Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Grade inflation as civil rights issue?

University of Alabama historian David Beito is in the news again. Last we heard of him he was fighting a lonely, valiant battle to get the American Historical Association to denounce campus speech codes. His latest target is the epidemic of grade inflation, but he’s using a novel approach. From his position as Chair of Alabama’s Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, he’s making an argument that the Left will find difficult to challenge--that grade inflation hurts African-Americans disproportionately.

"Especially on a campus with relatively few black students, when you’re handing out A’s like candy, grades are devalued and we have no way to measure merit. Minorities are hardest hit when they can’t be rewarded on merit."

He is joined in his effort by Charles Nuckolls, Alabama professor of anthropology, who calls grade inflation "a form of theft," since it undermines the value of a grade earned by hard work. Their proposed solution--not particularly original, but praiseworthy nonetheless--is for college transcripts to include, along with the grade for each class, the grade distribution in that class.

That Beito and Nuckolls are to be applauded for this goes without saying. However, I’m skeptical about their prospects for success, up against a student body and a university administration that both benefit from high student grades. What would really help is if employers would come forward and demand an end to grade inflation. If they would point out that transcripts today are virtually useless in identifying talented job candidates, this might have some effect. Educators might sober up by being reminded that the more that grades become unreliable indicators of student performance, the more graduate schools and employers will fall back on standardized test scores in making hiring decisions.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Is grade inflation only an issue in the humanities? It seems that in math and science one's test scores could not be "inflated" (that is, they have a uniform grading scale, every question is objective, and one's grade is based almost entirely on test performance). If so, then perhaps the humanities should stop grading altogether, and instead the teacher should write-up a one paragraph summary on each student or something. English and Philosophy do not lend themselves to a simple evaluation, and it may be time to replace letter grading with something more detailed.

I think that approach is a non-starter. Grade inflation helps everyone but the best students -- they are the ones whose "currency" gets devalued. It's a kind of redistribution at the expense of the truly gifted and motivated.

And it won't get better until student evaluated teaching ceases to be used in promotions and raises (I assume this type of evaluation is used at most colleges/universities?). Since that's very unlikely to happen, I think the whole issue is a cul-de-sac. Conservative academicians should put their energies elsewhere (say, like hiring more of their own kind?).

And finally, engaging in this special pleading for minority students is a Leftist trick. We shouldn't be encouraging it. The right to be recognized for true merit knows no color barrier -- tradition-minded professors shouldn't play into the Left's hands in this fashion.

My university adopted a fairly simple way of combating grade inflation. It began to post the class average beside the student's grade on the transcript. Employers can see a student's A is meaningless when the class average is also an A. You can imagine which faculties squawked about implementing this. But since then even those faculties have seen a more reasonable grade distribution come about.

I have alluded to this before: When my department conducts its 5-year program review, it reports (voluntarily) correlations among overall GPA, Psychology GPA and the standardized subject exams that seniors take as one part of their Comprehensive exams.

In contrast, our college recently underwent an accreditation review, and our Education Program was noted for its grade inflation.

In my view, we could save a great deal of money by scaling back the NCLB standardized tests, and scale UP an investigation into grade inflation among Education programs everywhere. I have known a few such programs, and they have all shared that one characteristic. The cumulative fall-out from the practice in Education in particular is nearly criminal.

This issue also strikes me as one where Left and Right might unite.

Their proposed solution -- not particularly original, but praiseworthy nonetheless -- is for college transcripts to include, along with the grade for each class, the grade distribution in that class.

Not particularly original, but also not particularly valid. The grade distribution across many courses and a large population of students will (if not inflated) look something like a normal curve. But it is a fallacy to assume -- as Beito and Nuckolls do -- that smaller, individual courses will similarly reflect the norm. Half or more of a class of, say, 15 students (a self-selected sample) might earn A’s without any bias by the grader.

You're right, Lila. In my upper-division courses it's not unusual for something like a third of the students to get As, and it's rare that a student gets worse than a B- (our majors are particularly good). On the other hand, that tends to be balanced out by my Western Civ courses, which a wide variety of students take, and where the average grade is something like a C+.

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