You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Magna Cum Laude!

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?

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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11 Responses to You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Magna Cum Laude!

  1. Withywindle says:

    I regularly have done forced curve distributions. The only alternative was to fail the majority of the class.

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I think there is something to the idea that a B at a good school is worth more than an A at a bad school. Of course it is not always so easy to calculate, but I am told that HR people do take the reputation of the school into consideration.

  3. Jerome says:

    Though some stopped short of calling me stupid, every educational institution I ‘ve ever darkened the door of has refused to quantify “me” positively. Out in the real world, however, my experience has been much different! I don’t think there is a real danger of change in the currency of the GPA, but I would like to hear someone in education talk about what they can do to keep people from “slipping between the cracks.”

  4. arethusa says:

    I have never done a forced curve distribution, on paper. While I don’t give a lot of A’s, I do think I also adjust my grading to the quality of the institution. It makes no sense to me to hold a student at Buzz’s Junior Kollege (love it!) to the same standards that I would hold a Harvard student. Students should be judged against the work of others in the same class or at the same school, not to some absolute if-only-we-were-all-eggheads standard. However, there are a number of great students at non-elite colleges, who for perfectly rational reasons – money, distance, family circumstances – are not at Harvard. They do get caught between the two grading philosophies. If I can, I give them A+’s, as a signal that this student is above and beyond.

    I suppose you can say my practice is a kind of grade inflation, but I do think that quality of school is taken into account by employers, as you say. So I frankly don’t feel bad about it, except for the summa cum laude students at Buzz’s who will then be sneered down upon by elitists – who will sadly miss out on their true talents.

  5. Alaska Jack says:

    Like Jerome above, I was never a stellar student in the academic world. My entire ‘formative years’ were spent being tested, analyzed, and yelled at for being so intelligent, yet failing to live up to my potential. I faced teary-eyed pleas for paying attention and “hard work,” even open hostility from faculty and administrators in my K-12 years (including one good hard bout of physical contact from a vice principal). Yet no one could see that I would rather research, search, explore, whatever on my own, and learn about the world around me (and more importantly on a personal level, why it is what it is) than sit through a lecture about arcane topics which bore no relevance to where I stood in relation to the universe (or vice versa). My parents taught me, and to a certain extent I believe the trait to be genetic, to go and do rather than sit and be told. In that respect I seem to be cut from a different cloth, to which one of your cohorts can vividly attest 🙂

    Ironically, though, I learned an awful lot in my years in college; I just didn’t realize it until much later. And in another twist, the very subjects at which I routinely barely scraped by (if not outright failed) are now those which I both enjoy and use the most in my day-to-day life. In the clarity of hindsight I firmly believe the reason to be one upon which you seem to write so often, that being the virtues of the oft-maligned liberal arts education. It takes excellent analytical skills to be an accountant or engineer, but those programs don’t teach those skills. So what are the students to do, absent either familial support or innate ability and/or desire? This, to me, is where the notion of a ‘score’ breaks down. To broadly paraphrase Richard Feynman, you can know the name of a bird in a hundred languages, but you still know nothing about the bird…So are you really any richer for the knowledge?

    The GPA is, in my opinion, a useful measure, but one which is overused, simply because there are far too many variables in the equation when it comes to judging educational quality either at the institutional level, or in an individual. It’s become a crutch upon which we lean because it’s simply too great a task to add up the parts of the total educational experience, the student included. If I had a better solution I’d be a monetarily wealthy man, but for the moment it seems to be one of our rather limited series of options…

    • profmondo says:

      As Jerome and the Major can tell you, Jack, it sounds as though you and I have a lot in common. I was a National Merit Scholar in high school — but I wasn’t in the top 10% of my senior class. My Dad figured it out: “If it’s something you like, you’ll make an A. If it’s something you don’t like, you’ll ace the tests, take zeroes on the homework, and make a B or C.” He was right, and actually followed much the same pattern himself. The Spawn’s more driven than I am in that regard — she must get that from Mrs. M. And I’ve always loved that Feynman anecdote — back when I thought I might be an astrophysicist, he was a hero of mine (and still is in many ways).

      You (and Arethusa) are right about the dubious value of GPA. My grades were pretty lackluster until I did my Ph.D., but I’ve spent my whole life hearing variations on a question I was asked once in a scholarship interview (at Jerome’s alma mater). It was a group interview, and I was in the room with a bunch of valedictorian types. The interviewer went around the room, asking these folks if they were actually as smart as their grades indicated. Then he got to me, and said, “Mondo, are you smarter than your grades indicate?” I laughed, and said, “I sure hope so.” I got the scholly. GPA is a misleading value, but it’s all we seem to have at the moment, barring narrative descriptions a la New College in Florida.

  6. Withywindle says:

    What Arethusa said. I presume I wouldn’t have been re-hired if I failed everyone.

    • profmondo says:

      In that case, it sounds like you were forced to engage in de facto inflation, which still isn’t quite the same thing as redistribution, as expressed by the blogger’s article. (I’m not condemning, by the way — not every hill is worth dying on; I’m sure I would have done the same.)

  7. Jeff says:

    In 11 years of adjuncting, I got mixed signals about grading. The woman who hired me told me to hold students to high standards, fail as many of ’em as necessary, and send ’em back to community college if they needed remedial courses. Later bosses cringed when I told them that. Still, no one balked when a class with six motivated students got all A’s and B’s, or when semesters ended with one-third to one-half of the class getting D’s and F’s. The few times a student challenged a grade, the administration reviewed my evidence and backed me up.

    But then, last year, an administrator cryptically told me that when my promotion application hit the dean’s desk, they’d be looking at my “grade distributions.” It was the first time in a decade I’d heard anyone suggest that they might be an issue.

    As someone with a full-time, non-academic job, I felt I could grade honestly and fairly, because I had less to lose, but my colleagues who needed the job more than I did were always far more nervous about repercussions, whether real or imagined. But so help me, I just couldn’t give C’s to students in 300-level classes who were unable to read or write at an eighth-grade level. And there’s something deeply wrong with this adjunct-grading culture of fear when I (Mr. Roundabout, Mr. Indirect, Mr. Non-Confrontational) wind up being the first person in a crying adult’s life to level with him and let him know that he’s almost functionally illiterate. (“But I’ve been getting straight A’s in my Criminal Justice courses!”)

    Unfortunately, academics who’ve become administrators don’t have the luxury of questioning whether a university is stressing tuition and enrollment over actual educational standards. Why would they speak up and endanger their jobs when the entire system is obviously stampeding the other way?

  8. Withywindle says:

    To repeat a point I’ve made before: at most one half of current students should be in college. Getting rid of them would also imply getting rid of proportionate numbers of faculty and administrators. So it won’t happen.

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