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|
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:
|The Vietfuckingnam War|
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.|
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|
My university policy states (see figure right):
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.
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?