Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Grade Inflation

Yesterday afternoon, some number of faculty members met to discuss grade inflation. It is yet another interesting campus discussion in which I couldn't participate. That teaching really gets in the way of my other interests!!

In any case, the Northwestern decided to cover the meeting. The story is quite bland, so I hope that the discussion was more substantive than reported.

We need to think about how to fix this problem. How can we make a decision to make A's and B's mean something. For me, it is a given that they should.

First, we need to have an administration that is clearly in favor of academic standards, and willing to take the heat in having students who can't do college work fail out. This is perhaps the most important, unfortunately.

I think the second step would be to have more publicity for grades. If we all knew each others average gradepoints, it would help balance things. Faculty would then have to be encouraged and cajoled to keep their gradepoints down.

College has been transformed into a mass phenomenon in the second half of the 20th century. We need to acknowledge that the character has been transformed, but insist that quality is crucial to make the degree worth something. If many more people have a degree that is worth less, has society really gained?


lammers said...

Winneblogo wrote:
"First, we need to have an administration that is clearly in favor of academic standards, and willing to take the heat in having students who can't do college work fail out. This is perhaps the most important, unfortunately."

I disagree. This is buck-passing. This is tantamount to saying, "It's my fault, the dean made me do it."

Each and everyone of us is responsible for the grades we assign. In my Bio 105 pit lectures, only two-thirds of the students muster a C or better. No one has *ever* suggested that I *do something* about it. I have never felt pressure from the administration, at any level, to "lighten up."

My conscience is clear. I give clear, well-structured lectures and write reasonable exams. Those who do as they are asked earn good grades, those who don't reap what they've sown. I make it clear from Day One that actions have consequences (a valuable life lesson). I've never yet had a student blame me for his or her poor grade.

Even if stringent grading resulted in low SOS scores, that may not be that much to fear. Certainly, when I review tenure/promotion packets or merit packets, I take SOS with a grain of salt. I think most intelligent people understand its limitations, primarily the lack of objectivity.

If you really are concerned about grade inflation, then, dammit, grade more strictly! As long as you are clear about expectations and fair in assessing them, they have no right to gripe.

In terms of being "fair," it helps if assessment tools are as cut-and-dried as possible, so that you largely function as a "scorekeeper" rather than as judge and jury. Developing rubrics with clear standards can help.

Good luck, whoever you are.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you that it is up to each faculty member to get stricter.

But I don't think we should deny there are external factors. I can be tougher in a pit class because it is required and there are many students enrolled. But if I am too tough in a small, specialized class, I could lose some students. Yes, I prefer not having students who want it easy. But losing those students could mean not meeting minimum enrollment, and then I lose the class and get stuck with another pit class.

And while you ignore the SOS, I have heard of some of our peers who take it very seriously when reviewing tenure documents. I don't think the SOS should be viewed beyond the department because department members visit the classes to review actual teaching, while the rest of the chain does not.

I think we have all heard of, or experienced, situations when the pressure from a student starts to get a bit uncomfortable. While I won't budge in this situation, does the administration have my back? I have heard from people who say they were left out to dry.