Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Grade inflation

This post links to an article in the Washington Post about grade inflation. The American University students it describes are much more aggressive than mine, who only occasionally and generally very politely ask about their grades. More frequently, they want to know how they can do better the next time. (I have a reputation as a hard grader, though having recently seen the overall g.p.a. for my institution, it looks like I’m not too far out of line.)

My question to colleagues: can I do anythng other than explain in letters of recommendation that we don’t hand out A’s like candy to make certain my students are appropriately assessed by graduate and professional school admissions officers?

Discussions - 7 Comments

I went to school in Europe, where they had a 20 point standard instead of our 4 point system. My university enclosed a letter with all transcripts sent overseas suggesting how the marks ought to be interpreted. While such an enclosure is probably further than you want to go, suggesting in the body of a recommendation that you are appalled by grade inflation and that your student’s "B" represents a good effort and not a polite "D" is certainly appropriate.

I am at a large state school, where I am required to award truly ghastly work with a low "B" or a "C." These totally undeserved middle grades then launch, without exception, at least four to five endless debates during office hours with children whose inflated sense of entitlement, oops - sorry, self esteem, dictate that they should only ever be awarded "A’s." While it is tragic that they will go through life shrouded in the imbecile fog blown up by the hot air of elementary and high school educators, it is soul-destroying for me to try to explain to them what merit, critical thought, and decent writing are. Almost nothing penetrates - they are forever lost not so much to ignorance, as to self-satisfaction.

I also teach at a large school, but I don’t pass out A’s or B’s like candy. What I have noticed is that about 20% of my classes will fall below a ’D’, but that most students will rise to my expectations. I often end up giving out 15% A’s (sometimes even higher), but these grades are invariably earned. I think we short-change our students when we don’t set the bar pretty high.

As for sending out a signal that your personal grades aren’t inflated, unless you have created a discipline-wide reputation for rigor there isn’t much you can do. Having a school known for rigor will take care of most of these problems...but without that ’halo’ of personal or institutional rigor, not much can be done short of personal networks.

I mispoke above...about 20% fall at or below a ’D’ ... I don’t fail a fifth of my classes! About 10% tend to fail outright, and between 10 and 15% make a ’D’. It’s hardly ever anything approaching a normal curve...most students have the brains and motivation to make a ’C’ or higher...which is good!

Sir, If you did fail a fifth of your classes, my hat would be off to you!! :)

What I have found is that a certain number of students, the ones who get A’s and even high B’s in my class, come in with the bar high; they expect excellence of themselves. My lectures are pretty tough, as are my expectations for discussion and essays, and they like that. The problem I have had comes after that 15, maybe even 20%; the rest of the grades ought to fall off with sickening rapidity - but I cannot really do that. I have often said that the "C," not the "A," is the toughest grade to give. It is situation in which I would gladly stand behind the A’s I give at my institution no matter where else I was, ditto many of the B’s - but the gap between a low and a high B is artificially large due to institutional expectations. I am a TA; I cannot buck those expectations. That is a drag.

Joe- At my college, we observe a great deal of variability across programs regarding apparent grade inflation. My program conducts an annual multiple regression analysis, the results of which we freely share with students, parents, and graduate programs to which our students apply. We simply predict results on a nationally normed (ETS) exam in psychology, using general gpa and psychology gpa. We are able to demonstrate the strong, significant correlation between psych gpa and results on the ETS exam, and the relatively low correlation between the exam and the general gpa. The same can be done predicting GRE scores, and we get very similar results.

While students may not feel better about theri relatively low grade, they (and prosepctive programs) know that the grades are valid.

I recall reading once about a study done by predict success in the University of Virginia’s English program--it turned out that the best predictor, strangely, was a high score on the quantitative (i.e., math) section of the GRE.

Depending on how your colleagues would react to your doing so, you might consider following Harvey ("C-minus") Mansfield’s lead and issue the students two grades.

The grade which is submitted to the administration is adjusted upwards so as not to penalize your students for taking your classes - this is known as the "ironic grade."

The other grade which students receive reflects your honest opinion of their work, and as such has the salutary effect of dispeling the complacency which otherwise naturally follows from grade inflation being standard practice. Also it would obviously mean quite a lot for the students who get a real A.

It hardly needs to be said that such a practice on the part of a professor is not likely to win friends among administrators.

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