Blogs > Cliopatria > The Solution to Grade Inflation?

May 2, 2004 3:10 pm

The Solution to Grade Inflation?

Prof. Michael Berube of Penn State University proposes the best solution I've read for grade inflation -- degree of difficulty adjustments.

Incorporating ''degree of difficulty'' into students' G.P.A.'s would turn campuses upside down; it would eliminate faculty capriciousness precisely by factoring it in; and it would involve nothing more than using the numbers we already have at our disposal. It would be confusing as hell. But it would yield a world in which the average grade was never anything more or less than the middle of the scale.

The whole essay is well worth reading.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 5/4/2004

I'm going to say something that is going to be branded as retrograde and elitist and awful. But that has never stopped me before:
We need to ask ourselves what grades are. Are they (A) a reflection of empirical measurement of work? Are they (B)a reflection of work vis a vis the particular student body of which students are a part? Or are they (C) part of a larger world of student performance? Because if your answer is A or C, I say that the fact that students get A's at Harvard or Princeton (Or Williams -- Go Ephs!) should not bother us one whit. One thing I've discovered teaching at state institutions -- my students want it both ways. From when I was a freshman in college, my history classes had 7-8-9-10 books a semester. If I assigned ten books in even an upper level history class at the last place I taught, I'd have a fast appointment with my department chair and dean. And let's not even get into the miasma of my student evaluations. And never mind the quality of my students' writing, analytical skills, etc. The fact is, at the same time, most of my students would find it (do find it) incredibly unfair that the fact that a kid goes to, say, Carleton, or even the U, gives those students advantages. I'm sorry -- it may not be the case across the board, and I know the best students that I have had could have gone on and competed anywhere, but the kids at Harvard and Stanford and, hell, even Amherst, (sort of), probably deserve those A's given their caliber of writing, quantity of reading, ability to and willingness to engage and absorb. (And if your answer to my question is B, and you do not teach at one of the schools in question, why do you care?) in other words, while I support rigorous grading in principal, why do people care about grade inflation in practice?

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2004

Why bother with long-term patterns? That penalizes teachers who wish to change. Do the norms class by class, and don't call it "degree of difficulty" (because there's the actual level of the class to consider as well) but simply relative position.

Michael C Tinkler - 5/3/2004

Interesting comment with these questions on more-or-less the same post on my blog -

1. how long does it take to establish a pattern?
2. does a professor's personal life affect the grades semester-by-semester?

Adam Kotsko - 5/2/2004">This was the post I was thinking of, not the one this morning where he gave the link.

The academy is just dying a thousand deaths lately. I'll look forward to your explanation.

Michael C Tinkler - 5/2/2004

Grade inflation may not seem like a real problem, but I hear about faculty capriciousness constantly from my advisees. I would be delighted if someone would implement a system that could straighten out the inequity between the students in classes in which people who walk into class day one and announce that everyone will get an A of some flavor if all work is submitted and those whose professors actually grade.

Please don't think the above is fictional or hypothetical - it's an anecdote that I didn't get from advisee hearsay. A tenured professor announced it at an open meeting of the faculty and held his practice up as a pedagogical example for the rest of us.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

No, what Berube said ( is that it is intended to be amusing and inspire action. His comments today certainly seem to indicate his essential seriousness.

The great thing about good satire is that it speaks truth. The problem with satire is that people think you're kidding just because you're funny, and that's wrong.

Grade inflation is not a non-issue at all. It's nothing less than the death of the academy as we know it. I'll explain later.

Adam Kotsko - 5/2/2004

Prof. Berube revealed on his website before the article came out that it was satirical. Even with my foreknowledge, I think the line "it would eliminate faculty capriciousness precisely by factoring it in" is a kind of give-away.

This grade inflation thing has always seemed like a non-problem to me.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

I think there are schools where the class average appears on the transcript along with the individual grade.

I think this would be a fantastic corrective: perhaps it could be simplified into a percentile score, a relatively familiar statistical tool, rather than Berube's "degree of difficulty" invention. It would also help students understand better how they are doing: those students who chafe at the C+ which is the median in so many of my classes, might take it better if they realized that the B+ they were getting in so many less demanding classes was really no better of a grade.