Saturday, September 13, 2014

Grade inflation in Ivy League colleges

Grades and grade point averages at Ivy League colleges mean less than they did before, the Economist reports :

In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A........Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.
An earlier piece in the journal takes a rigorous look at whether grade inflation is 'inflation' at all:

.... “inflation” in grades ought to mean that work of a given standard would be awarded an ever higher grade, year by year. The highest permissible grade would therefore have to keep rising: A this year, A-star the next, A-double-star and so forth thereafter, in a ceaseless procession of non-improvement. Because in reality the top grade is fixed, the process is not so much grade inflation as grade compression. This is worse: a distortion in relative prices is more confusing than a uniform upward drift. Grade compression squeezes information out of the system. At the limit, when all Harvard's students get As all the time, the university's grades will yield no information whatsoever. 

Faculty settle for higher grades for students because it makes their job easier, it flatters students and students may return the flattery by giving faculty good grades in their feedback. But grade inflation does interfere the 'signalling' that university education is supposed to be provide employers. One answer could be that employers will find their own ways to distinguish amongst students by using group discussions, case analyses, interviews - and recommendation letters from professors. But the last, as the Economist points out, could mean more work for profs. Better that they devote more energy to having a suitable distribution of grades.

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