fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

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.
Tags: academic
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