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?


Anonymous said...

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.

I earned my degree in a natural resource field from a school of agriculture in a state system. Our professors told us several times accross years that although our degree was in demand, the agencies that would be hiring us knew full well that our courses were not exceptionally difficult, and that a low GPA (C-B) wouldn't cut it when it came time to interview. Possibly interviewers do know that there are differences between schools and colleges within universities?

Kyle_Smith said...

You forget to account for generational intelligence differences. According to the Flynn effect, each generation's average IQ increases on standard deviation. And with majority of students taking courses in fields where very little change occurs, it is conceivable that grades are increasing due to intelligence increasing. This is a bullshit argument because if it were legitimate teachers wouldn't have to curve classes, however the Flynn effect is generally accepted.

Becca said...

HA! The intellectual contortions you drive yourself to to explain grade inflation are hilarious. Is it so unfathomable women and minorities might actually *earn* better grades (through diligence, if your misogyny and racism won't allow you to even consider the idea it's innate intelligence)?

Rueny said...

It will be interesting to see the statistics in future. We may finally be able to make fun off No Child Left Behind with concrete data. Until then, not-so-standardized tests.

The Lorax said...

@Becca WTF are you talking about? What 'intellectual contortions'? Where did you get the idea that I think women and minorities might not *earn* better grades? Did you read this post or something someone put on twitter or other site and simply come in to ragevomit? What are the asterisks around earn for?

I think you are trying to make a sincere point, but I do not know what it is nor am I willing to guess. Want to try again? If so please keep the accusations of misogyny and racism to yourself.

The Lorax said...

@GF#### and maybe Becca.

First IQ is not a good proxy for anything other than IQ.

What I am wondering is if either of you are suggesting that students are more intelligent now than students from the last generation and even smarter than the one before that? If so what do you attribute this to?

Kyle_Smith said...

I am actually suggesting that students now are smarter than students from previous generations. I attribute it to a little thing called the internet that previous generations never had. And today's students don't learn incorrect ideas like previous generations students did. More is known and the knowledge is more reliable.

Rueny said...

I would assume students are book smarter, because as science progresses so do our text books. We all know fellow students who memorize the lecture notes or text book, but don't understand the concepts. What matters is can students translate what they've learned into independent research. Unfortunately there is no way to accurately judge this. Another question is since (presumably) students are graduating with higher GPAs, does any one believe the level of common sense knowledge is going down?

RBH said...

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 ...

I taught through that period, starting with an evening course at a major university. In the late 1960s and early 1970s I'd regularly get appeals for a better grade or 'they'll draft me and send me to 'Nam.'

Later I taught for 20 years at an expensive private college, and found the students little better than those I taught in the 1960s. I most recently taught at the college level in 2009, and the students were comparable to those I taught in the 1960s, though implicit grading standards pushed for higher grades for comparable levels of work.

The Lorax said...

@GF6974 I agree with Rueny. I think you are using a definition of intelligence that few neuroscientists or psychologists would use. If the ability to memorize factoids is the definition of intelligence, then anyone who can conduct a google search is a genius.

I agree that there is more information out there. However, not all information is equal. There are numerous websites that will tell you vaccines cause autism. Do these reflect reality as well as those sites that say vaccines do not cause autism? Only one can be correct, so which is it? How does one decide which information reflects reality better? That, I think, is one aspect of intelligence. Your definition of intelligence makes me sad and baby Jesus weep.