids today, I tell ya!
posted by languagehat at 1:24 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have 'a growing sense' that some people are laboring under illusion that life is fair. If you haven't learned that by the time you matriculate in an undergraduate university, this should teach you that. It may be one of the most useful lessons that you learn from the entire experience. I 'earned' a 3.28 from an Ivy League school, worked 3 jobs, took an average of 20 hours a semester and graduated in 3 years competing with frat geeks who had filing cabinets of old tests and papers in their frat house. This plus 2 bucks will get me downtown.
posted by sfts2 at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2009


Shouldn't colleges and grad schools look at the class rank and combine that with some sort of weight that they give the school overall?

I think the idea is that if everyone's getting As and A minuses then the distribution is so squished together that the rankings don't mean much.
posted by yarrow at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2009


People don't go to college for an education. They go their to get a credential. And you don't hire a harvard graduate for a job because of some secret that they only teach at harvard, you hire him because he got into harvard in the first place. For most people it's a pageant. It's dress up. It's going to a lot of trouble to pretend that things are fair and our minds weren't already made up. And some good comes out of it sometimes but most of the time and money spent on secondary education is wasted because education isn't what people are really after. Most people in college would be better served if they could just take a big test instead of a lot of little tests, and have that decide their future and cut off the pretending.
posted by I Foody at 1:28 PM on February 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


The lack of consistancy is what drives me nuts: In university A I'm the smartest little cookie in the jar and everyone boosts my ego. I get As on papers. In university B (which I got into thanks to my fancy GPA at university A), I'm dead average. I'm hoping it doesn't kill me, based on the fact that the difference between a really crappy state U and a mini Harvard. I don't want grades I don't deserve, I just want to know that my Bs here are equal to my As there as far as what higher education beyond this thinks.
posted by Phalene at 1:29 PM on February 18, 2009


VERNON
Carl don't be a goof! I'm trying
to make a serious point here...I've
been teaching, for twenty two
years, and each year...these kids
get more and more arrogant.

CARL
Aw bullshit, man. Come on Vern,
the kids haven't changed, you have!
You took a teaching position,
'cause you thought it'd be fun,
right? Thought you could have
summer vacations off...and then you
found out it was actually
work...and that really bummed you
out.

VERNON
These kids turned on me...they
think I'm a big fuckin' joke...

CARL
Come on...listen Vern, if you were
sixteen, what would you think of
you, huh?

VERNON
Hey...Carl, you think I give one
rat's ass what these kids think of
me?

CARL
Yes I do...
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Comparing grad school to undergrad is like comparing apples to desk chairs.
Citation?


Sadly my deskology education was substandard, so I'll be hard pressed to come up with a decent essay here.

I can also only cite myself, who didn't actually go to grad school, but is good friends with many who did. The main difference I see is that, with several quite notable exceptions, grad school is not seen as a requirement for post-burger-flipping employment, while undergrad is largely perceived to be a near inviolate requirement for earning a decent living.
posted by flaterik at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2009


Shouldn't colleges and grad schools look at the class rank and combine that with some sort of weight that they give the school overall?

Frequently, the 'weight overall' has been the SAT in recent history for admission into college, and the GRE in admission into grad schools. In theory, these standardized tests can give an admissions department an idea about how the student compares to every other student in the country - indeed, looking at all the standardized test grades from a specific school can help you develop a picture of how that school stacks up to other schools.

Of course, the SAT can be gamed to some extent - especially in communities where families can afford to put their kids into SAT prep courses.

When kids from our school apply to college, we usually send out a statistical profile of our school along with their transcript so that colleges can have a little more information about the quality of our institute.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:38 PM on February 18, 2009


Students of all generations have had a sense of entitlement. Grades are a way of tamping down that youthful tendency. At least at those schools where grades aren't purchased outright via entitlement level tuitions.
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:52 PM on February 18, 2009


I have a lot of sympathy for the mindset expressed in the last link. Many of the professors I've run into have been obsessed with the notion of grade inflation and it expressed itself... badly.
Example: A biology class and a good teacher who had the knack of making the subject fascinating and engaging. We were all smart kids, we worked our asses of - putting in extra hours to work together as a group because it WAS so darned interesting. We all did great on the tested portion - because we understood. The following morning, the prof came in wearing a very disapproving expression. "We have a problem." He said. "More than 80% of you got a B or higher on that test. I don't want a curve that looks like that. I'm going to make the next test twice as hard so that I have a normal looking bell curve."
We sat there, and looked at him and wondered why in living heck he was considered competent to teach if his critical thinking faculties were THAT broken.

Or the math teacher (this one was actually in high school, but the same idiotic mindset) who walked into a calculus class on the first day and said "we have a student this year who has earned a PhD in Mathematics and has come back for a normal high school experience. He wants to take calc with you all. I can't compare him to you so I'm not going to try. I'm going to give him an A. I don't care if any of you understand everything I teach and get every single problem right all year. You're not getting higher than a B."

In a culture (the US) where your GPA IS so danged important for getting into tertiary level education - this particular mindset goes right to another point made in the article - the point about meaningful incentive. Investment in your coursework is hard to sustain when you're so clearly faced with a prof with such a fundamentally BAD understanding of the student-teacher relationship. In these instances, its not the students who are seeing the classroom as a grade factory. And if they LEARN to - who can blame them?

I realise that this is all anecdotal, but for every teacher I've had who teaches with passion and prioritizes student comprehension, and even passion (and I've had many wonderful people) , I've had someone who fundamentally mistakes the notion of what makes a teaching experience and what makes a meaningful grade. And I have my suspicions that a lot of the noise about grade inflation comes from these people. I also suspect that their attitude does much to foster the "transaction classroom" as understood by the "entitled paying student" stereotyped so tenderly in this thread. Kids are taught that the student-teacher interface is a game. They're gonna assume then, that they can game it.
posted by tabubilgirl at 1:54 PM on February 18, 2009 [11 favorites]


Yikes, suddenly my profs seem like horrible horrible bastards. I mean, geez, I had two separate profs set the course grading such that fifty percent of the class was guaranteed to fail. Fail! Not get a C, but actually fail the class and receive no credit. The passing grade was set at the end of the semester, based on the 50th percentile.

It was like the Paper Chase for undergrads. People did terrible things to each other.

Of course, there was also the class that openly guaranteed you an A if you used the profs favorite jargon often enough. I'm completely serious: bust out a few extra uses of "reification" and you could walk right into an A.
posted by aramaic at 1:57 PM on February 18, 2009


A university's eminent scholars and researchers are very rarely to be found complaining about grade inflation. In fact, most of them have to be dissuaded -- with difficulty, by anxious department chairs -- from handing out high grades to everyone on the rare occasions they do teach graded classes.

Why? Because they know that grades are given for demonstrating an understanding of what is already known in their fields, and that competence in what everybody else already knows has little to do with being able to come up with results that are interesting and new, which is the only thing that could truly impress them.

Tough grading is the province of hacks and embittered failures who hope, generally in vain, to maintain a sense of their own superiority by intimidating, belittling, and punishing the students we have been foolish enough to put in their power.
posted by jamjam at 2:04 PM on February 18, 2009 [13 favorites]


I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the girl next to me.
posted by netbros at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Grade inflation is real, buteasy to deal with, grade compression is real and a pain in the ass, I have the proof.

I worked at the admissions office of an elite university. My job at one point was to set up a database with the high-school GPA, SAT or admission exam score and college GPA of everyone that had studied there in the last 30 years, including those currently enrolled. They had also just finished one of their projects where they interview all the alumni they can find from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago to find out how they are doing in life, and that went into the database too.

We were trying to find out what better predicts academic success for new candidates, and how if at all success at our university predicts success in life. Grade inflation was obvious, no need to run any fancy statistics, you just had to plot grade distribution on time.

With a little statistics, we were able to adjust for different schools. A 90% from school X is equivalent to an 80% from school Y, which is equivalent to a 65% from the same school Y in 1984. We could not openly say we were using this table to make admission decisions, for other schools may complain, and we would get in deep shit trying to justify our methods. We were coders not lawyers.

Grade compression was a worse problem. There were schools were any one with a grades average under 90% meant the student was an idiot. The rest of the people were not nicely distributed between 90% and 100%, a perfect student could get a 94% because he missed a single test, while a mediocre one could have a 95% because he got extra credit for attendance or something.

Candidates from these schools we had to interview personally, which was a huge timewaster for our understaffed office. Unless they were going into Chemical Engineering, in which getting a 65% was a very good grade, and 75% of students drop out in the first 3 semesters; or unless they were going into Design, Communications, Marketing or Architecture, where our university gave everyone grades above 90%, and where only 5% to 15% of graduates are still working on the field 5 years after graduation.

I am talking about the problem at an undergrad admissions office, but we saw that in many majors we were doing the same. Chemical Engineering had the lowest grade inflation of all, but we had a good enough reputation that our students could get into graduate programs easily. In other majors we were as bad as everyone else. For the purposes of our little database, we asked teachers in this majors to append notes like this to their grade reports: X is a)One of the best 5 students I've had in my teaching career, b)One of the best 5 students I've had in the last 4 years c)One of the best five students of his class. I left before we had enough data to see if this means anything.
posted by dirty lies at 2:14 PM on February 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


Grade inflation is entirely real.

I teach at a polytechnic in Canada - mostly web development and 3D animation. I like to think I am well-regarded - I teach thoroughly, have good-to-excellent notes and resources, provide induvidual feedback, tutoring, and office hours. Along with this, I have high standards. HTML and CSS are (broadly speaking) languages - if you cannot show some fluency in the language after taking a semester-long course with me, there's a problem, and it's unlikely to be mine.

At the end of semester six months ago, a good deal of students in a particular 2nd year class gained low marks. There were several A's, a sprinkling of B's, and lot of C's and D's. Several students were going to fail to pass.

My academic chair, ever mindful of the appearance of raw numbers from our program - the volume of graduates as a measure of student success, etc - grabbed the final grade sheet for the class and arbitrarily added 10% to every student's grade, to make them more "reasonable". This was not school policy - it was simply done to pass students, and make his department look better.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 2:20 PM on February 18, 2009


I wouldn't fret too much. Eventually everyone attending college everywhere will receive a mark of 100% in every course, and the system will reset.
posted by Stonewall Jackson at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2009


I went to state college. Why did I perceive none of this while I was there?

Not to be snarky at all, but it is really because the makeup of the student body varies A LOT by institutional type. Based on my own very anecdotal experience (I have taught at private comprehensive universities, community colleges, flagship state R1, high-ranked private R1, 4-year state college, lower-ranked public R2) entitlement is not a *universal* condition of higher education.

I think a lot of it is related to the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the students--when I have had students that were predominately working class/lower-middle class, first generation college students, older, employed full-time (or close to it) I have perceived very little to no sense of entitlement. These students vary in how academically well-prepared they are, how motivated they are (many are just there for the credential, many want essentially job training, but there are some who really do want to learn for learning's sake), but they are all pretty universally nice, respectful students who almost never complain about their grades.

Example: In handing papers back to state college students in a writing-intensive course, student looked at the grade of "F" on his/her paper and said, "Yep, that's pretty much what I expected." Now, while it's still kind of sad to see, it's also gratifying when students can honestly admit that they didn't put much effort into an assignment and/or didn't know what they hell they were doing.

The whiniest, most grade-grubbingest, specialist-snowflake entitled students I have ever had were at the two R1s, especially the private university. These students were *horrified* to receive Cs on decidedly average work, and one student literally exclaimed, "Isn't a C FAILING??!!??" They were the ones convinced that because they tried so hard it shouldn't matter if they did the assignment completely wrong, they should still get As, cause they got all As in high school. These kids were plenty smart and had gone to great high school, but they made every class period excruciating and I was so glad to get out of there.

I also noticed that, on an institutional level, it was the highly ranked universities where i heard the most hand-wringing about grade inflation. I've never heard anybody complain about that at my current institution.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:31 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


It would be nice if we had a universal, quantifiable measure of a person's worth, but I don't think one will be forthcoming anytime soon.

I would like it if people in diffrent schools could be cross-compared, though.
posted by delmoi at 2:42 PM on February 18, 2009


It's good that students are taught that they should expect education for their money. It will make them better consumers once they graduate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:46 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Regarding clearly's comment:

Basically, what I am trying to say here is that plugging in numbers to formulas and then out-smarting a computer entry form is an absolutely negligible skill when compared to actually understanding the theory behind the numbers.

I was a physics ta for intro classes for many years. We hate the stupid computer programs as much as you do. But human graders are expensive, and WebAssign is relatively quite cheap. (I believe when my school switched over, the budget for graders, who were paid close to minimum wage, allowed only 2 minutes per problem set. Human graders at 2 minutes per problem set aren't really any better.) At least in the cases I'm familiar with, homeworks graded by WebAssign were worth a small percentage (5-10%) of the final grade in the class.


Seperately, I disagree with many of the comments such as mbd1mbd1's. The purpose of a test is not just to assess that a student has learned exactly what the prof taught, but also their ability to synthesize that material.

If the average score on a test is say 90%, then you are not able to distinguish between those students who have reasonable comprehension, and those whose comprehension is excellent. You are falsely compressing the top range of scores. If no one scored above 80%, well good, then you haven't screwed up the signal. Of course if no one got an A because of that, that's a seperate issue; and if the order of the scores is not correlated to the students' actual comprehension, that's not ok either.

Anyhow, guess I just want to say that tests should be hard, nobody should get 100%. It's a bad test if half the class does.


and BP- students *should* expect education for their money, and also credentialing. However both of those should require more than money.
posted by nat at 3:01 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oop, one more comment-- yes, dirty lies, I agree, grade compression is the real problem. Perhaps we simply need to invent a letter before A.
posted by nat at 3:04 PM on February 18, 2009


I was always bitter about grade inflation what with majoring in chemistry as an undergrad. 50% on an exam was good!

I read that nytimes article about entitlement with great curiosity earlier today. I had never really dealt with this idea until a student protested his grade (a grade that I thought I was being nice about given his ability to follow the assignment) by telling me he had put more work into this assignment than a more highly graded past assignment, so naturally he should be rewarded for more effort. The actual product didn't matter.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 3:18 PM on February 18, 2009


If MIT is a tier-one school, and a community college is bottom-run, then even a C (average?) student at MIT should be performing at a higher level than an A student at the community college.

That only makes sense if you think grades are meant to completely relative with no absolute scale whatsoever.

If, instead, you believe that grades should be largely against an absolute scale of mastery, you'd expect your students at a near-Ivy to get almost entirely A's and B's, and your students at a flagship state university to draw a wider range of grades, and you'd expect to give at least 25% of the students at a fourth-tier public university D's and F's.

Which, oddly enough, is exactly what happened to my students in real life.

In graduate programs, a single C can mean a risk of being removed from the program.

As it should, if you believe grades should refer to an absolute scale of mastery. How can someone who can't demonstrate full mastery of the material be expected to know that material so intimately and fully that they can pick it apart to see the gaps where new contributions can be made?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:19 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


I go to uOttawa.

Do not cite Denis freaking Rancourt as an authority on this. His story is truly a bizarre fairy tale, becoming intertwined with the story of a student who has been similarly hoisted off campus (Marc Kelly). He wasn't fired for only his grading practices -- faaar from it. The New York Times has a pretty good summary, but it doesn't even plumb the metaphorical depths, as it were. This article, the English-language student newspaper, explains how Rancourt blames the 'North American Israel lobby' for oppressing him and firing him.

Seriously. We're not even into the soap-opera stuff here, yet.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2009


Let's say I sell you something worth $30,000.

After a few months, it still doesn't work, so you complain bitterly. Maybe you don't know how to use it (failure of the instructions) or maybe the way it works is broken or less than satisfactory. You have every right to complain.

Schooling should work the same way. I pay for a set number of skills and amount of knowledge, and the school should be forced to do everything in its power to make sure the contract is fulfilled. If it takes me more than a semester to learn the material, either the method of instruction is faulty or the amount of material is too great for that time.

That being said, of course it goes both ways. The school should require (and monitor) a set amount of time to gain the skills in the course. If the student cannot learn in the agreed-upon timeframe, then the student has broken the contract.
posted by Kickstart70 at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am currently attending a major public university. I feel that grade inflation is very real in the humanities and other classes where there is no "right" answer, but much less common in analytical classes where there is a right and wrong answer.

I hate the humanites classes. I like art and literature, but I hate not having a right answer.
posted by schyler523 at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2009


I'm sitting here grading papers right now-- I teach First-year English Composition at a NY state U. While I often provide rubrics to students, I have an overall scale that I employ:

We don't give A+'s
A (90-100%) Outstanding scholarship and an unusual degree of intellectual initiative;
B (80-89%) Superior work done in a sustained and intelligent manner;
C (70-79%) Basic quality work;
D (60-69%) Work of the lowest passing quality, the student having mastered the bare minimum of subject matter content;
F Unsatisfactory, failing grade.

I also ask them something along the following: "Suppose that you write a paper that meets all of the criteria as laid out in the assignment prompt; correct formatting, minimal or no errors in punctuation, spelling, et cetera-- what would you expect to get as a grade?"

They all say, almost without fail, a B+ or A. I reply, "No, that's a C. Average work--everyone should be able to easily meet those requirements. It is the paper that goes above and beyond those requirements that receives the A and A- grades. What would be an A in high school is now a C. C is not a bad grade, but it is the 'standard' grade for acceptable, even good, work."

They all generally rise to the bar I set, and they put in the effort to get the higher grade.
posted by exlotuseater at 3:32 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Students should be graded on a curve, period.
The majority gets C-.
Better than average get Bs, As.
Less than average gets Ds, Fs.
And as many Fs as As in every class.
That's how it is in some law schools, and you get an insane sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you progress from C to C+.
posted by ruelle at 3:36 PM on February 18, 2009


Personally, I think this sounds freakin' great. I'm going to be re-entering college soon, and I'd love to get straight A's just for showing up.

Don't fix the system until I've gotten my degree!
posted by lekvar at 3:43 PM on February 18, 2009


Man, I wish we'd had grade inflation at Cornell. I might've actually graduated.
posted by Eideteker at 4:32 PM on February 18, 2009


I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the girl next to me.

Jesus Christ, netbros, get your own material.
posted by languagehat at 4:55 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is that what people in Scandinavia and other places where education is free think about their education?

Good question.

Are there any people out there from those countries lurking out there? Was this your experience? Did having a free (or close to free) education make you focus more on the actual learning, rather than the certification aspect?
posted by jason's_planet at 4:56 PM on February 18, 2009


B (80-89%) Superior work done in a sustained and intelligent manner;

You all get a B- for your thoughts...HA!
posted by MsCoco@6:58 at 5:10 PM on February 18, 2009


As the first comment notes, it's often not really grade inflation, it's often grade compression. I currently teach at an R-1 American university, and undergrads in my department are given a low A- for work that would have been B or B+ at the middle-tier state university I went to - because people in our department are afraid to give out Bs.

Though - in addition to varying by type of university (as DiscourseMarker points out) - grade compression differs by department. I teach in a humanities/social science department where average work gets an A-. But I know at least two other departments, one social science, one completely humanities, where the students are getting middle Bs as their average grade.

But don't try to talk to the actual instructors about that. Frustratingly, while it is graduate students who do the vast majority of the grading and the direct non-lecture teaching, it is the faculty who set the standards, but don't want to talk realistically about them. Some of them are just convinced that the undergrads must be brilliant and thus will all get As, or it's our fault. But then again, the faculty in my department seem to refuse to work together on even the simplest of standards - they make cats look like herd animals.

Actually, I dislike the American percentile system altogether. The A- and A are too close together (90 and 93, as I've been told it should be). It makes it too easy for a good but not great student to slip over that line. In Canada, an 80 is A- and 85 or 90 for an A. Obviously, the ten points between the two systems makes no difference (since tests are just set differently, or qualitative work graded differently), but the 5 point gap between the bottom of the A- and the bottom of the A does make that step more significant than in the US.
posted by jb at 5:16 PM on February 18, 2009


You know, all that "liberal" nonsense about education without grades?

Yeah fuckers, eat it. Some people game the system. Some people don't. Get fucking used to it.
posted by Xoebe at 5:26 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Suppose that you write a paper that meets all of the criteria as laid out in the assignment prompt; correct formatting, minimal or no errors in punctuation, spelling, et cetera-- what would you expect to get as a grade?"

They all say, almost without fail, a B+ or A. I reply, "No, that's a C. Average work--everyone should be able to easily meet those requirements.

It is the paper that goes above and beyond those requirements that receives the A and A- grades.
(emphasis mine)


Do you realize you're asking your students to read your mind? Unless you spell it out for them, how the heck should they know what constitutes "above and beyond," or even what "above and beyond" means when an assignment asks, for example, for correct formatting? What exactly is the "above and beyond" difference between A and A-?

Do you provide examples of A, B and C papers? Otherwise, this is a recipe for miscommunication and confusion.

And if "everyone should be able to easily meet those requirements," why does a D grade exist? If everyone can already do it, why bother demonstrating it all?

This is why students get upset about grades -- educators that set up hidden curriculum.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:27 PM on February 18, 2009 [10 favorites]


We don't give A+'s
A (90-100%) Outstanding scholarship and an unusual degree of intellectual initiative;
B (80-89%) Superior work done in a sustained and intelligent manner;
C (70-79%) Basic quality work;
D (60-69%) Work of the lowest passing quality, the student having mastered the bare minimum of subject matter content;
F Unsatisfactory, failing grade.

....

They all generally rise to the bar I set, and they put in the effort to get the higher grade.
posted by exlotuseater at 6:32 PM on February 18 [+] [!]


exlotuseater - yours sounds like a really good approach to the issue, and I'm going to remember that for my teaching, thank you. I don't think I can change the departmental standards to be as rigorous as your own, but I like that idea of telling students that you don't get an A for effort, but for truly excellent work.

Our posted standards are just about the same you have quoted, but in our actual grading reality, the A (90-100) is given for "Superior work done in a sustained and intelligent manner" (of which there is quite a bit, but should that get an A?), while the B range (80-89) is given for "Basic quality work" and C for "Work of the lowest passing quality, the student having mastered the bare minimum of subject matter content." Some professors hold a sharp line on the full A (93 and up), but still award the A- for work that your standard says should be a B.
posted by jb at 5:29 PM on February 18, 2009


Most people in college would be better served if they could just take a big test instead of a lot of little tests, and have that decide their future and cut off the pretending.

Isn't this done in some countries (Japan keeps coming to mind, but I could be wrong)?
posted by Rykey at 5:32 PM on February 18, 2009


Do you realize you're asking your students to read your mind? Unless you spell it out for them, how the heck should they know what constitutes "above and beyond," or even what "above and beyond" means when an assignment asks, for example, for correct formatting? What exactly is the "above and beyond" difference between A and A-?

Cool Papa Bell - many universities post grading standards online. These are the grades posted where I currently TA:

A Excellent
A–
B+
B Good
B–
C+
C Satisfactory
C–
D+
D Passing
D–
F Fail

It seems to me that simply doing the assignment would be "satisfactory," doing it well would be "good" and that to achieve a status of "excellent" it would have to be something which was above and beyond the simple expectations of the assignment. Sometimes that means getting many right answers on a difficult quantitative test; sometimes it means showing a deeper insight than most students when dealing with a qualitative concept. It differs by discipline and by assignment.

A satisfactory burger would have meat and a bun and be edible, even tasty - but to be excellent, it would have to be something more. Excellent cooks don't struggle with this concept; excellent students don't either. And even among very good burgers, someone who has read a lot of papers eaten a lot of burgers will be able to taste the difference between an excellent and a merely very good burger.
posted by jb at 5:39 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wrote about grade inflation in Slate a while ago. Short version: grade compression is real but doesn't interfere with our ability to sort out the extraordinary students from the very good as much as you might think.
posted by escabeche at 5:54 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Cool Papa Bell, you need to understand that the example is a hypothetical, and that each assignment IS clearly delineated-- criteria like formatting is clear-- MLA style, 12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced throughout, etc.

I believe VERY STRONGLY in transactional learning, I am completely transparent with my students, and they know exactly what I expect-- you are mistaken with your "hidden curriculum" comment.

I teach writing as a process as well as product, and assignments are approached as a series of drafts-- if a student gets a grade they are unhappy with, I will help them to write a better paper-- that's part of my job, to act as a coach, or a midwife. I don't believe that good writing can be taught, but that technique can be, and that good thinking can be.

If a student turns in an A-, I will tell them what they need to do to make it an A.
posted by exlotuseater at 6:04 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some stories: At ne college qwhere I taught, the school (students mostly) discussed the possibility of doing away with grade and having only pass/fail. A number of the brighter students said there ought to be something like Pass+ for outstanding students! I had a grad seminar with a very distinguished prof. He passed out slips of paper and asked us to put down our names and the grade we would like to get in the course. Then he collected the slips and said: You will get whatever you put down. Now we can busy with learning.

If an elite private college takes in the very top students, then those students ought to be capable of all getting A grades...except for those who begin to party too much, skip assignments, etc. But if super bright students get into super good school shouldn't they get super good grades?

What truly goes on might gbe seen by the fact that a very good school gave passing grades to G.W.Bush.
posted by Postroad at 7:00 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Postroad - the average students at an elite private college do not perform better than the very best students at less selective universities. Many more of them do perform as well as the very top students - maybe more like 20-30% of the class, rather than 1-2%. But not the average. As I said, I feel that the average performance at a selective university is about B+, maybe A- (depending on the course). That's much better than the average at a non-selective institution, but that's not the same as performing at the level of a full A (it's a short distance, but a steep one, and it's not meant to be easily acheived even by bright students - it reflects aptitude, skill, effort, and sometimes just luck).

I actually had the highest grades of those in my major graduating from our non-selective university - but I wasn't the best in the major. I met a much better student, and had a chance to read one of his papers. But he went overseas to support his wife while she was in graduate school. I don't know what happened to him after that - he didn't graduate at the same time as me. But I know he was much, much better than me. And the paper he wrote in third year was better than anything I've read so far teaching at an elite private college.
posted by jb at 7:21 PM on February 18, 2009


Yale prof Barry Nalebuff talks about a way to mitigate grade inflation, or at least de-incentivize it on the supply side, here [Previously], about 18 minutes in. The basic idea is, grade reports and/or transcripts show different metrics in addition to a letter grade-- how many students were in the class, the average grade given in the class, the grade distribution spread, what percentage of the class are majors in the course topic, etc.

There are problems inherent in this proposal-- not the least of which is getting large-scale buy-in from faculty-- but an interesting way to approach the problem.
posted by Rykey at 7:33 PM on February 18, 2009


jb: I don't know about Ontario, but in Quebec, there is no such thing as a provincial standard regarding grades. For instance, the École Polytechnique de Montréal goes F, D, D+, C, C+, B, B+, A, A* (still worth 4.0), while at concordia they have "minus" grades and the A+ is worth 4.3. At Polytechnique (an engineering school), some courses are graded purely on a curve, so in some Physics engineering courses, a grade of 10/20 might earn you an A; in others, like first-year courses, the A is set "in stone" at 16/20, and the A* at 18/20. In my Concordia department, they go by 5 points increment, so an A- is 85%, an A 90% and an A+ 95%.

On another note, the coordinator for my first engineering math course told us that, in that course, grades didn't fall on a gaussian curve: there were three distinct "bumps". A first at 15-17 (B+ or A), another at around 10-12 (C), and another somewhere below 10 (D or F). People who fell into that last bracket sometimes persevered, but it took them a lot of hard work, or a serious reconsidering of their priorities.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:37 PM on February 18, 2009


Students should be graded on a curve, period.
The majority gets C-.
Better than average get Bs, As.
Less than average gets Ds, Fs.
And as many Fs as As in every class.
That's how it is in some law schools, and you get an insane sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you progress from C to C+.


Which works great, until the drop date comes and the lower third of the class disappears.

Then what was a C turns into an F - for what ? Preserving a pretty bell curve ?

That's assuming that you could expect a bell curve of performance for a given class (and that's a big assumption) you would expect to see that curve with many samples. In a class of 40 - Not So Much. It's basic statistics.

In my experience, grade inflation is based entirely on the instructor. I'm not convinced that it is any better or worse now than in the past. It is my opinion that unless you are the top of the class or the bottom of the class, your rank is unimportant. An honors/pass/fail/Inc system I think would work far better and be subject to less gaming.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:52 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


We don't give A+'s

We don't "give" anything. Students earn grades. I am so tired of "You gave me a C!" "No, I didn't; you earned a C. Would you like to look over the work with me so that I can help you improve?" "My mom is going to call the principal!" "...good luck with that."

And grade inflation is very, very real--especially (though not exclusively) when it comes to football players. Students on the football team must pass every class in order to continue to play. Any teacher who has a football player who earns an F can expect a visit from the Vice-Principal, "suggesting" that the teacher raise that grade to a D. Football brings in money. God forbid the administration take a long-term view of the students' lives. Heck, educators aren't supposed to care about education, right?
posted by tzikeh at 9:15 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


And try explaining to a helicopter parent that the fact that his or her little darling is "SO upset" with her C- is not going to get me to change the grade. Only she can improve her grade. I'll help if she likes, but most of the time the student can't be bothered to make the effort to ask for extra help--only options for extra credit.

As my high-school French teacher used to say, "You may certainly build me a guillotine, but it won't prove that you read A Tale of Two Cities. I'd keep the guillotine, though."
posted by tzikeh at 9:19 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jesus Christ, netbros, get your own material.

Under my own grading rubric, that nets him an F for plagiarism.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:19 PM on February 18, 2009


that nets him an F for plagiarism.

He looked into the airhead of the student next to him.
posted by tzikeh at 9:25 PM on February 18, 2009


I guess the problem is not inflation, it's the exchange rate. See, in my classes, the same grasp of material for one class causes me to get an A- and a comment from my TA he liked my cartoons (I doodle when I think, and the exam booklets come with scratch paper for notes), while another TA says I was vague and sloppy and slaps on a B. I can never know what mark an exam essay or paper will get until it lands in my warm little hands. This means that I'm starting to feel like that dog in the psych experiment who learned to associate ovals with shocks and circles with rewards, and when the experimenters started showing him shapes in between an oval and a circle, the dog went nuts. I do not know what causes my marks.

The people saying 'boohoo, I deserve an A!' aren't entitled brats, they're psychologically unwell. I've comforted crying jags from people over small percents, and soothed hysterics over a C. I'm ashamed to admit, but I wept like I lost a puppy over some red ink on a subject I wasn't exactly interested in in the first place. These are people pointlessly arguing about the need for an A because their sense of self worth is on the line. Nobody is being taught to be proud of a B, and that a B is useful, they're being told that their grades in school determine their future income. Parents who come in to ask why Snowflake can't get her premed marks raised are participating in this pressure, because they share the same fear. It gets especially bad in exam focused cultures, with their related high suicide rates.
posted by Phalene at 9:26 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


tzikeh: I would go even a step further and suggest that the student isn't earning the grade, the paper earns the grade. It's a ridiculous distinction, but I make sure that I'm not suggesting that the student is "bad," but that the quality of that particular paper is either good or bad.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:27 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Nobody is being taught to be proud of a B, and that a B is useful"

Not everywhere. We had a saying in school: "D for Diploma."

Or, if you were more ambitious, "B for B.A."
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:55 PM on February 18, 2009


Monday, stony Monday: there's no set standard for Ontario universities. uOttawa has a 10-point system; Carleton has a 12-point system. Each letter grade, and it's + and - variants, get assigned a a point. The difference between Carleton and Ottawa's is that Ottawa had to remove B-, C-, and D- to make it fit in a 10-point system with an E grade (redeemable failure).

I imagine you can how this can do a bender on one's average. 80% of students lose their scholarships, which generally require an 8.5, or A-/A, in first year. Our grades do not seem to be that inflated.

Also, yeah yeah, uOttawa sucks, if you can walk and talk you can go to Brock, etc. etc. There, the uOttawa jokes should be done now. Also, no one's paid 150$ for tuition here since the glorious heydays of the seventies, when my prof recalled paying pennies to go to Queen's... without scholarships.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:56 PM on February 18, 2009


To the haters: say what you will about uOttawa, at least it's got a goddamn Pontifical Charter. [NOT ORANGEIST]
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:07 PM on February 18, 2009


"But you've set an arbitrary glass ceiling set at 80%; that means a passing grade is what, 35%?"

When I was a student, back in the dark ages, the grades went like this

Below 40% was a fail. Above 70% was a first. The highest mark I ever got 86% and the tutor told me that it was the highest mark he'd ever given in his teaching career.

Out of an intake of around 200 students in our social science faculty my year, there were two who graduated with first class degrees, and mine was just the second that had been awarded to someone majoring in sociology in nearly ten years.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:53 PM on February 18, 2009


See Kohn's book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition. There's nothing really to add to that. Except, maybe, "lighten up, man."
posted by carping demon at 10:56 PM on February 18, 2009


All the discussions about grade inflation I've ever seen have just reinforced the incredibly stupid grading system that a lot of schools employ.
A, B, C, D, F makes no sense as a grading system for tests.
In my school, we used the very simple 0-100 scale, with 64 being a failing grade.
To grade a test, simply take the number of correct answers divided by the number of questions, and boom, there's your grade. I mean, how does answering 14 of out 20 questions equal B(or C, or whatever it would work out to be)? It's dumb.
"Good job, Johnny, you got B percent of those questions right!"

I mean, sure, you can assign percentages to the letters, but then all you end up doing is saying the guy who got 90 percent of the test correct gets the same grade as the guy got all the questions right.

Essays and the the like can be a little harder, but just assign some points for each concept you want to see, add some points for proper grammar and spelling, with a little fudge factor and you are good to go. It's still less arbitrary than B+.

Also, grading on a curve, biggest load of crap ever. You get what you earn. Period.
posted by madajb at 11:06 PM on February 18, 2009


While in grad school, I taught a class that was theoretically a "weed-out" class: Philosophy 101. It was my understanding that the class was *designed* to fail out a large percentage of the students. (Based on my experience with that class a few years earlier.) I used pretty similar curriculum as that which I had been taught, and I was appalled...seriously appalled at some of the work that was turned in for essays.

I was willing to help anyone who wanted help, both with understanding the concepts being taught, but also was willing to give remedial English lessons so these students could write a complete sentence, an logical paragraph, and understand the core elements of a persuasive paper. Very few of them took me up on my offer.

At the end of the semester, I refused to do a curve because I felt it was really unfair to the students who had done outstanding work. In the class, there were 3 students that made As, about 7 that made Bs, 10 or 15 Cs, and the rest were Ds and Fs.

Students went insane. Insane! There were threats, there was crying, there was the "you've ruined my life" drama...and those were the people that got Cs. I called called into the Dean's office, and even though the Department Head backed me up after reviewing the work and test of the students who didn't get the grades they wanted, the Dean gave me a strong lecture about how the Board of Regents didn't want us failing students.

W.T.H? Don't fail students that are incapable of doing the work? Seriously?

It was the day I decided that my future was not in academia, and that all the work I'd put into graduating summa cum laude had been a total waste. To think of all those years I could have been stoned, playing frisbee golf instead of delving into the delicious morality of David Hume...and probably still graduated at the top of my class...well, it's just sad.
posted by dejah420 at 11:43 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Warning: I'm going to rant a bit. My point is the last paragraph.

The grading system has a whole host of problems (in Canada).

Example 1:
If you want to be a lawyer and your not the smartest guy in the world. Go to a poor/easy school and get A's. Now what do I define as a poor/easy school. One where if you read the text book and memorize it, you can get an A on the final exam versus the school where the exam is 90-100% applied knowledge from the course. After you complete your degree in political science with your 4.3 GPA, apply where ever you want with reference letters.
Now if this same student went to a "harder" school and took the exact same courses and finished with a B average, they are in a much more difficult position. Even though they probably learned more and have a "better" education.

Example 2:
Some universities have courses cross-listed or can be easily transferred. A classic trick was to go take the summer course at the "easier" university (because summer courses are almost always easier for whatever reason) and then transfer your A back to the hard university.

Example 3:
A degree, say economics, has a graduation requirement of a third year macro course. 50 students sign up for the course. 25 drop it on the last possible day because the professor is "too hard". 25 stick it out and come out where 15 pass with not great marks and 10 fail. The 25 who initially dropped it wait until the next year and take it from an "easy prof". There is too much variability within the same course when you change professors. This is not true at every school, but is at many. Also the number of students who dropped the course late in the semester should be on the transcript or noted somehow.

Example 4:
This relates to example 3. If you have a hard prof and an easy prof teaching the same course number in the same year the average grades for the transcript are combined. In other words you have things where a student in the hard class got a C (the top mark, yes I have seen this more than once), which is bad enough. The transcript reads mark C, average B. This is very unfair.

Many courses have there grades curved for various reasons. The single goal of the class (if you want high marks) is to just do better than your fellow students. This causes problems when working together on projects and students arguing every single mark (some do this regardless). It gets too far away from learning. Also if there are one or two students that excel in a class, they are actually hurting the other peoples marks (so to speak) and this creates problems.

There needs to be a better way to transfer credits between schools, a more standardized way. I have no problem with the requirement that 50% of credits must be taken at a school to graduate there. What has to happen is universities have to get off there high horse and realized students are more mobile now (for whatever reason) and requiring them to stay in the same city for four years, just might be close to impossible for them. At the same time we don't want the easy/hard school transfer credit "cheating" occurring.

I would be all for the Barry Nalebuff proposal mentioned about, but I think transcripts should be a written report by the professor. This forces the professor/student to know the each other somewhat. When you are done a degree you would have a few paragraphs from about 40 professors that would give a good idea of exactly what you learned and how well you learned it. I believe they do this at UC Santa Cruz and other schools. I think an admissions officer to graduate school or a job interviewer would have a much better idea of the person.
posted by sety at 4:35 AM on February 19, 2009


"So, why not make it transparent? Here's what an A means, here's what a B means. Now get to work."

This is known as "contract grading" and it is indeed done in some classes. Usually not in large entry-level classes though.

In my mind the people most at fault for grade inflation are the people who are unwilling to assign a failing grade to a student that has earned a failing grade. This doesn't start in college, it starts in high school. A friend of the family got lambasted for giving students the grades they had earned. Parents didn't like it. If he hadn't had a mountain of evidence to back himself up, don't know how it may have turned out. When I heard that parents were starting to call up college instructors to complain, well... hell. I really enjoy teaching but am not too upset to be only doing research right now.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:15 AM on February 19, 2009


I would be all for the Barry Nalebuff proposal mentioned about, but I think transcripts should be a written report by the professor. This forces the professor/student to know the each other somewhat.

I routinely have 300 students in a single class. Other profs teaching the same subject routinely have 500 or even 800-1200. Now what?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:24 AM on February 19, 2009


Exactly Rou. I've seen (although never had to attend) classes that were taught in auditoriums where the professors needed sound equipment to be heard at the back. It was why I chose a smaller school and the honors track, so I could avoid any of those type of classes.

My senior year, most of my classes had less than 10 people by mid-semester. Sure, it might have been rational to ask those professors to grade with an essay, but the profs saddled with the population bigger than most small towns? It's absurd to think that those instructors would have time.

Which brings up two other issues....grad school and current class size at universities.

Firstly; if you plan on going to grad school, grades are very, very important. Especially if you choose a field where the graduate spots are very limited (philosophy), or where they are very competitive (top tier law school). Sure, anyone with a C average can get into an MBA program, but if you're not graduating in the top 3% of your university, the odds are against you getting into your graduate school of choice in many other fields. I mean, how many spots to study with Noam Chomsky do you think there can possibly be at any given time? Ergo, students not graded on the accepted modality of grading are at a disadvantage over those students with a numeric GPA on their transcript.

Secondly; class sizes at the universities in the US have gotten ridiculous. It goes back to statements earlier on this thread about universities become the gate-keeper to the middle class. It's an absurdity to think that most of the people who are getting/have gotten degrees actually *need*, *want* or *use* their degrees after graduation.

I know very few people with undergrad degrees that work in any field related to their degree. (Education majors and PE majors excepted.) For instance, I have a degree in philosophy, and yet nobody has ever offered me a job that involved a toga and the opportunity to tell people why they're all wrong, and I'm right. (Although, I'm completely open to the position, should someone need a short, round, cranky Mediterranean woman to wander around being profound.)

As well, most jobs out there that require "a degree...any degree" aren't jobs that take any level of university quality work. I understand that employers want people who can read and write, but they're hardly getting that from this university system, and nothing in the world can convince me that Joe Bob's degree in French Neoclassical Poetry has anything to do with his ability to be a good (or bad) project manager.

I've said in other threads that I think the problem stems from the elimination of trade school type curriculum from the high school level. It's a crime that people who want to be mechanics or plumbers or carpenters or auto body repair are forced to spend university levels of cash to go to trade schools in get jobs that are absolutely essential to the infrastructure of our culture.

We've somehow developed this mentality that only white collar jobs are worth having, and that blue collar jobs are somehow shameful and show lack of intelligence or drive or whatever. It's offensive to structure our culture in such a way that that someone with an MBA is presumed to be more valuable than the guy who fixes the pipes in your house, or who wires your walls, or fixes your car.
posted by dejah420 at 9:54 AM on February 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


When you are done a degree you would have a few paragraphs from about 40 professors that would give a good idea of exactly what you learned and how well you learned it. I believe they do this at UC Santa Cruz and other schools.

That's where I got my BA, GPA-free, and it's a little more complicated than that and a little less grand, these days. By my catalog rights, I didn't have to take a single course for a grade if I didn't want to, they were all optional. Pass/No Pass was the default, and you got a narrative evaluation in either case, whether you opted for a letter grade or not. Of course, for science and math courses, the narratives tended to be brief, computer-generated, or non-existent, since the professors didn't really see the merit in writing prose about your test averages.

While I was there, they altered the system in order to make it more compatible with the way the other UCs did things. Standardized. That makes sense from a University of California perspective, but it remains a damned shame, pedagogically. So, nowadays, you have to take something like half your total classes for a grade and the majors usually require more than that within their purview as well. It brought about some pretty obvious changes to the classroom dynamics. Of course, I was in... what do you call what I do, anyway? Humanities or Arts? Anyway, not science. So within the sciences I would not presume this change saw a drop in casual, conversational, vulnerable classroom discussions, or a surge in grade-grubbery. Those things may never have been there, may have never been precious pedagogical boons. And those marks-oriented habits appearing in my field depressed me; people really started treated every class like a test-based one, stopped rolling their own learning experiences.

Oh well. The college always boasted good admissions ratings to graduate schools, but standards, standards, standards!! The phasing-in of grades has resulted in the further phasing-out of quality narrative evaluations, though every one a student gets is still precious. A narrative evaluation, or a grade - which letter is better? Ah, but which is cost-effective? Standards. HA. Those are the standards of the shareholder, not the teacher.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:36 PM on February 19, 2009


sety: We'll always have Calgary.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:08 PM on February 19, 2009


My scholarships were contingent upon maintaining a specific GPA. I had to specifically research and avoid professors who got all huffy about "grade inflation" and insisted on X% of the class receiving Cs, even if the whole class reached B level effort and achievement. Taking a class with a finicky professor who graded me relative to the rest of the class was, literally, betting thousands of dollars on my doing better than my peers. It was just too risky. I avoided a lot of interesting-sounding courses because of it, opting for familiar material and college-equivalents of what I took in high school.

When professors grade relatively, they forget that graduate schools, scholarship committees, and job recruiters think of your GPA as a reflection of how YOU did in college, not how much better or worse you did than the group of classmates you got by chance.
posted by almostmanda at 1:10 PM on February 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


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