31 January 2010

The Ups and Downs of Grades

I'm never quite sure what is meant by the term "grade inflation." Does it reference a student who gets a grade that is higher than what has been earned/deserved (however that is defined)? Or are we talking something larger in scale---that out of any given student population there should always be a normal distribution of grades and any distribution which has a positive skew means that some sort of grade-related shenanigans are occurring?

Arkansas is judging grade inflation as a mismatch between a grade on a transcript and a score on a standardized test (via Memphis Daily News):
The Arkansas Department of Education says 58 public high schools inflated Algebra I and geometry grades last year.

The action means graduates of those schools face additional requirements to qualify for the new Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship. The scholarship is funded by the lottery and could be worth up to $5,000 a year.

Graduates of the 58 schools will have to earn more than the minimum 2.5 grade point average or earn more than the minimum 19 on the ACT college entrance exam.

The inflation report compares the grades of students who made an A or B in Algebra I and geometry in the 2008-09 school year — but scored at below-proficient levels on state exams.
There are two points of interest here for me. First of all, the state exam represents what a student knows on a given day about only a sample standards selected for that test---not what a student understands about Algebra or Geometry on the whole. However, I can also see the other side of the argument here. If a "well-taught hard-working" student has been provided a standards-based education, then the sample score should reflect the overall score. If you have a teacher who starts on page one of the textbook and just keeps working forward, regardless of relevance to learning targets (or instructional adjustments), then you're definitely going to have a mismatch between the scores.

The assumption, of course, is that the test score is not only accurate, but will always be lower than the grade. Otherwise, there is no "grade inflation." I have to think that there are going to be students for whom the reverse is true---the blow the top off the state test and earn a D or F in their math class. This happens when factors like late work or missing work or non-academic factors get rolled into the grade. You end up with a kid who knows the standards, but the grading scale only counts that as part of the score.

I don't believe in grade inflation, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny. I do believe that there are inaccurate grades and Arkansas would do well to address that issue as opposed to punishing kids because schools/teachers need help with grading practices.

Even more mythical---or so I thought---was grade deflation. Until now, I can't recall a single news article that I've seen which describes such an issue. (via New York Times)
When Princeton University set out six years ago to corral galloping grade inflation by putting a lid on A’s, many in academia lauded it for taking a stand on a national problem and predicted that others would follow.
Galloping grade inflation! Jumpin' Jehosaphat! It's a national problem...or not.

But the idea never took hold beyond Princeton’s walls, and so its bold vision is now running into fierce resistance from the school’s Type-A-plus student body.

With the job market not what it once was, even for Ivy Leaguers, Princetonians are complaining that the campaign against bulked-up G.P.A.’s may be coming at their expense.

It is no secret that grades are currency. They buy things---from cheaper car insurance rates to athletic eligibility, scholarships, and college entrance to a final ticket to the working world. Princeton students and families have paid a lot of money for that Golden Diploma Ticket. You can argue all you like about whether or not being able to fork over tuition is enough to entitle someone to a sheepskin, but the school isn't playing fair, either:

In September, the student government sent a letter to the faculty questioning whether professors were being overzealous in applying the policy. And last month, The Daily Princetonian denounced the policy in an editorial, saying it had “too many harmful consequences that outweigh the good intentions behind the system.”

The undergraduate student body president, Connor Diemand-Yauman, a senior from Chesterland, Ohio, said: “I had complaints from students who said that their professors handed back exams and told them, ‘I wanted to give 10 of you A’s, but because of the policy, I could only give five A’s.’ When students hear that, an alarm goes off.”

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of the undergraduate college at Princeton, said the policy was not meant to establish such grade quotas, but to set a goal: Over time and across all academic departments, no more than 35 percent of grades in undergraduate courses would be A-plus, A or A-minus.

I realize that college is not a standards-based environment. However, if a student completes the requirements of a course at a top level, shouldn't s/he receive an A? How does one justify a cutoff of one-third of the population?

It would appear that schools at every level need to take some time to really think about what a grade does and should represent. Until then, artificial terms such as "grade inflation" don't help the discussion---and they certainly don't support students.

Update: Looks like grade inflation isn't just for kids. NYC plans to change the way it "grades" public schools so that not so many will have A's and B's. You can read more in this NYT article.


Cathryn said...

As a student, I hated when professors told us that half the class would fail--this was nearly 30 years ago--mind you. As a college professor, I set a grade points. To earn the top of the grade points on each subject, students must hit top performance. They are earned in my class--not given.

JJ said...

The teachers and administration our currently engaged in a debate or grades and modifying assignments.

At what point do things become too watered down. If standards are set shouldn't the students meet them?

Roger Sweeny said...

I was listening to a fellow teacher talk about one kind of "grade inflation" a little while ago. She said she gives easier tests than she did 5 or 10 years ago because students are generally doing worse on the tests. If she gave the same tests, the school and the parents would consider the grades too low. So today's A minus represents the same performance as yesterday's B.

Another kind of grade inflation would be giving the same assessments but scaling them higher. So a state might have a statewide reading assessment. If the questions are the same and the "proficient" score is lowered from 75 out of 100 to 65 out of 100, that is grade inflation.

The Science Goddess said...

RT and Roger---It's interesting that you commented on related ideas. It made me think about the various re-scalings of the SAT over the years...how a 1600 (or 2400 now) is not really the same. I think these could be examples of grade inflation. I also have to wonder about changes to curriculum and instruction along the way. Is a test in a colleague's class "harder" now because students learn fewer/different concepts or have access to different curriculum materials...or is it due to a kids aren't as bright sort of thing. Would be interesting to find out what's happening.

Jason Buell said...

I have nothing to add here except to echo.

re: Higher ed. That doesn't really bother me. You choose a school. You pay to get in. Nobody is forcing you.

Public ed is different. There are certainly equity issues. I remember reading that an A student in a low SES school scores about the same in math as a D student in a high SES school. Clearly there's a disconnect.

On the flip side, as you point out, there's a real problem that the public (and they're not 100% wrong) thinks that standardized test scores are a better measurement for learning than grades.

The issue is, again as you point out, not grade inflation, but grade definition. To quote Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." We all have our own special definition of what grades are and should represent. Until we can agree, all that other dithering is useless.

As an aside, grade inflation arguments always seem like your grandpa telling you how much harder it was back in his day.Kids are so dumb now! You can't be an A student! In my day you'd have got an F and liked it because you'd have been proud just be around other people so much smarter than you!