Blogs > Cliopatria > Grade Inflation and its Discontents

Aug 3, 2004 4:11 am

Grade Inflation and its Discontents

I've teased and hinted, and now I've finally done it. My original title suggestions were"Grade Inflation and its Discontents" or"Blowback: Grade Inflation, Accreditation, Testing and Academic Freedom." Rick Shenkman doesn't pay much attention to our suggestions, but he does publish our stuff, so we forgive him....

I've been thinking about the connection between student evaluations and grade inflation for some time now. Then came No Child Left Behind, and my department chair and the associate dean both started talking about"student learning assessment." Why have grades, I thought, if they don't actually tell us whether students learn something? But it came up a few times on Tomorrow's Professor, as well, and at that point I had to start taking it seriously [by the way, if you're in academia, particularly grad school or pre-tenure faculty, you should be reading TP; cheapest, easiest way to see trouble coming, as well as very good ideas, there is, and to see academia from a variety of institutional viewpoints]. Then came the accreditation committee visit, and the pieces started to fit together. I started working on an argument linking grade inflation with accreditation agencies' interest in"student learning assessment", and a few other things. It's a little long for an op-ed, but short for an article.

It feels decidedly odd to be arguing some of the samepoints as ThomasReeves, by the way. I think it's more or less the same thing that happens when I watch the Republican Convention. As an historian, I am very sensitive to change, as are social and cultural conservatives. The ability of conservative commentators to note changes and cleavages in society is quite useful, though I find their proposed solutions usually highly objectionable. However, I believe some degrees of change are inevitable, and that the present, though immeasurably better than the past in some ways, is also a compromise, as will be the future; what we need to do is maintain a sense of our core values and continually revise our programs to reflect those values and the changing situation. Conservatives like Reeves are also sensitive to change, but they believe that change is something to resist because, at some point in the relatively recent past, we had it"right" and we should be able to recreate those conditions without compromising with those who did not, in fact, enjoy the benefits of whatever idyllic age is at stake. So, while both Reeves and I believe that grade inflation is an important and troubling issue, that the broadening of the student population is a component of that issue, that ideas like multiculturalism and self-esteem-building are part of the problem, I disagree with Reeves' solutions. I do not believe that multiculturalism, postmodernism, etc, are problems in themselves, but that their misapplication to pedagogy is; I do not believe that the vast majority of state school students are unfit for college, merely that they don't understand the value of it; etc.

One thought which didn't make it into the article is that student evaluations and student learning assessments both assume that learning is a short-term process, that a student can judge at the end of a semester what impact a teacher has had, and that what a student learns over a semester is best evaluated at the end of the semester. [Cliopatriarch Burstein expands on this here] They also assume a sort of separability which is not entirely justified, either: students evaluate teachers in comparison, not in isolation, and students do not take one course at a time (and, by the way, there's no control group, and no attempt to openly discuss evaluation metrics, just a self-referential population making up their own scales). The most effective and realistic forms of assessment are going to be post-graduation tracking, long-term studies, carefully selected and analyzed qualitative and quantitative measures. Those are hard to sell as"immediate solutions" and I tend to agree that we need some short-term measures as well. But the fundamental problem is long-term, systemic, and solvable.

Another thought, inspired by the British article some of the Cliopatriots have been discussing has to do with the role of introductory courses. The article describes grade inflation in this case as a result of the institutional need for students' tuition and fees: not failing students whose work merits it, so that they will continue to enroll and other prospective students won't be scared off. Pure market-driven grade inflation, which I allude to in the article, as a downside of departments taking grade deflation on themselves without institutional support. But, as my wife reminded me when I mentioned it to her, there used to be a tradition of"weeding-out" courses, introductory courses that really did fail significant numbers of students so as to discourage them from pursuing a course of study for which they would be, in the long run, unfit. First-year Chemistry for science majors at my undergraduate instutitution was ranked one of the five hardest undergraduate intros in the country while I was there, and both the department and the students (at least my science major friends) took real pride in that. Now, instead,"retention" is the magical buzzword (along with a companion statistic, the six-year graduation rate) an unalloyed good; it's the collegiate equivalent of"social promotion" I think: not bad in small doses, perhaps, but as a general theory, flawed.

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Julie A Hofmann - 11/28/2004

I probably shouldn't be saying this, but retention is one of my concerns. I have some students who, despite History not being a requirement (except as a social science) take several courses with me. Most of them are not majors, but they like my classes. On the other hand, I lose a few. Some drop, saying that the workload is too heavy (it's not -- typically, the reading load is light for our discipline, because I want them to really focus on the primary source documents rather than skim all of the readings). Others find the online component onerous. Some have told me that I don't teach the kind of class they want -- a lecture class, where they come in and take notes. Others simply vanish, and I'm not sure why.

We often hear about students wanting more "active learning," But I'm not sure that students realize that this places much more of the responsibility on their shoulders. My impression is that students think active learning is learning via activities -- games, role-play, etc. IPerhaps students become disillusioned when they see that what we mean by active learning and critical thinking may not be what the students mean. I know that what I do is effective and valid, but it is often not what students expect.

Case in point: we were discussing the Carolingians and their government the other day. The students didn't come up with much from the source (EInhard's Life of Charlemagne) until I asked them to look at a couple of passages again and tell me what they saw. Someone pointed out that there were dukes and counts, but wasn't that obvious, because it's like, the middle ages, right? I asked them if it really was -- what did they think of when they looked at noble titles? The class came up with some suggestions, and I asked if they seemed valid, based on the documents we'd been reading, and they said that those assumptions didn't seem to be. SO I asked them what those titles seemed to mean in the context of our recent readings, elaborated again on the idea of synthesis in the Late Antique/Early Middle Ages, and asked them to speculate on why their assumptions didn't hold true. It ended up being a good discussion, but one of the students just laughed and said, "This is so hard. We're all just trained not to say anything unless we know we're right, and you want us to put ourselves out there and it's really hard."

Sorry all -- I realized I've rambled on. I'm just very interested in figuring out why there seems to be such a disconnect that has such influence on evaluations and retention.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/2/2004


You're right, retention also means keeping students from moving on to 'better' institutions (we lose a lot of students to our flagship campus, as well as other mainland schools) and in that regard can really be a spur to healthy growth: this is the kind of improving competition which the free-marketeers claim will become more common if they have their way. Too often, though, administrators see it as a call to increasingly 'country club'-like amenities instead of quality course offerings.

There is no good way to distinguish between them, except that the simplistic use of quantitative performance measures needs to be, well I was going to say 'problematized' but I think 'thrashed and sent on its sorry way' is closer to how I really feel.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/2/2004

Thanks for your work on this. It has clarified much about current experience at my campuses.

One thing about retention as a goal. It has a second connotation at the two-year campus level. That is, offering something of sufficient quality that good students won't shift early to a four-year campus.

But it also refers to trying to limit failures. There, it can be indeed a fine line between finding better techniques to encourage good work and tolerating poor work for the sake of numbers.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/2/2004

I'm not sure, really. I wasn't paying attention to the source when I was an undergrad....

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/2/2004

When I was an undergrad, Hopkins and Chicago had the rep as the toughest undergrad experiences. MIT went to pass/fail for freshmen, so they wouldn't throw themselves off the tower. But I never got a grip on rankings of any kind. Many of the toughest freshmen chem experiences seem highly correlated with tough medical schools -- the places attract a lot of pre-meds (but that's just casual empiricism). I remember that because, in my auditorium-sized freshman chem class, when the first test was returned and the prof asked that any with questions about their grade see him at the end of the class, fully 2/3 or 200 of those aspiring doctors assailed the poor guy. I'd like to do a little research on the topic. Can you tell me where I can find such rankings?