Field of Science

Grades: Do They Mean Anything Anymore?

Alright. I'll do it, but I'm not happy about it.....ok, I'm a little happy about it. I mean I'm not happy to have to call out my profession, but I am a little happy to cause some well deserved uncomfortableness. Look, I have a battery of K-12 teacher slips noting my problems with authority and the status quo. I have also realized that I am happiest when I question my friends, disagree with them (even when I agree with them), and push others to justify their positions. (I may piss off a lot of people, but fuck 'em. I mean they should be secure in their positions if they are sound. Plus, I provide tasty malt beverages ie the great equalizer.)

So without further psychological adieu, I want to discuss grades at the collegiate level. As I noted in a previous post, this is something that appeared on my radar screen that deserves attention. I am going to focus on my institution but this is not unique to it, nor is it unique to public colleges. This is a systemic problem that must be addressed or if not addressed maybe it's time we rethink our mission statement. For example, a recent study looking a the % of grades distributed by private and public colleges over time showed the following:

Rojstaczer & Healy 2010
In 1960, both private and public schools were indistinguishable regarding grade distribution. Furthermore, this distribution shows a predominance of C, with slightly less Bs and few As. There were even fewer Ds and Fs in relation to As, but there is a clear bell curve distribution of grades. I have to admit this makes sense to me. I would not expect a preponderance of Ds and Fs at the college level in 1960. High school graduates were not expected to go to college, so there was a bias to those who did. If you applied and were accepted into college, it is doubtful you were unprepared or not able to handle the work. (Obviously there were issues of overt racism and sexism that played into these numbers, but the point is that college was an 'elite' institution. (It was 'elite' for both democrats and republicans, so shut the fuck up.))

By 1980 a shift occurred, which continued through 2007. In private schools, the % of As and Bs increased compared to public schools. However, this is not the comparison you should make. Rather, see how the private schools compare over time, the green solid (1960) line is your reference. There is a huge shift to the B grade (in 1980) and then the A grade (in 2007).  You can repeat this for public schools and see the exact same trend: a shift from C --> B --> A from 1960 --> 1980 --> 2007!!! 

The question is why? If we break the data down more finely we see:
From here
Holy crap! WTF happened between 1964 and 1975??? I mean what could it be and why would it matter? Oh wait I know...
The Vietfuckingnam War
The fucking Vietnam War. You may be too young to remember (I am), but there was a draft. A fucking draft, where young men were forced to serve and fight for their lives in a war old white guys deemed necessary. Of course there were exemptions, like: being in college, being a farmer, being in the clergy, being the son of a rich white guy. It is important to remember that almost 60,000 US young men were killed in Vietnam. (Although it is interesting to note that many young men who were exempt from serving in Vietnam were the biggest proponents of the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars...funny that.) 

Let me ask you. You are a teacher and the grades you give out will determine whether a young man can stay in the US or have to join the legion of troops being killed in a war justified by a 'weapons of mass destruction' type rationale. The sad thing is that the current wars being fought are not front and center in the minds of Americans, the current wars are being fought by a sliver of a minority of Americans. We might put a magnetic bumper sticker or post some bullshit picture on facebook, but the fact is the vast majority of us do somewhere between jack and shit to support the troops. Rewind a few decades, there is a draft and many men are going to college in order to avoid it. As an instructor in said college at said time, how comfortable are you giving to a fine young man a C, D, or F that may very well ship him off to war if he isn't well connected? I have to admit, I would almost certainly be inflating my grades to protect these young men from war. You can afford to be an ideologue regarding grades in the abstract, but the point is ~60,000 US troops were killed and 150,000 were wounded (FYI the Iraq war amount to 4,500 deaths and 36,000 wounded). As an instructor in the deferment years, you have to own these issues.

A's FTW, from here.
Now that being said, why didn't the GPA drop after the Vietnam War? More importantly, why did it start increasing again starting in 1985 and continuing through today? Remember in private schools in 2007, almost 50% of all grades are an A (compared with 15% in 1960 when the pool of applicants was much smaller and arguable more select)! Look at the left figure, which is analogous to the one above, you can see that the grade of B and F is relatively stable, but Cs and Ds have nosedived and As have soared. You should see that the problem is as bad as possible, the supposedly hardest grade to earn, A, is the most popular grade.

Looking at my school specifically, again this is a national problem not institutional, the trend is similar.
From here, grades for the Fall semester of 2011
This represents that # grades given out in a single semester, Fall of 2011, by year (1000 = freshmen; 2000 = sophomore; 3000 = junior; 4000 = senior; 5000 = graduate). My institution, the bottom row, shows that 38-46% of all grades are As. This is in keeping with national averages. But what does this mean?

My university policy states (see figure right):
from here

So an A is 'outstanding', a B 'significantly above', a C meets requirements, a D fails to meet requirements but worthy of credit, and an F is not even listed. We can assume an F is does not meet requirement and is not worthy of credit.

Think about this. 36-46% of all students in all classes are OUTSTANDING! Presumably another 25-35% are significantly above requirements. This represents 61-81% of all students in all course are significantly above or outstanding! Maybe, just maybe, our bar (and the bar at all schools) is too low.

Why does this matter? Isn't it a good thing that students earn such high grades?

In response let me ask, do you think it was worthwhile to differentiate the A students from the C students from the F students in 1960? I do. It's not that C's are poor, C's represent the student met course requirements. If the course requirements allow most if not all students to receive an A, then maybe the course should have higher requirements.

The problem of grade inflation is important. First, students who really excel in a course should get the recognition associated with that competency. When 25/35 students receive an A, there is no way to differentiate the majority of the students. Are all 25 students really outstanding? What if you increased the requirements would all 25 continue to excel or uniformly show less competency? I expect not, maybe you could identify those truly outstanding students.

Second, what about intercollegiate competition? For example, see below. 
From here.
This represents the grade breakdown of some of the different colleges at the UMNTC. CBS, the college of biological sciences, and CFANS, the college of forestry agriculture, and natural sciences, show striking differences in the %A's earned particularly in the undergraduate levels 1000-4000. This means that a student graduating from CFANS with a GPA of 3.25 could be considered a stronger candidate for a job than the CBS student with a GPA of 3.15. However, it is clearly easier to 'earn' an A in CFANS than in CBS, which is not a factor the job interviewer is aware of. (There's also the fact that the average ACT scores of incoming CBS students is higher than CFANS students arguably suggesting that CBS students are generally stronger than CFANS students as a confounding factor.)

Maybe CBS should lower its standards to be more competitive with CFANS. This is probably an issue that promoted the overall spike in grade inflation nationally. The idea that our students are disadvantaged compared to the other university or our students are as good as private school students or our students are better than public school students just keeps driving grades up and up. The problem is that increase in earned grade comes with a decrease in information available with said grade. Which of the several thousand 3.5+ GPA students is truly remarkable in a particular field? Does the job interview distinguish between these candidates or simply identify those candidates that interview well? Of course this focus on job readiness concerns me for different reasons which will be the focus of a future post(s).

Just to bring this full circle and back to teaching at my institution, which I m sure is similar elsewhere. The UMN policy for a credit hour is as follows:
Student workload expectations per undergraduate credit. For fall or spring semester, one credit represents, for the average University undergraduate student, three hours of academic work per week (including lectures, laboratories, recitations, discussion groups, field work, study, and so on), averaged over the semester, in order to complete the work of the course to achieve an average grade. One credit equals 42 to 45 hours of work over the course of the semester (1 credit x 3 hours of work per week x 14 or 15 weeks in a semester equals 42 to 45 hours of academic work). Thus, enrollment for 15 credits in a semester represents approximately 45 hours of work per week, on average, over the course of the semester.
So for a standard 3 credit course, meets three times a week for 50 minutes, the average student is expected to work 9 hours. This is the average college student, not the average human being. You do not get to average in uneducated impoverished people of the same age. Also you should read that statement carefully. It is not simply the average amount of work for the average college student, it is the average amount of work for that student to receive an average grade, in other words a C. 9 hours per week to earn a C in a three credit course. 45 hours a week to run the gamut of C's, if you are an average student. Some students, almost half in fact, will be below average.

The problem is that the solution is hard. I cannot solve it in my courses. If I give a bell curve distribution, even if it looks like the 1960s (it does), then the most I will accomplish is to drive students out of my courses and into my colleagues. This could negatively impact my yearly evaluations (tenure is a good thing). My university cannot solve this problem. If UMN designates a more rigorous grade distribution, the big ten schools (of which there are 14 at last count) could recruit students at a huge advantage over UMN, which would effect enrollment and tuition dollar revenue. Really this problem needs to be addressed at a national level by the colleges and universities themselves. If it is not, it will not be long before state and federal officials look at the numbers I showed above and started questioning the value of a college education. Indeed this is already happening although the focus is not on rigor. This also feeds into the pervasive idea that a college education is a job training education, it's not although it can be (another forthcoming post(s)). If all these A's we are giving out are not helping students land awesome jobs, then why are states contributing to the funding of these colleges?

Racism Alive and Well in America, Example #35,672

Jason Cole wrote an article on Yahoo Sports (yeah, I know) regarding the absence of any minority hires for any of the 15 available head coach or general manager positions in the NFL. Currently, it is 14/15, with the 15th to come soon (and expected to be another white guy). Those are the facts. 

The NFL instituted the 'Rooney Rule,' which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manager, because many owners would simply not bother considering someone with more melanin than their neighbors. That has helped slightly, although there are apparent cases of teams interviewing candidates simply to check off the box. The 'Rooney Rule' has helped minority candidates to at least get a foot in the door and some consideration they often would not have gotten before. One of the continuing problems is that there are very few minority coaches in the coordinator ranks, which is where most new head coaches come from. To address this, the NFL is being asked to expand the Rooney Rule to include the coordinator position and several assistant coaching positions.

The NFL is not being asked to institute a quota system nor are teams being asked to consider hiring unqualified people. What is trying to be done is to have teams consider candidates they may unconsciously (or not so unconsciously) overlook. Why would NFL teams have to be overtly forced to do this? Well, the teams are composed of human beings just like trolls people commenting on Yahoo columns. Let's see what these Yahoo yahoos have to say about the idea (my replies in red).


  • scott
    139Please sign in to rate a Thumb UpPlease sign in to rate a Thumb Down4
    Scott  •  17 hours ago
    best person for the job end of story. stop playing the race card
    7 Replies
  • Scott S
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    Scott S  •  14 hours ago
    Or how about we talk to and hire the best qualified candidates...

    But I guess that's not "progressive" enough

    Good point Scotts, except for reality. I guess the reason women were not seen in CEO positions in the 60s and 70s is that women are no good at business. Probably the same reason men were doctors and women were nurses. You know it is probably easier to hirer the best candidates, if you did not toss out a large number of football experts based on the color of their skin.
  • x
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    X  •  17 hours ago
    how about we expand the rooney rule to say we look at lack of whites as receivers and defensive backs ? Lets see some diversity there too...How about we look at the NBA and make that be 50 percent white on the court at all times? Sound silly too ? Because it is silly ,let those who deserve the... More
    12 Replies
  • Evan B
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    Evan B  •  18 hours ago
    Ugh, the Rooney Rule is so stupid. Who cares what color any of these people are (and why not require them to interview both genders while they are at it). Skin color has no bearing whatsoever on how good or bad a coach will be. Any team that automatically eliminates minorities from consideration... More

    It is interesting that there are no women in NFL coaching positions. Of course it is obviously because vaginas make it impossible to understand and teach blocking schemes. BTW many people overtly care about skin color in the US, remember those lovely 'put the white back in white house T-shirts'? Boy, were those a hoot! Beyond the overt KKK supporters, many more people have subconscious skin color biases (myself included).

  • veedub
    68Please sign in to rate a Thumb UpPlease sign in to rate a Thumb Down4
    Veedub  •  18 hours ago
    If this keeps up I'm going to write the NBA and ask for a "Larry Bird" rule, must have at least one White starting player.
    3 Replies
  • constructive
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    Constructive  •  15 hours ago
    Lets expand it. There are no starting white running backs and very few white receivers. God forbid we go to the NBA. Their response would be ability. I agree with that but stop shoving blacks down our throat. If a person who is black has the ability and smarts to run a team don't you think... More
    10 Replies

    No, please go to the NBA. I think your privilege is showing through a little though.
  • D
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    D  •  1 hour 30 minutes ago
    Black people wont be satisfied til they are the majority in all postions in all careers or sports. 2 awful coaches get fired who happen to be black....and a bunch of strong white candidates get hired - no one questions whether the best people were hired, no just question whether enough black... More
  • Steve E
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    Steve E  •  17 hours ago
    40 years of forcing blacks down our throats, and race relations are the worst ever.
    3 Replies

    One wonders why race relations may be the worst ever (probably worse than in 1862 or 1964) after '40 years of forcing blacks down our throats'. WTF Steve?

  • Steve E
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    Steve E  •  18 hours ago
    I think Yahoo Sports isn't diverse enough. Let's replace Cole with a black female, with a handicap.

I noted several times the potential for unconscious bias regarding race. There is a lovely little online demo run by Harvard that you can use to see if you have some underlying racial preference. If you want to learn a bit about yourself with regards to subconscious feelings on race (you may not like the results) go here and take the Race IAT demo test. My results are below.

You have completed the African American - European American IAT.
Your Result

Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for European American compared to African American.

Thank you for your participation. Just below is a breakdown of the scores generated by others. Most respondents find it easier to associate African American with Bad andEuropean American with Good compared to the reverse.
Race score distribution
Many of the questions that you answered on the previous page have been addressed in research over the last 10 years. For example, the order that you performed the response pairing is influential, but procedural corrections largely eliminate that influence (see FAQ #1). Each visitor to the site completes the task in a randomized order. If you would like to learn more about the IAT, please visit the FAQs and background information section.
You are welcome to try additional demonstration tasks, and we encourage you to register (easy) for the research site where you will gain access to studies about more than 100 topics about social groups, personality, pop culture, and more.

Does this mean I'm a racist? No (it doesn't mean I'm not either). It does suggest that I have a subconscious bias towards people who appear to be of European descent than of African descent, which may be worth considering when I interview candidates for a research technician. (I specifically used the word 'appear' because person A could genetically be 95% European but have the few traits we associate with African, like more melanin, and person B could genetically be 95% African but have the few traits we associate with European. In this case, our eyes tell us that person A is of African descent and person B is of European descent. However, the reality is the opposite.)