Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grade Inflation and Real Excellence

In talking to one of our program staff, grade inflation was suggested as a reason for student dissatisfaction with their grades. They had received, say, A's, and now they received A- or B+ or... and could never imagine getting a B-.  I am not savvy about what other professors do, but it seems that often the choice is [A, A-, B+], at least for graduate students. I don't think of myself as de-grading students. Rather, it seems their expectations are not up to the competition.

Grades are a way of telling a student how strong is their work, how reliable is what they do. And if they choose to let others know of their grades, or if they are forced to by the requirements for a job application, presumably those grades should be good indicators of performance. It strikes me as unethical to send students out into the world with grades that do not indicate their true strength.

Of course, one might say that a grade is "earned" by following the rules or a rubric, or that tenure is "earned" by your doing a certain number of articles published in certain venues. As for the latter, at strong universities the question that is asked is, What is the contribution of the work?  As for earning a grade in a course, what you really want to ask is, Does this person know how to think and write about this area?  Of course, you might begin by checking all the boxes, and then asking the italicized questions. [One problem is that students often claim that they have done what they are supposed to have done, but they do not tell you, for example, that their work is plagiarized or poorly sourced. Or, having done what they were supposed to do, their work is weak nonetheless. As for faculty tenure, having done what you were supposed to do, the contribution of the work might be considered insignificant.]

Put differently, there are two issues: reliable indicators of the quality of the work and the person's strengths; and, the conflation of a set of criteria with real excellence.

I do understand the concern that the evaluation process be fair, and hence the desire for objective, almost automatic criteria.  But if you want excellence those objective criteria won't be reliable indicators.