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Math Education

Adjusting GPAs: A Statistician's Effort To Tackle Grade Inflation 264

Posted by samzenpus
from the precious-snowflakes dept.
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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Adjusting GPAs: A Statistician's Effort To Tackle Grade Inflation

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 10, 2014 @04:10PM (#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."

  • by HellCatF6 (1824178) <HellCatF6@gmail.com> on Monday February 10, 2014 @04:14PM (#46212023) Homepage

    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?

  • Re:Use Class Rank (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rritterson (588983) on Monday February 10, 2014 @04:23PM (#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.

  • by edremy (36408) on Monday February 10, 2014 @04:39PM (#46212275) Journal
    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:Use Class Rank (Score:4, Insightful)

    by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Monday February 10, 2014 @05:21PM (#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 (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 10, 2014 @05:44PM (#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 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by unrtst (777550) on Monday February 10, 2014 @05:49PM (#46212971)

    The big problem with grades is that they conflate course difficulty and student performance.

    IMO, there's also another glaring flaw in Johnson's premise that students gave better student evaluations of teachers who graded more leniently. There is a HUGE assumption there that the various teachers running the same classes were all equal in their quality of teaching. Why is it so difficult to believe that some teacher was able to reach and educate more of his students than someone else?

    Statistically, I understand there should be some sort of even distribution, but the sample size (in number of teachers per course) is not large enough to be of statistical value.

    Johnson said, “As you might expect, the effect of either expected course grade or received course grade is very powerful in student evaluations of teaching. If a student was getting a C in a course, he or she was very unlikely to rate the instructor highly. If they were getting an A in the course, they’re more likely to rate the instructor highly. I think this provides quantitative evidence for something most instructors know: If they grade easier, they will tend to get better course evaluations.”

    One year, I had an art history teacher whose class was at 7:30am, in a dark lecture room, with a dim projector on the whole time, and spoke through an ancient 3" amplified speaker with an voice that was already monotone and droned on and on and on. I got a D-. The next year, I did more research on the available teachers, and found the one that engaged the most and who had more people getting higher grades. He was fun, taught in a well lit class in mid-day, involved us in projects to learn (ex.create an interactive presentation of some artist with a group of other students for homework, as opposed to filling in the blanks on a test in a dim room with projected images), and I got an A+, go figure.

    I'll admit his tests were slightly easier (fewer exact date type questions (what year was this created, versus during what time period), multiple choice on name questions, rather than having to fill it in spelled perfectly, etc), but I also learned a LOT more, and neither graded on a curve.

    I also take some offense to applying various curves or rankings etc to students. Given a class of 30 people, it's almost guaranteed that you'll have some years where half the class are "A" students, and some years where there's hardly a one, and that's assuming that the teaching and material are equal.

    Overall, I'd agree that there is grade inflation. Jacking with the grades isn't going to fix all the underlying problems, and it will create other problems. He notes that one of the most likely reasons are student evaluations - so untie those from teacher review (instead, to review a teacher, do so as one should for reviewing any employee... go watch them while they're actually working, and only use the reported figures to identify people that should be reviewed first or may need help).

  • Re:Use Class Rank (Score:4, Insightful)

    by supercrisp (936036) on Tuesday February 11, 2014 @08:19AM (#46216519)
    In my experience (just over 20 years teaching English courses), students in the first two years of college are horrible now compared to 10-15 years ago. At upper levels, students are indeed working much harder. But part of the harder work is a lot of flailing around because most bright students have never had to study, organize, research, or any of the basic scholarly skills. School has just been so easy. ---- I'm reluctant to address grade inflation on slashdot because so much of the discussion on teaching here is from only the student perspective, and typically from disaffected students who see education as some sort of market exchange. It's got a much older set of models, and that complicates the hell out of things. For reasons good and bad, faculty tend hang onto some Medieval ideas like mentoring, patronage, whipping people into shape, and separating wheat from chaff. As I said, good and bad reasons. ---- But major influences on grades just don't come up in these discussions, so I'll offer two: retention and rehiring. Administrators and evaluating bodies continually yell "retention." What can you do if all your students suck because they're getting shit for a high school education? Dumb down the classes and pass them. Or don't, and your department suffers. Or you do. That brings me to rehiring. Many classes, right on up to the senior level are now taught by "contingent" faculty--the majority of faculty now are contingent. Nontenured. Rehired year by year. If you're contingent, you'd better listen when someone howls retention. And you'd better make damn sure that little Pauly Privileged doesn't go running to your chair bawling because he got a C for his paper copied from Wikipedia. Better give that brat a B so that you can keep paying your student loans. Presto! Grade inflation. ---- There are other reasons. And I know everyone here is super brilliant and earned those A grades.

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