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The New York Times has an interesting report on grade inflation. It's actually a summary of a major statistical analysis of grade distribution over time. The tl;dr version is there are more A's and fewer D's and F's than ever before. Not across the board, of course; the "hard" disciplines (engineering, sciences, etc.) had much less change over time than the liberal arts, and private schools tend to see more of a skew than what the NYT authors called "equally selective public schools." Meaning that you're going to have to work harder for that A at Chapel Hill than you would at Wake Forest.

Speaking as a philosophy instructor at a Jesuit school, I had a definite pot-kettle-black group. And I also found the analysis matched my own studies. Having worked as both a problem-set grader in a scientific discipline and an instructor in the liberal arts, I'm aware of the differences between the two. In math, there's definitely a single right answer, and it's rather obvious when a student goes off-track. It's hard to offer partial credit, let alone inflated grades, in situations like that. But I still found myself bucking against Ms. Rampbell's basic point. Is it really grade inflation just because more students are getting A's? Grade inflation suggests I recorded a higher grade than the student deserved. Is that the case?

I think there are two warring approaches to education at work here. On the one hand, education can be a sorting process where we identify the best students in some subject. That's important because there are only so many grad school places, so many posh jobs to be won. There are more graduates than positions, and a GPA may help employers and admissions offices sort through the heap.

Still, I would love to give most of my students A's. I won't do that unless they earn it (and yes, I do have definite standards) but I would love nothing better than for them to do the work and get the help they need to perform at an A level by semester's end. If they do, I feel like we've both done our job, and the student has acquired what Aristotle called a character virtue in the process. S/he can now write a better paper, integrate sources more skillfully, analyze an argument with more rigor - on top of being able to talk about Kant's categorical imperative or the Cave analogy or whatever. This is perhaps a no-child-left-behind mentality, but one that actually works.

Think about it this way: Jack is in a course where the professor sets up checkpoints that force him to work on a paper over 2-3 weeks. His professor does a few practicums on how to structure a paper, how to use source, etc. He goes to his professor for help understanding his source, uses the library's research desk to find additional secondary sources, develops an outline which a classmate looks over and critiques, and finally takes his finished version to his school's writing center. Jill's professor, on the other hand, only requires the finished product. Jill's professor may spend 5-10 minutes going over the assignment's requirements when she first hands it out and then remind them two weeks out that they need to be working on the paper. But Jill gets no feedback from her professor beforehand and perhaps gets the message that it's okay to put the paper off until the last minute.

I would be highly surprised if Jack doesn't get a higher grade than Jill. Not because he is a better student but because he was forced to put more thought and work into it, and because he received more guidance. And frankly, I don't think that's a bad thing.

There's a real move in the liberal arts to have smaller courses. To have writing-intensive or speaking-intensive courses that are smaller still and often have these checkpoints built in. You see this especially in private schools, because private schools are often so attractive because they don't treat the student like a number. That's the marketing, anyway. And since it's the private school's identity, of course they would have special programs that shifted the curriculum in that direction so their campus visit tour guides could point to the fact that when little Susie takes composition and philosophy and history and whatever, she'll be in a small class where she has to meet with the student. On the other hand, public schools still have those awful 300-person psych classes that meet in the amphitheatre and where the professor can't even know all the students, let alone get a sense of their abilities and their progress over the course of the semester.

Make no mistake - I'm sure there's grade inflation going on. Private schools have students whose parents are paying more, and those parents may get their kid to transfer to a public school if they aren't excelling. Said students often rely on scholarships which have GPA requirements as well. But I don't think it's as simple as saying "you have a higher % of A's and a lower % of F's, therefore you must be giving students higher grades than they deserve." It's much more complicated than that.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
gwynnyd
Jul. 19th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)
But is the "C" grade...
that is so weird. I can see giving out more "A" grades due to getting extra help, or students actually stepping up and mastering the material, or going to absolute grading "A = 93 - 100 rather than the top x percentage, which is a more limited number by definition) -but why would the "C" grades decline so much? Are students....er... less average than they used to be?
marta_bee
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
Re: But is the "C" grade...
Your question reminds me of Lake Wobegon. The definitions of grades you see (above average, average, etc.) seem to imply there *should* be a distribution of grades so e.g. 10% get A's, 20% B's, 40% C's, 20% D's, and 10% F's - no matter how good or bad the class does, objectively speaking.

I have always preferred the German system. There you had sehr gut (very good), gut (good), befriedigend (satisfactory), ausreichend (sufficient), and mangelhaft (below requirements), and ungenugend (not satisfactory). The words seem to imply there is some objective standard that students are measured against. Personally, I reject the idea that you deserve a good mark because you did better than your peers. I tend to think you deserve the good mark because you did well - produced the kind of work you should be proud of no matter how good or bad your classmates did.

In my experience, there can be a lot of variation in how skilled or hard-working the students are in the various classes I've taught, so I try not to measure them against the other students in the class they ended up in.
ianracey
Jul. 19th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
Grade inflation suggests I recorded a higher grade than the student deserved.

That's one inference, but to me it's not the only one possible.

It could imply that standards have changed. We could say they've broadened or become more inclusive if we want that to sound like a good thing; we could say they've lowered if we want it to sound bad. I'm not sure there's a value-neutral way to say it.

It could be that liberal arts students today are being graded to the same standards, but are simply brighter or more thoughtful than they were a generation ago. The same sort of thing happens in sport. Watch a football, basketball or American football game, then watch one from the 1970s. Players are slower, weaker, and simply don't possess the same ability to read and react to situations quickly as they do today.

It's not because people today are born inherently more capable than they were fifteen or twenty years earlier. It's because they grow up in an atmosphere of better training and conditioning, starting when they first start organised sport as children. (Indeed, starting with the better techniques we have nowadays for newborn care.)

Liberal arts, where skills of interpretation and critical thinking play such an important part, strikes me as something that could be subject to the same sort of upward pressure. There's an old episode of QI where the claim is made that the general population's average IQ rises by five points every generation or something like that, due to exactly that sort of thing.
marta_bee
Jul. 20th, 2011 08:55 pm (UTC)
I think it is the word inflation that caught my attention. It reminds me of the economics concept, where prices are above where they should naturally be (or at least, that is this non-business person's association). But I like your interpretation, too. It's a very vivid way of getting at the thoughts I was trying to lay out.

Marta
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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