February 5, 2010

Grades, grade inflation, and the myths associated with them

An article in the New York Times caught my eye the other day. It turns out that in the flaccid economy Princeton students are resenting their university's attempt to control grade inflation. About five or six years ago Princeton had 40% of grades be an "A" of some type. To try to rein in grades, they implemented a policy that (quoting from the NYT article): "Over time and across all academic departments, no more than 35 percent of grades in undergraduate courses would be A-plus, A or A-minus."

I must admit that I am somewhat of a radical when it comes to grades. I personally believe that if you stand back and take a long look at college education, grades hurt learning. There are several reasons for this belief, but they generally stem from just how inaccurate and insufficient a number like GPA is for classifying academic preparation. The NYT article has some interesting quotes that seem to support this opinion. For example:
"Historically, students in the natural sciences were graded far more rigorously, for example, than their classmates in the humanities, a gap that has narrowed but that still exists."
While at first glance this isn't that surprising, if one judges academic preparation or "rigor" solely by GPA and you assumed (incorrectly) GPA depends causally on academic ability, then students in the natural sciences are less academically prepared than students in the humanities. Of course this isn't true, there is a wide distribution of students in both disciplines. It is just variations in grading standards and practices by the different cultures.

Here is another line from the NYT article, this time a quote from a student in support of Princeton's measure to prevent grade inflation:
“What people don’t realize is that grades at different schools always have different meanings, and people at Goldman Sachs or the Marshall Scholarship have tons of experience assessing different G.P.A.’s”
Really? I have a really hard time predicting student performance in my own classes based on incoming GPA, and I probably know more about my program than 90% of the faculty in the department. While there have been a lot of studies showing GPA is correlated to various measures of academic performance, the truth is educational institutions can't, by accreditation agency dictate, use GPA or grades as a measure of student learning. While GPA is likely a good general measure of students' potential to thrive in an organization, I believe that employers would welcome more fine-grained measures provided they were given the tools to interpret them.

Another student quote, from a person opposing Princeton's policy, points out another danger of using grades as an overall measure of learning:
“People intuitively take a G.P.A. to be a representation of your academic ability and act accordingly. The assumption that a recruiter who is screening applications is going to treat a Princeton student differently based on a letter is na├»ve.”
One of the biggest problems of using a GPA as a de facto measure of students' ability is that then GPA becomes a measure of students' ability. If we (i.e. insitutions of higher learning) promote a number that others' use to measure "student ability" that we ourselves can't use to measure learning, we are guilty of hypocrisy at the very least. It is time for the engineering education community to begin to think about alternatives to traditional grades, alternatives that better describe our students's multi-faceted abilities.

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