Blogs > Liberty and Power > Reply to Banaian: Ranking as a Solution to Grade Inflation

Apr 13, 2004 1:47 pm

Reply to Banaian: Ranking as a Solution to Grade Inflation

Last week at Liberty and Power, King Banaian argues that"grade inflation may result from a prisoner dilemma game." This is because a typical faculty member who gives higher grades get higher evaluations and thus has a better than average chance to secure tenure and promotion.

As a solution, King cites the effort of Princeton to limit the proportion of"A's given at 35% of all grades given." He speculates that"it might indeed take a committee, dean's office or an entire administration. Collective effort might be needed. My libertarian tendencies chafe at the thought, but is there another way?" The collective action problem King describes is very real...though it worth noting that it is oddly uneven in its impact. It seems to be chiefly a departmental, not an individual faculty, problem.

At the University of Alabama, for example, our survey of grade distortion (the combined phenomen of grade inflation and disparities) found that some departments are holding the line on excessive A's (at least in relative terms). Faculty in history, philosophy, and anthropology give an average of about 14 percent A's every year in their introductory courses while those in women's studies award nearly 80 percent. English is around 35 percent A's in introductory couses while faculty in the College of Education give about 60 percent.

Faculty in all of these departments use essentially the same method of student evaluations. Why the difference in the percentage of A's in 100 and 200 courses? I am not entirely sure. Whatever the reason for these vast disparities between departments and colleges, they seem to be tremendously difficult to reverse once established.

King wonders if it is time to impose a percentage rule on the percentage of A's. While I would prefer this to the status quo, I think there are still better solutions. One is to require that the grade distribution of every professor be posted on the web thus hopefully shaming some of the departments and faculty who had out A's like candy.

Another solution is more ambitious (but speaks more to structural causes of the problem): a ranking system. It would require faculty to rank each class as well as give letter grades. For example, if the class has twenty students, they would be ranked 1 to 20. Ties could be averaged. If students are tied for number 1, for example, each would be ranked 2 (the average of the ties). Ranking would not replace grading. Because the ranking and the letter grade for each class would *both* appear in the transcript, however, this reform would introduce greater truth in grading. Thus, a student receive an A in this class of twenty but still be ranked twenty in the class.

In addition, ranking, perhaps combined with letter grades could be used to determine such awards as class validictorian and campus-wide scholarships.

A combined ranking/grading system would protect the"academic freedom" of faculty to give grades in the way they see fit. At the same time, it would provide a corrective to the massive grade disparities that now exist between faculty and, more importantly, between departments and divisions. Can ranking allow"libertarians" who chafe at outside mandates to have their cake and eat it too? Perhaps it can.

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