Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grade Inflation

George Leef has an interesting recent article about grade inflation titled, "A is for Average, B is for Being There." He presents some sensible explanations for the cause of grade inflation. The first is the desire of administrators to prop up reputation and revenue by preventing dropouts. When students get Fs or even Ds, they are apt to leave college, which both translates into loss tuition, but also a reduction in their rating due to high dropout rate. This leads to policies, such as making it difficult for professors to fail students. My school, for one, requires us to fill out paperwork justifying any F.

Of course, this paperwork could just be a preemptive defense against the second problem: students complaining about grades. If a student files a complaint about a grade it can create a lot of trouble for a professor. So, a sensible professor, in order to avoid the trouble, eventually learns to give better grades just to be safe. Also, the obvious upward bias of the complaints (students will only complain to have their grades raised; students will never complain if they think their grade is unfairly high) may also contribute to grade inflation.

Secondly, students who receive higher grades rank their teachers higher. Many schools put great stock in these student evaluations, and may use them to determine pay raises and tenure. A sensible professor will give higher grades to students in order to get better ratings and help their career.

After noting these causes, though, Leef recommends simply that professors take moral courage to give their students more accurate grades, as if the causes of the problem, which he mentioned, were merely incidental. Leef quotes Lee Gutkind
Educators must lead the way to take responsibility for the morals and ethics of students by taking a deep look inside themselves and their own actions, drawing their moral and ethical boundaries and honoring the mission with which they have been entrusted. It begins with honesty in grading—rewarding excellence and valuing achievement.
Of course, wagging your finger at professors and ask them to risk their careers just to combat such a problem is unlikely to produce results.

More sensibly, the problem should be attacked at its root. The main issues are really that students can cause trouble by complaining about grades, schools can lose enrollees, and professors need good student evaluations for career advancement. Schools should put the burden of proof much more on the student to prove unfair grading practices. To address enrollment, perhaps schools should encourage teachers to withdraw rather than fail substandard students (some schools already encourage this). And the schools should also improve teacher evaluations.

Evaluations definitely serve a valuable formative role, helping teachers get feedback and improve their teaching. But in their role of ranking teachers (their summative function) they're a bit more problematic. In addition to contributing to grade inflation, they also don't seem to correlate with actual content learned, and seemed to be based on more affective impressions. It's also been suggested student evaluations restrict academic freedom, by discouraging professors from defending controversial opinions. Professors can be evaluated poorly simply because the students don't like some controversial opinion the professor expresses.

Students evalutations tend to strongly correlate with evaluations by other teachers and by administrators, which suggests that they are valid measures of teacher performance. But this also suggests that evaluations for the purpose of advancement can be just as well done by these other teachers and administrators, and without the risk of grade inflation.

Schools might also take a direct assault on grade inflation by simply setting mandatory class averages for professors. A school could say that each professor has to reward grades of an average of 80% or 75% (or B- or C+ or C) for all students they teach per semester or per academic year. They wouldn't have to give identical averages for every class, but on average for all classes over an academic year is reasonable. Professors probably wouldn't like this, but it would very simply solve the problem.

I think grade inflation is a serious issue since it diminishes the value of the degree. Instead of an academic degree indicating hard work and an ability to learn, it simply indicates an ability to pay the tuition costs and show up to class. And so schools should address it in order to retain their reputation.

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