The Major tipped me to a posting at The Economist, which purports to respond to the recent metaphor-cum-joke in which students are asked if they would support having their grades “redistributed” in order to help lower achievers. The author argues that we in fact already redistribute grades. While the blogger makes some interesting points (not least that there is usually an arbitrary cap of 4.0 on GPA), I think we run into some serious problems here:
In the very worst schools in America, some students have 3.0 GPAs, even though the students who earn a 3.0 GPA in those schools would be hard pressed to maintain a 1.0 GPA in America’s best schools. Work for which students receive B’s in poor schools would earn failing grades in top schools.
I think this proceeds from some faulty assumptions. For one thing, grade inflation is a serious problem, including at the very elite schools the author extols here. Also, at least on the undergrad level, I don’t know anyone (regardless of field) who does a true forced curve distribution. It may happen, but I suspect it’s far more rare than the author implies, and the reason it doesn’t happen is precisely that aversion to “unfair”/unearned outcomes. I’ve taught classes with no A’s, and I’ve taught classes with a high percentage of A’s. I grade kids at Mondoville by essentially the same standards I used at my Ph.D. institution, and long ago, at my M.A. school. If I were at Harvard, I imagine I’d do the same. The author also doesn’t take into account that different institutions have different grading scales, which can even vary from department to department. At my Ph.D. school, for example, 90 and up was an A. At Mondoville, you need at least a 93 in English and education courses, while a 90 will suffice in other departments. (And when I got here, an A was x>= 95!)
Finally, although the blogger says he’s fine with the redistribution, I can’t help thinking that his claim breaks down on the level of using those grades as a criterion for selecting a given student for grad school/a job/whatever. Like a price point, a grade presents information — we rate the value of Student X’s performance at A/B/whatever. The blogger’s argument would have more value if there were no perceived difference between the recipient of an A from Buzz’s Junior Kollege of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair and the recipient of one from the HYP triumvirate. But in fact, the market (and the blogger in question) does distinguish between the two, as the blogger has made assumptions about the values of the two institutions (assumptions that may not in fact be valid.) In this respect, the blogger seems to contend that his alleged redistribution of grades is both good (a spoken assertion) and irrelevant (through his implication that what really matters is the school awarding the grade).
As I said, the entry offers some interesting ideas, but I think he’s ultimately off-track. Of course, my degrees are from state schools, so what do I know?