All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


16 July 2011

Who says it's easy?

Via InsideHigherEd, a survey that shows that we're overwhelmed with A's these days in colleges.

The statistics are one thing -- 40+ percent A-grades is a mere numerical fact. Some editor gave the article about the study the title "Easy A" -- but who says it's easy? Maybe 40+ percent of the students are really just that good. (I know... I have trouble saying it with a straight face, but bear with me.)

Of course, if the point of grading is differentiation rather than threshold-signalling, you're going to want finer criteria. That is what the study authors believe, by the way -- they say as much:
It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use . . . as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

Which brings us to this tidbit, quoted from the study:

"When A is ordinary, college grades cross a significant threshold. Over a period of roughly 50 years, with a slight reversal from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America’s institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent," they write. "The evolution of grading has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance. At the other end of the spectrum, some students who were once removed from school for substandard performance have, since the Vietnam era, been carried along. America’s colleges and universities have likely been practicing some degree of social promotion for over 40 years."

Here's the study's conclusion summary:
Conclusions/Recommendations: As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses. Without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.

That's an empirical claim you see there: instructors have gradually lowered their standards. Have they?

Maybe. It may be true that common excellence is a fiction, that grades are inflated, and that the A's that are so liberally distributed aren't actually tied to superior quality work and achievement. But the mere grade numbers by themselves don't prove that. You need to do comparisons not just of grades, but of the work produced by students -- and that would require controlling for certain types of variables like changing curricular design (say, more of an emphasis on specialized, narrow-focused courses over the last few decades, which could affect student work).

Don't get me wrong -- I'm inclined to think they're right. But this is supposed to be a scholarly study, and it seems sort of slapdash, at least what I've read of it.

1 comment:

Rachel Levy said...

Hey Michael,

You might enjoy the Tenured Radical on this topic (and in general). She's smart, a highly entertaining writer, and a prof at our alma mater.

Still enjoying your blog :)