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Adjusting GPAs: A Statistician's Effort To Tackle Grade Inflation

samzenpus posted about 10 months ago | from the precious-snowflakes dept.

Math 264

An anonymous reader writes "A recent analysis of 200 colleges and universities published in the Teachers College Record found 43 percent of all letter grades awarded in 2008 were A's, compared to 16 percent in 1960. And Harvard's student paper recently reported the median grade awarded to undergraduates at the elite school is now an A-. A statistician at Duke tried to make a difference and stirred up a hornet's nest in the process."

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Seeing past how you count (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46211999)

In the late '80s I graduated high school in the top 10-15% of my class.

I had a 10.5 on a 15.0 scale. 12 was an "A+" with 3 "bonus points" for honors classes.

Anything above a 10.0000 - a numerical grade of "90" in a non-honors class - was converted to a 4.0 for college-admissions purposes.

If a college only looked at GPAs, they would find that my high school was filled with stellar students - about 15% earned a "perfect" 4.0. Fortunately they looked beyond GPAs to things like test scores, class rank, and for some colleges, essays, letters of recommendations, interviews, etc.

Grad schools and employers who know better than to look at "raw" GPAs do the same.

These same companies and grad schools know that "everyone gets an A at such and such school, don't count it for much" and "everyone who graduates with such-and-such major gets an A at such and such school, because those who don't get shunted off to easier majors - anyone graduating from this school with this major is likely to be a good candidate for graduate school or employment."

Re: I had sex with beta (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212087)

1/10, would NOT fuck again.

Re:Seeing past how you count (4, Interesting)

SJHillman (1966756) | about 10 months ago | (#46212413)

I graduated high school in 2006 and got my Bachelors in 2009. College admission was, and still is, the only thing that even gave half a flying fuck about my High School GPA. Grad school admissions have been the only thing to give a half-flying fuck about my undergrad GPA (and even then, as long as it meets their minimum requirement, they don't much care). Employers have mostly only cared about whether or not I did graduate. I've seen a number of (accredited) graduate schools that only assign pass/fail to courses and don't do GPAs at all. For the most part, your GPA is like your SAT score... it's relevant for a very short time frame afterwards and for a very small number of situations (mostly admissions and scholarships) and nobody gives a flying fuck after that.

Use Class Rank (4, Interesting)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | about 10 months ago | (#46212003)

Ignore GPA.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

cold fjord (826450) | about 10 months ago | (#46212029)

It is hard to say how well that will work since there seem to be many people that have no class.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

tech.kyle (2800087) | about 10 months ago | (#46212143)

I'm aware of these sorts. They call it "swag", as if it's a suitable substitute.

Re:Use Class Rank (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212051)

Good point

Re:Use Class Rank (5, Insightful)

rritterson (588983) | about 10 months ago | (#46212111)

The essence of class rank is to compare the student to his/her peers instead of against a fixed measure whose bar can be raised/lowered.

Class rank is problematic though, for a couple of reasons:
-It doesn't make sense to compare GPAs across majors. The article points out that natural science professors already grade more stringently. Class rank across the entire university would only ensure natural science students looked poorly. (And vice versa for humanities students)
-If your GPA is going to be directly compared against others as a measure of your talent, you have an extra incentive to find a way to take the classes offered by the professors who grade most easily, boosting your GPA and thus your class rank.

We actually have a time-tested way of comparing students' performance to each other: grading on a curve. When I was in college (early 2000s, major American public university), all science and math courses were graded on curves, with 10-15% of the class getting As. Most professors had a minimum score that would guarantee a passing grade so that there wasn't a necessity to fail anyone, typically set to some percentage of the median Some students complained that they were doing well and learning the material, but are only getting Bs because of superstars in the course. To that, I say tough, because in the real world, no one is going to hire you to do anything just because you are good enough if another candidate is around who will do a better job than you will.

Fortunately, my university's grading policies were well known enough by employers in my field, so that the relatively lower GPA were taken into account when recruiting. The best students had A's in about 2/3s of courses. Hardly anyone had a 4.0 in even a single semester, just because it's extraordinarily difficult to be in the top 15% in every subject and have any kind of regular life.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

Ichijo (607641) | about 10 months ago | (#46212225)

How is grading on a curve better than a strict percentile rank? Is there any benefit to the complexity it adds?

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

TheRealMindChild (743925) | about 10 months ago | (#46212273)

Yes. It keeps true to "C is average, B is above average, and A in excellent"

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

Ichijo (607641) | about 10 months ago | (#46212529)

Like grading on a curve, the percentile rank also tells whether you are average or above average. In addition, it also tells you precisely where you rank in the class. It's more difficult to derive that information from a bell curve, approaching impossible if you don't know the frequency distribution.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

TheRealMindChild (743925) | about 10 months ago | (#46212665)

No, it doesn't. If 80% of the class got an A, then that is wrong, as 80% should be getting a C.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

the phantom (107624) | about 10 months ago | (#46212287)

Grading on a curve is grading on a percentile rank. The curve merely defines which letter corresponds to which rank.

Re:Use Class Rank (2)

Nemesisghost (1720424) | about 10 months ago | (#46212325)

Class rank is problematic though, for a couple of reasons: -It doesn't make sense to compare GPAs across majors. The article points out that natural science professors already grade more stringently. Class rank across the entire university would only ensure natural science students looked poorly. (And vice versa for humanities students)

The easy fix for ranking is compare each to those within the program they belong. For example, only CS students would be ranked against other CS students. For that ranking only compare courses required by that degree, so those taking the humanities major vs those who take a math minor will be ranked the same. Double major? Double ranking, one for each major.

As for actual grading each course, I like the idea that one of my professors used. He graded each assignment & test with no curve, and only gave us raw scores. Then to determine the course grade he looked at the grouping of grades. There was always a break between the A's, B's, C's, etc, and that's how he determined who got what grade. I don't think he actually failed anyone(or gave less than a C) unless they simply were not trying(ie skipping class, not doing homework, etc). He was the Dean for the College of Science & this was a physics course, so nobody ever complained about the grade they got. I think most in physics department ended up doing something similar to this and it worked out really well.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

Ichijo (607641) | about 10 months ago | (#46212745)

A ranked pairs method such as Condorcet [wikipedia.org] would help make it possible to compare students across majors. Each class (a unique course taught by a unique teacher) is a ballot, each teacher is a voter, and each student is a candidate. The teacher ranks the students from best to worst on the "ballot." Then a computer runs the "election" to put all the students in the school in order from best to worst. This will work as long as there's some overlap in classes across majors, because it's how students perform in the overlapping classes that determines how the non-overlapping classes rank relative to each other.

Re:Use Class Rank (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212935)

So your method is going to rank math majors against linguists based, ultimately, on which group is better at the History of Art?

Re:Use Class Rank (2)

SJHillman (1966756) | about 10 months ago | (#46212449)

Not to mention class rank is heavily influenced by the size of the class and breaks down in small courses/schools/etc. If you go by a single course, you could be ranked #6 and still be at the bottom of your class. Alternatively, you could be in the bottom 25%, but have a 99% average. The real problem, like credit scores, is trying to reduce a complex issue with many variables that are completely out of your control and cram it into a single number that supposedly describes you.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | about 10 months ago | (#46212461)

That sounds like a terrible idea. I took a linear algebra class for programmers (it was run by the math department, but it wasn't a part of their curriculum) and for some odd reason there were 2 senior-level math majors in the class (probably for an easy A for them). They basically dominated the lectures and pushed things too much including the curve. We had a 1st year professor and he would often make assumptions on class progress based on his interactions with them (and I'd spoken with him maybe 5 times that semester).

Re:Use Class Rank (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212599)

Grades and tests themselves are meaningless. People who don't understand this don't understand education, intelligence, and often don't even understand what it means to truly comprehend something, as opposed to just memorizing facts.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

pruss (246395) | about 10 months ago | (#46212655)

It's hard to do this in small upper level classes, though, unless one uses statistics from multiple years, which may be unfair due to changes in course content or in teaching methodology.

Re:Use Class Rank (5, Interesting)

wanax (46819) | about 10 months ago | (#46212671)

Grading on a curve only works for large, introductory courses. The problem is two fold 1) smaller classes cannot be assumed to have a normal distribution and 2) Once you get past intro classes in any subject, there is a strong selection bias so that people in upper level classes all tend to be high level performers in that subject (which also means you can't assume a normal distribution).

The big problem with grades is that they conflate course difficulty and student performance. If you want grades to be a proxy for performance, you have to weight them somehow or other by class difficulty. The problem is nobody can agree on how to rank class difficulty due to academic politics, since nobody wants to be the department that gets the short-end of the stick with class difficulty rankings. In my personal experience, being one of the few people who have taken multiple graduate level classes in 3 disciplines (History, Mathematics and Neuroscience) at that level no field is particularly easier or harder than another, it's just that the type of work one does is very different.

The other issue that I rarely see addressed in all of the 'grade inflation' concern (and which class rank also ignores) is that maybe today's college students are actually working a lot harder than those in 1960 (perhaps due to debt, the weak economy, lack of security from getting a degree etc), and have actually earned a big chunk of the upward grade adjustment. That's certainly been my experience when compared to my own cohort, and that of quite a few professors that I talk to as well.

Re:Use Class Rank (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212961)

The other issue that I rarely see addressed in all of the 'grade inflation' concern (and which class rank also ignores) is that maybe today's college students are actually working a lot harder than those in 1960 (perhaps due to debt, the weak economy, lack of security from getting a degree etc), and have actually earned a big chunk of the upward grade adjustment. That's certainly been my experience when compared to my own cohort, and that of quite a few professors that I talk to as well.

It may or may nor be true that today's college kids are working harder. "Working hard" isn't what's being graded, though.

Re:Use Class Rank (3, Insightful)

khasim (1285) | about 10 months ago | (#46212701)

We actually have a time-tested way of comparing students' performance to each other: grading on a curve.

That only works when MULTIPLE RANDOM items are compared. Such as rolling 3d6.

Since answering questions on a test should NOT be random there should not be any reason to attempt to force the scores into a curve.

When I was in college (early 2000s, major American public university), all science and math courses were graded on curves, with 10-15% of the class getting As.

I started college in 1983. The grades were based upon how many questions you answered correctly. It did not matter what other students answered. Why would it?

Some students complained that they were doing well and learning the material, but are only getting Bs because of superstars in the course. To that, I say tough, because in the real world, no one is going to hire you to do anything just because you are good enough if another candidate is around who will do a better job than you will.

By that logic, a "B" student in one class could be an "A" student in the same class with the same professor on the same material with the same answers ... but in a different semester/quarter.

Which means that the smart students will learn to "game" the system.

Re:Use Class Rank (2)

UnknownSoldier (67820) | about 10 months ago | (#46212717)

> Some students complained that they were doing well and learning the material, but are only getting Bs because of superstars in the course. To that, I say tough, because in the real world,

How is the hell is that fair to steal a legitimate grade from people who earned it simply because you want the grade to be Relative to others?!?!
The WHOLE point of a grading system is to have an Absolute measurement system!

That is you, 50% means you only know 50% of the material. A 100% means you know 100% of the subject. Not, gee, you know 95% of the material but since 10% of the people know more then you we will lie and say you only know 90%.

Fuck You and your Grade Theft aka "grading on a curve".

In the real world most people don't give a shit if you got a C or an A in a course, only that you put in the required effort, you are certified as knowing the material, and the university / college has proof of your efforts.

--
Piracy === Disrespect.
Piracy =/= Theft

Re: Use Class Rank (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212831)

I don't think I've ever had a curve that made the break between an A and a B above 90%. The ones bitching were always the group who got 85% and would've all gotten A's if it hadn't been for the one asshole who got 96%.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | about 10 months ago | (#46212833)

Yes, class rank is problematic, however as this article points out so is GPA.

When I was an engineering student some 25 years ago the engineering school Valedictorian had a 3.4 GPA. A C was the the average grade. A's were hard to get.

Now the top 10% of the class has a 4.0 GPA.

Since recruiters are looking for a particular skill set they aren't going to be comparing Applied Physics majors to Art History majors.

Your second objection applies regardless of whether class ranking or GPA is used.

If schools had a consistent policy as to how classes were graded the expediency of using class rank would not be needed. However that's not the case.

Right now class rank is more meaningful.

Sadly I hear nowadays that's under pressure too. Some high schools are awarding Valedictorian to multiple students.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06... [nytimes.com]

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

EmperorArthur (1113223) | about 10 months ago | (#46212953)

Fortunately, my university's grading policies were well known enough by employers in my field, so that the relatively lower GPA were taken into account when recruiting.

And we have the problem right there. I graduated from a uni like yours*, and like your example the businesses in the area take that kind of thing in question. The problem is for anyone who doesn't want to work in the same area. Unless the school is well known, the recruiter will take one look at your GPA and your application goes in the trash. Hell, some companies require you to apply online. I doubt the system ever even lets a human see the application if your GPA is below a certain number.

*Well, at least one that didn't pull punches when it comes to grading anyways.

Re:Use Class Rank (2)

fredprado (2569351) | about 10 months ago | (#46212281)

Ignore both GPA AND Class Rank. Let the graduation schools apply entry tests. Problem solved.

Re:Use Class Rank (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212613)

That's actually how they do it in Japan though they still take your grades into account.
But that means you have to travel there and back to take the test, and since most of the schools have their entrance exams on the same weekends, that limits how many you can apply to.

Re:Use Class Rank (1)

fredprado (2569351) | about 10 months ago | (#46212771)

Well, you still can apply to quite a few. At least that assures that people are being judged and selected by the same rules. In my view the more objective the criteria the better.

That's just stupid. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212399)

Favored schools, favored class years Demonstration of mastery

Re:Use Class Rank (0)

Kjella (173770) | about 10 months ago | (#46212843)

When I went to university several STEM branches were sharing the same basic math classes, but the intake requirements were wildly different - some were elite studies others barely filling their quota. Now should we be ranked by everyone in the class, which would be an almost instant A for some branches since they only have A level students and an almost guaranteed crap grade for others, or just our studies? A common grade would be highly influenced by other studies, if they say dropped a math class the whole landscape would change.

On the other hand, if you limit it to just one study it would mean students taking the same class with the same professor and the same exam get incomparable grades. The physicist's math grade is different from the chemist's math grade is different from the engineer's math grade even if they deliver the same exam. How on earth should an employer figure out how who is best at math when you can't even keep a consistant scale in one university?

Also in any class some will be worst, if you barely make it into an elite study but find yourself at the bottom of the class you get absolutely terrible grades, despite having beat 95% of the population getting in. Employers really do not like to hear you're a C-level student in an AAA-level program, so they adjust the curve. It's not right to take a normal distribution, chop off 95% and normal distribute it again. Nobody will truly understand those grades.

Recent analysis (1)

Niris (1443675) | about 10 months ago | (#46212021)

Anyone happen to have a source to the recent analysis (at least the numbers)? I want to see if they have information on majors, etc. The original article is here: http://www.tcrecord.org/conten... [tcrecord.org] but it's behind a paywall. I've noticed that in my university, computer science/engineering majors average in the C range simply because the courses are intended to be difficult.

Re:Recent analysis (1)

the phantom (107624) | about 10 months ago | (#46212577)

My institution does not seem to have access to a digital version of the above linked paper. If anyone else has institutional access and can get a digital copy, I, too, would like to see it.

Teaching is a social "science" (5, Insightful)

HellCatF6 (1824178) | about 10 months ago | (#46212023)

Teaching as a discipline is one of many social sciences,
but since it's not a true science, there is no pressure to
create quantitative measures for any of their components.
No rigor, no quant, and you leave it up to individual motivations
as the driving forces.
Result, as the article states, easier classes mean higher grades.
Higher grades means better teacher evaluations.
Better evaluations means easier job and more money.
Result - grade inflation.
It seems obvious now, so we shouldn't be surprised.
The real question should be this: when can we expect the bubble to burst?

Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or ha (1)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | about 10 months ago | (#46212025)

Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or have there own GPA.

Maybe also give the gen EUD's there own GPA as well.

Re:Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or (1, Funny)

jratcliffe (208809) | about 10 months ago | (#46212137)

Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or have there own GPA.

Maybe also give the gen EUD's there own GPA as well.

I presume you regard English 101 as a filler/fluff class, then.

Re:Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212445)

My senior year of high school I got a 3.8 GPA. I also had 4 art classes, a music class, English and History.My average work spent on school per week could probably be measured in minutes, outside of the typical school day. I also went on to get a Masters in Computer Science. You're telling me if I said my 3.8 was from Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, P.E., Art, English, and History, you wouldn't or shouldn't look at it differently?
 
Yes there are standards in the curriculum, so a majority of people will at least have some baseline understanding of Algebra among other things. How do you reward those that seek higher education while not inadvertantly punishing those that dont?

Re:Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or (1)

gIobaljustin (3526197) | about 10 months ago | (#46212777)

Yes there are standards in the curriculum, so a majority of people will at least have some baseline understanding of Algebra among other things.

That doesn't seem to be working out. Having a deep understanding of why something works is far different from just memorizing facts and patterns, which is what a grand majority of people do. Worse, they often forget those facts soon afterwords.

Re:Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or (1)

the phantom (107624) | about 10 months ago | (#46212365)

Which classes are the filler and fluff, and which classes are real classes? Who makes that decision? A better solution might be to track a person's major GPA separately from their total combined GPA (many graduate schools ask for this, anyway).

Re:Filler / fluff classes should be pass / fail or (1)

SJHillman (1966756) | about 10 months ago | (#46212541)

My filler/fluff class dragged down my GPA due to an incompetent professor. He insisted that homework assignments be emailed to him, but neglected to tell me that he wasn't getting my emails (in spite of the read receipts) until after grading was finalized and submitted. The result was that I received no credit for homework, which changed my course grade from an A to a C. Fortunately, that course only counted for 3 of 137 credit hours and had a nearly negligible effect on my final GPA.

The real problem is that most colleges require so many fluff and filler courses. I have not once used astronomy, microbiology, or World History Up To AD 1600 in my job as a sysadmin. However, I will admit that psychology (and simulated lab rats) and creative writing have been surprisingly useful.

The whole system needs to change (4, Interesting)

CastrTroy (595695) | about 10 months ago | (#46212045)

I would rather have a large number of people get A's, and just have people realize that there are limits to what can and should be tested in school. Either the test is made so hard that only a small percentage of the students are able to answer all the questions, thereby making the median grade a C, or we must accept that it's possible that a high percentage of the class will learn everything they were supposed to learn from the class, and therefore receive an A. The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median, but whether to certify that you learned whatever it was they were supposed to be learning. I know people who have had teachers tell them they won't give out any A's, which ends up being because it's an easy course, and they don't want all the marks to end up being A, because it looks bad, and would rather just give the entire class low marks.

Re:The whole system needs to change (3, Informative)

Max Threshold (540114) | about 10 months ago | (#46212123)

"The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median . . ."

Yes, it is.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212165)

"The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median . . ."

Yes, it is.

Wrong. That is what higher-level courses/subjects are for.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212223)

Ermm, no. That's the purpose of the GPA.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212337)

"The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median . . ."

Yes, it is.

No, it isn't.

The purpose of school is to educate students. That frequently includes but does not necessarily require comparing the relative ability of students.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

Xylantiel (177496) | about 10 months ago | (#46212699)

I think it does always require measuring proficiency at the end. Otherwise how do you know if you are educating?

That being said, it is easy to create a test that will rank students, but extremely difficult to make a test that will measure their proficiency. And making one that is resistant to cheating (e.g. memorizing answers from previous tests) is even harder.

Current grading is generally not even based on level of proficiency, but on level of coverage. You get a good grade if you can demonstrate skill in all the topics covered. The level of proficiency expected on those topics is often not well defined. Also this leads to what the thread root comment is complaining about, where the class is taught as if everybody is going to achieve proficiency in all topics, even when that is known to not be happening. Is it better to teach a set of topics for which it is known the median student can achieve satisfactory proficiency, and then measure proficiency? What does the letter grade mean in such a system? Does in refer to proficiency or coverage?

Nominally this reveals the underlying problem being grappled with in education today. If you get down and honestly measure student proficiency, you realize that only the top 10% of students were actually learning what they were supposedly learning. This makes it really hard to construct a coherent overall sequence of education because you cannot assume that most students have mastered topics covered in previous courses.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212435)

""The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median . . ."

"Yes, it is.""

No, it isn't.

Elitism is nothing more than a juvenile social affectation - basically what you're saying is you want social bigotry to be institutionalized within academia. We need to remove it, not add to it.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212571)

Who said anything about socialism? This is about not wanting to hire dumb lazy employees.

really now... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212791)

You can judge laziness by grades now? Interesting, here I thought education and grades were about the ability to comprehend the information, and didn't necessarily measure the intangibles that make a person whole. Seems that I know quite a few people with the good certs, good grades, and absolutely terrible work ethic and ability to troubleshoot. I work with people who on paper might appear better than myself, however in actuality, I'm the most effective technician, who handles the toughest problems, and I continually educate myself and improve my skills.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

Payden K. Pringle (3483599) | about 10 months ago | (#46212557)

That depends on a lot of things.

If it's basic courses, I think the point is to just learn what you are supposed to learn. If it's easy, it's easy and the point isn't to differentiate between the elite and the median.

Whereas, if it's complicated technical course work, such as the more advanced classes at a university (3rd and 4th year classes and beyond, generally speaking), then that becomes the point.

The problem is more so that we lump them together.

So ... (1)

tiago.bonetti (1995614) | about 10 months ago | (#46212651)

... at graduation you receive a piece of paper that says what place you graduated instead a paper saying you graduated?

Re:So ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212907)

You receive a piece of paper indicating that you have graduated. A number of others do not receive this paper, as they did not.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212663)

A school is a deliverer of education, not a sorting algorithm.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212785)

So if the school has delivered the education, then the student gets an A, right? I, the professor, can then simply hand the student the textbook, declare "Mission Accomplished", and go home.

Degrees are worth something because someone, somewhere, couldn't hack it. If you can simply purchase a "delivered" education, then there is little point.

Re:The whole system needs to change (2)

scamper_22 (1073470) | about 10 months ago | (#46212691)

I'm also often amazed how people miss this rather obvious point. So much of education IS to differentiate students. I wouldn't say it's the whole of it, but it's a very big part of how our society operates.

Who gets into med school?
Who gets into law school?
How do you justify some jobs getting paid more than others in areas that are not ruled by the free market (governement jobs, professions...)
Who gets some great grad school spot
Who gets a professional job after graduation?
Who gets the high end law articling position? ...

All these things are very much based on education and what grades you get.

Take that away, and 90% of the population would end up being a doctor/lawyer and no doubt we'd introduce some silliness to stop that from happening.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

grumpy_technologist (2610431) | about 10 months ago | (#46212919)

I disagree. 90% of the population would not be able to complete the education or would drop out. The selection criteria exist to make sure that the bottom line is met in an institution which must spend money to provide a complete education. Drop outs are costly.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212795)

No, it isn't! Schools should teach, and test that the topic has been learnt well. For the grading, there is already such a big sample bias that gaussians are no longer applicable. The purpose of schools should absolutely not be providing employers/higher education a pre-chewed, one-size-fits-all grade to use in an aspecific screening to get the "elite" candidates.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

EvanED (569694) | about 10 months ago | (#46212161)

I think this is a very insightful comment.

I have some experience from when I was a grad student both teaching at the college level and participating in a reading group on teaching, and grading is a very difficult issue for pretty much the reasons you describe. I think the ideal situation would be if more classes would/could be taught pass-fail.

There was actually a class at my university -- admittedly, sort of a special-purposes class -- where the prof wanted to teach it pass fail but it wasn't allowed to be graded in that way. So he just said "okay, fine; I'll grade it nominally A-F, but the only grades I'll actually give out are A and F." Like I said this was a special-purpose class that would have been somewhat unfair to grade more traditionally and pretty fair to grade with a heavy focus on attendance, but it's at least an interesting idea. Assuming you think the purposes of a class is to help the students learn rather than attempt to rank the student's somewhat arbitrarily, there are good reasons to think doing something like that even in a more normal class would better accomplish your goals.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

parkinglot777 (2563877) | about 10 months ago | (#46212489)

There was actually a class at my university -- admittedly, sort of a special-purposes class -- where the prof wanted to teach it pass fail but it wasn't allowed to be graded in that way. So he just said "okay, fine; I'll grade it nominally A-F, but the only grades I'll actually give out are A and F." Like I said this was a special-purpose class that would have been somewhat unfair to grade more traditionally and pretty fair to grade with a heavy focus on attendance, but it's at least an interesting idea. Assuming you think the purposes of a class is to help the students learn rather than attempt to rank the student's somewhat arbitrarily, there are good reasons to think doing something like that even in a more normal class would better accomplish your goals.

If you just want to give either pass or fail, then I would say that you do not NEED a grade from this kind of classes. If you give a grade for passing the class as A and failing as F, you are inflating the GPA (which is already inflated). Simply set the result of the class as Pass or Fail, and do not include this type of class result in the GPA. When I was going to high school back in my home country, there were a few classes like this -- pass or fail -- and their results were NOT included in the GPA.

Re:The whole system needs to change (2)

Rich0 (548339) | about 10 months ago | (#46212357)

The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median, but whether to certify that you learned whatever it was they were supposed to be learning.

The only reason employers look at grades is to judge who is elite and who are the median.

When you get 400 applicants for a job, chances are that 350 of them can do the job. The employer wants the best person for the job, in the hopes that they will do the job better than whoever their competitor hires and give them an advantage.

Saying that colleges shouldn't give out grades is like saying that amazon shouldn't post prices on their website. Instead you should tell them how much you have in their bank account and what you want, and they'll tell you whether you can afford it. If you can, its yours and they just deduct what they feel it is worth. After all, the exact price doesn't matter, only whether you can afford it.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212673)

It seems that you've made the mistake of thinking that education is about getting a job. It isn't. Maybe many people have false ideas about what education is about, but that is just ignorance. Education is about helping you understand the world and universe around you; it's about enriching you as an individual. Education is not about turning you into a worker drone.

Re:The whole system needs to change (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212737)

Employers, by and large, don't look at grades. The top of the field companies might look at them for fresh undergraduates, *maybe*. They typically use interviews (or internships or "trial hires") to distinguish which of the applicants they want, and the cut off is basically which program you passed. Mostly, once you graduate it's useful for your ego and for further academic options, eg. applying to another University.

Also, he didn't actually say colleges shouldn't give out grades, he said that wasn't its function. Amazon isn't a company dedicated to displaying the price beside items, they are a company that is mainly an online retailer (with some side-businesses eg. cloud services and digital devices). Displaying the price to the user is incidental and if they can make a successful business model without doing that, that's just fine, even if difficult to imagine.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

khasim (1285) | about 10 months ago | (#46212829)

The only reason employers look at grades is to judge who is elite and who are the median.

Let me change that a bit.

The only reason employers look at grades is because you are applying for your first job and you have not built a portfolio sufficient for the hiring process.

Once you have your first job no one cares about your grades.

Re:The whole system needs to change (1)

OSULugan (3529543) | about 10 months ago | (#46212465)

"The purpose of school isn't to differentiate between who are the elite and who are the median, but whether to certify that you learned whatever it was they were supposed to be learning."

And, grading helps to determine that. The problem is that classes have become so easy that the median are gaining an "A". This means that classes aren't being pushed hard enough. Instead, they teach to the lowest common denominator, or they make the grades less about mastering the material, and more about how easily one can push through loads of homework, or how quickly one can look up the right answer when given ample time. The curve grading system sucks, if enforced in retrospect. Instead, the curve should be a tool that feeds back into the school, and tells the school whether the classes are too hard, too easy, or just right.

Many profs only care about... (1)

dlenmn (145080) | about 10 months ago | (#46212049)

research. This teaching stuff just gets in their way, so why not just give them an A?

Not all profs do that, of course. I've been a teaching assistant for good and bad profs. However, many bad profs really do operate that way. I think the real solution is to give profs the option not to teach and to hire reasonably-compensated adjuncts instead. They could be professional teachers, whereas professors are professional researchers and, normally, amatuer teachers.

Of course, that would cost money, so don't hold your breath; universities are too busty blowing their money on other things, like revenue-negative sports teams and facilities. (Only a few universities make money from their sports teams, but almost all universities want to make money that way and think that -- if they spend enough -- they will. Don't hold your breath for that either; at most 50% of teams have a winning record...)

Re:Many profs only care about... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212217)

That's really only true for a selection of professors at institutions which have a lot of active research. Most 4 year degree institutions in the US don't have much active research and teaching is the primary job of the professors. Of course that's not very prestigious, so the situation you describe is more common at the more well known institutions.

OT: The article really hits all the main points. Students like high grades. Professors like getting good evaluations, which are statistically correlated with giving high grades. Administrators like happy students because they are more generous as alumns and give better college ratings. Its hard to say where you would find the political capital to change the GPA system.

Of course students want the "easy A" (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212055)

When scholarships and future jobs/grad school is on the line you'd be a fool to take a course from a professor who gave very few As than one that gave lots of As, everything else being equal.

The only good reason to take the "harder grading" professor is if you would actually learn more. It's frequently better to "take the B" and learn more than "get an A" but not learn as much. But if you can find the professor who drives you to learn who still hands out As like candy, vs. a nearly-identical one who only gives a few As, well, you do the math.

Re:Of course students want the "easy A" (1)

Nemesisghost (1720424) | about 10 months ago | (#46212469)

My undergrad univ made all students take a competency exam for each degree they were seeking. Pass/fail never affected actually graduating, but it did reflect on your department. I think it even went into department ratings, both within the school & nationally. And given how important it is to graduate from a "good school" it is fairly important to do good. Plus, since department funding was allocated based on pass/fail %'s, professors were obligated to make sure that their students did well & not just pass out A's. That was not the case for cross department classes(ie general science classes for non-science majors).

Re:Of course students want the "easy A" (2)

plover (150551) | about 10 months ago | (#46212517)

When my son entered high school, the principal gave parents a talk on Advanced Placement (AP) courses and college admissions. Someone asked "Isn't it better for my son to take an easy class and get an A than to take a hard AP class and get a B?" The principal replied: "it's better for him to take a hard class and get an A, because those are the people he will be competing against."

Good advice.

Re:Of course students want the "easy A" (1)

gIobaljustin (3526197) | about 10 months ago | (#46212719)

because those are the people he will be competing against.

Rote learning 'geniuses', mostly.

Partially because the talent pool is bigger (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212081)

The number of people who get a college degree is so much greater than back then, that the better colleges simply have more students with talent to choose from.

GPA == Student Stack Rank (1)

crow (16139) | about 10 months ago | (#46212141)

There have been lots of articles about employee performance reviews and the "stack rank" system. Pretty much everything that has been learned about employee performance reviews can apply to students, particularly in higher education.

Companies like to use performance reviews when adjusting compensation, and they also like to have a system that encourages employee development (or at least retention and advancement of the better employees, and hopefully helping other employees become "better" employees). Perhaps we can learn something from the corporate world.

I've heard others suggest using class rank. That's fine if all professors are grading at the same level, but they're not. I think that was part of the point of the original article.

Of course, there are other aspects of the system that can be adjusted, too. Perhaps you force professors to give out lower grades, or come up with a system that voids the advantage of a professor who consistently gives higher grades. But then don't report the grades on transcripts. Just report that a given student was in the top 10%, 25%, 50%, or passed (say, one level overall and another for in-major courses).

There are lots of solutions.

Confidential Grading (1)

Wulfrunner (1213776) | about 10 months ago | (#46212149)

It would be interesting to grade students in the following way:
For assignments and tests, grade the assignments as usual but don't let the students see the actual mark until the end.
Instead, give them a "credit / no credit" assessment for each item, coupled with feedback / answer sheets / group review.
At the end of the year, students will receive a final grade based on the value of all the assignments. This could eliminate some of the pressure that professors feel from students who are constantly badgering them about marks. It would have the side benefit of making it impossible for students to obsess over every single percentage point and instead focus on learning the material (or, conversely, they would be crippled by uncertainty and--rightly--weed themselves out of the system).

This would also necessitate increased accountability. For example, the professor and student would each be expected to keep a copy of all materials submitted for grading and if there was a dispute at the end of the year, a 3rd party audit could be conducted.

Has anyone experienced a system like that? How well did it work?

Re:Confidential Grading (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212279)

Reed College in Portland does that, basically. They're one of the top schools in the country/world so they're probably onto something. However it's time consuming to provide feedback beyond A,B,C,D,F so it's probably not something that's going to happen at schools with huge classes.

Re:Confidential Grading (1)

plover (150551) | about 10 months ago | (#46212581)

I have found there are a lot of students on the ragged edge of a grade, with only a point or two separating them from a letter grade difference. If that student is told one week before finals "you have 89.9%, you are two points shy of an A", they will go whining to the prof asking about some minor detail on the first week's homework. I promise you the prof isn't going to remember the details from a homework assignment he graded 8 weeks ago. Multiply that question by every third student in the class, and it's going to play havoc with the prof's workload.

Re:Confidential Grading (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212669)

The real question is why an 89.9 is worth substantially less than a 90.0.

Re:Confidential Grading (1)

the phantom (107624) | about 10 months ago | (#46212947)

This. A thousand times, this. This is the reason that I assign grades based on where the scores cluster, rather than on a completely arbitrary number (though I do use those arbitrary numbers as a guide).

First Post! Yes! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212177)

Well in this age of post inflation, it counts as a firstie.

Gaussian distribution (1)

Bluefirebird (649667) | about 10 months ago | (#46212245)

For many years professors in natural sciences have been adjusting test scores to match Gaussian distribution.
Typically, you decide on the average and then adjust the shape accordingly.


Most professors would go for a 12 points (60%) out of 20 average and a standard deviation of around 3 points (15%). Every student below 10 points (50%) would fail the class.
After that, you rank the questions from easy to hard, according to the scores obtained for each.
Initially, you a award the same weight for each question. If the test was designed properly, this should create a Gaussian distribution.
If not, different weights within a range (e.g. 0.8 to 1.25) for the questions can be adjusted until it matches the Gaussian distribution.

I doesn't solve the problem of easy classes competing with difficult ones but it solves the problem of grade inflation.

Not a random system (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212391)

If this is supposed to be science, why are these professors then fudging with the numbers to fit a particular goal?

I have a serious problem with this, because classes of college students are not a natural Gaussian representation. There would be a tendency for every one of them to be "above average" when compared to a general large population.

This especially makes no sense when the teacher is able to deliver the material in such a way that everyone who attends class understands and remembers. Then the scores end up looking like a U shape... Everyone getting either A's (because they attended class) or F's (because they did not attend or pay attention at all).

Also piss on the idea of a "properly" designed test... In order to get a Gaussian distribution where you wanted a peak at 70%, 30% of the questions wouldn't be able to be answered from the material presented, instead requiring simple guessing or just prior knowledge from elsewhere.

Too many people like it inflated (5, Insightful)

edremy (36408) | about 10 months ago | (#46212275)

Students love grade inflation because they love getting A's

Faculty love grade inflation because they spend less time dealing with pissed off students and helicopter parents

Administration likes grade inflation because it means fewer people drop out, which is good for the bottom line. More degrees with honors sounds great too.

All we need to do is fix students, faculty and the administration and we can solve this problem right away.....

Re:Too many people like it inflated (3, Interesting)

i.r.id10t (595143) | about 10 months ago | (#46212467)

I recall an article I read 10-12 years ago about grade inflation, and how it really started in the 60s as a way for the "liberal" professors to help keep kids out of the draft for the Viet Nam War. High GPA (3.0 or higher IIRC) let the students keep their draft deferrments, so a lot of instructors were happy to fudge the numbers upwards just a tad.

Re:Too many people like it inflated (1)

wulfhere (94308) | about 10 months ago | (#46212521)

Man, oh man, if only I had mod points. Insightful, people!

Re:Too many people like it inflated (1)

ZombieBraintrust (1685608) | about 10 months ago | (#46212595)

There is no feedback loop from employers. They are the only one who cares about grade inflation. Employers could create an organization that adjusts colleges grades based on the testing and evaluation of new hires. This organization would then publish the GPA adjustment for each School Degree combination. This would not effect history majors though. Walmart doesn't care if you made A's or B's.

Re:Too many people like it inflated (1)

the phantom (107624) | about 10 months ago | (#46212623)

One of the nice thing about teaching at a college or university is that the faculty don't have to deal with helicopter parents. Parents can call all they want, and all they should ever hears is "I'm sorry, but it would be a violation of students' FERPA rights for me to divulge any information to you." Pissy students are another matter entirely.

Re:Too many people like it inflated (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212949)

This. "I'm sorry, but you are asking information of another citizen. It would be illegal to provide this to you under current law. Your child is now an adult and you must treat them thusly; Diplomacy, Intimidate, or Bluff".

It's not that complicated (1)

ohieaux (2860669) | about 10 months ago | (#46212295)

Really, I've been proposing that each GPA be presented with the average GPA for students taking the same class sections. For some students, a 3.5 would be weak (if the average student got a 3.9). For others, it might be outstanding (if the average was a 3.2).

This also makes it more likely that students will take courses with challenging grades. If all a professor gives is A's I can't raise my effective GPA. But, a professor that gives a C+ average gives me the opportunity to decrease my denominator.
For more info on the problem check out http://www.gradeinflation.com/ [gradeinflation.com]

New York solved this... (1)

Jason Levine (196982) | about 10 months ago | (#46212345)

Granted this isn't college, but New York state tackled "grade inflation" by giving students tests that weren't developmentally appropriate and based on curriculum they hadn't been taught. The result was that only about 30% of students passed. The bonus was that State Ed and the governor could then point to those tests as further proof that teachers are failing our students and 1) we need to have more of these tests to assess their performance and 2) teachers should be bound by EngageNY curriculum which literally reads like a script except that actors get more leeway in their roles. (It tells the teacher what to teach, for how long - in 10 minute segments - how to teach it, what questions to ask, what responses should be, etc. Why have a teacher when you can have a robot instead?)

Grading by statistics (1)

dtmos (447842) | about 10 months ago | (#46212369)

When I taught undergraduate engineering courses at a state university, I always had large classes (> 80 students), so I decided to let the law of large numbers work to my advantage. I would grade each student's work with a numerical score, and would then find the median and standard deviation of the scores for each class. The median I defined to be the threshold between "C" and "B". One standard deviation above the median became the threshold between "B" and "A", and one standard deviation below the median became the threshold between "C" and "D". Any score below two standard deviations away from the median was a failing grade.

I used the median, instead of the mean, to ensure that I never had more than half the class with an "A" or "B". After some experimentation otherwise, it seemed like one standard deviation per grade was just about right -- most students got a "B" or "C", and only the exceptional ones got an "A" or "D" (or worse).

This scheme seemed to work well, and was no more arbitrary than any other. Plus, it was deterministic, in the sense that I could tell the students on Day One how I graded. If a student got a "C", for example, it was because more than half the class did better than he did. In addition, I could justify an "A" grade to the administration, since that person performed at least one standard deviation above the median.

Re:Grading by statistics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212721)

It also happens to be completely and unfairly arbitrary in that a student who objectively earned an A through mastery of the material won't get one simply because you don't want more than X number of A's handed out.

Re:Grading by statistics (1)

the phantom (107624) | about 10 months ago | (#46212735)

It should be noted that your scheme really is very arbitrary. I'm glad it worked out for you, but mixing medians and standard deviations simply don't make any kind of statistical sense. The IQR (inter-quartile range) would probably be a better measure of spread if you are going to use the median as a measure of center. One should also note that your scheme is biased in favor of As over Fs. Perhaps that is what you intend, though I personally prefer that the median correspond to the center of the C range, rather than the top.

GPA's by location (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212385)

And the schools that don't have a culture of grading to a real standard will eventually find that their grading gets no respect for their graduates. As an Iowa high school graduate in the 1980's I entered a "most selective" school with a GPA of 3.7 out of 4.0 possible. I was flat out told by admission counsellors that at that time a 3.7 from a rural school was more indicative of academic talent than a 4.0 from many places in California or New York/New Jersey. By inflating grades a teacher and student benefit each other, but hurt their institution, their region, and future students.
   

Double Edged Sword (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212487)

Inflated grades (or scores if it's not a school thing) are a definite problem that harms the value of the scoring criteria, but when in an inflated environment, not giving inflated scores cripples those receiving them as they now appear incompetent.

I've seen it happen, and I've seen some of the best people in the place miss out on raises and promotions that are given to people far less deserving simply because one had a supervisor that followed the proper scoring guidelines, while the other had supervisors that used the inflated values.

What philosophy of Education are you using? (3, Interesting)

ralatalo (673742) | about 10 months ago | (#46212525)

There is a basic point missing in that expected grade distribution is very much dependent upon if you are trying to teach a subject to mastery or teach a subject the students limits of understanding. Ie. what is your philosophy of education?

If you are teaching a class covering a subject which can be mastered, then there is no reason everyone should not master the material and get an 100% baring lazyness.

An example would be written test for a drivers license, is there really any reason everyone who takes it should not get 100%?

If you are teaching to a scale, then you don't really care how much absolute material is transferred and your tests are designed to not to measure the material taught in the class as much as then general subject matter which the class covers, and they are designed to test the level of understanding of the subject as a whole with an emphasis on trying to prevent anyone from mastering the test.

Most of your Engineering classes.

Re:What philosophy of Education are you using? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212857)

Brilliant, simply brilliant. I couldn't have said it better myself. If I had mod points...

Perhaps the issue with grade inflation then is (a) either the old system was wrong to begin with and this is how grades should have been calculated all along or (b) the tests aren't as difficult as they used to be?

To mastery should always be the aim, and I agree, there is no reason why you can't have most of or an entire class achieve mastery. How are we deciding mastery?

Competitive Access to Higher Education (1)

eepok (545733) | about 10 months ago | (#46212751)

From the experience of someone who has worked in both K-12 and higher education, the problem is innate to the competitive access to higher education and the roots are way deeper than 4-year research universities.

Elementary Schools (grades K-6)
Elementary schools have not been well known for their grade inflation. They are held to stronger minimum student competency standards that allow them to get away with giving a kid an "N" (needs improvement, aka: Fail).

Middle School (grades 7-8)
Grade inflation starts in middle schools where educators understand that proper placement into advanced high school courses poise students for better quality education (regardless of work completed).

High School (grades 9-12)
High School grade inflation most often occurs in advanced classes, to facilitate increased chances of being accepted into a well-respected 4-year university. This problem is exacerbated by helicopter parents and administrators/teachers that don't want to deal with them.

Community College
Grade inflation here is rare unless you're one of the very few students who are actually making the effort to transfer to a 4-year university. These students get "known" personally by instructors and under-staffed counseling centers and relationships are built, exceptions begin to be made/justified, etc.. I've helped to navigate student through CC specifically by connecting them to the right people to make sure they make the transfer in 2-3 years.

Undergraduate (4-year University)
Grade inflation here exists in part because faculty and lectures want students to "have every opportunity possible" to go to grad school (much like what happens in high school), but also because lecturers (without security of employment) that get bad reviews (grade rage) are less likely to be invited back to teach again. This problem is exacerbated by helicopter parents and administrators/teachers that don't want to deal with them.

And all of this exists because we make access to quality education a competition! There would not be grade inflation in middle school if every regular high school teacher was as effective and driven as those who teach high school advanced placement courses. There wouldn't be grade inflation if public universities put less weight into GPA and more into impromptu writing (submitted writing is too biased) and proctored exams. (Instead, GPA should only be for the valedictorian prize and as a progress report on the effort made towards one's education as exhibited by assignment submissions.)

Thus, there wouldn't be grade inflation if we made access to higher education an expected right given that minimum qualifications are made.

"But college education is so expensive! We can't educate everyone to the same caliber with what we have!"

I call BS. At a luxury- and notoriety-based research university, undergraduate education is expensive. At non-research universities, education is relatively cheap. Solution: Make the very specific and public differentiation between "College" and the "Research University". Want a good education with the potential to access research-based careers? Consider attending a Research University. Want a good education so that you'll be a better person, member of society, and have a head start in a chosen industry? Consider going to College.

In California, it's the difference between attending one of the California State University campuses and attending one of the University of California campuses. We need more Cal States and we need to utilize GPA less.

Curve? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212763)

In the past many grades were calculated on a curve. Why should it matter what the other students in the class got when calculating my grade? Answer: It shouldn't.

People talk about "grade inflation", but what are they actually talking about? If most of the people in the class do well, why shouldn't they get an A?

The experiment was a disaster for both parties. (1)

grumpy_technologist (2610431) | about 10 months ago | (#46212767)

You might want to take note of the following quote from the article, which I completely agree with.

He now recommends keeping the same GPA measure, but perhaps using the adjusted GPA to distinguish students with a special mark or honor so that graduate schools and employers know the student stood out.

In my opinion, school is primarily for education. If you learn all of the material satisfactorily, then you have earned an A. If you want impose some sorting (to distinguish certain students), provide limited access to undergraduate research and project-based courses which have an internal application process or require extra work. Don't expect to put everyone in the same bucket and have them naturally separate any more.

In my second opinion, this is the new norm, and we shouldn't be trying to focus on fixing the big "inflation" (degree inflation, tuition inflation, grade inflation)., which is necessarily a backwards-facing perspective.

Ignore GPA (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#46212871)

The use of the GPA encourages students to hunt for the best grades rather than the best education. Class rank within your major, and based only on the core classes, is vaguely relevant. Trying to compare a math major to a liberal arts major based on a GPA is a pointless activity anyway.

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