Thursday, March 19, 2009

Perhaps I was intemperate....

The Duke Chronicle is running a series of articles this week on grade inflation.

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 An excerpt:

Dr. Nancy Major, associate professor of radiology and evolutionary anthropology, agrees that if there are many students who merit high marks, they should be rewarded accordingly. Major, who has been teaching undergraduates since 2004, said she gives mostly A's, an occasional B and does not recall ever having given a C.

"I teach a very different kind of class," she said. "On the first day I tell everyone what's expected of them to tell them how to get a decent grade in the class. And for me a decent grade in the class is an A."

Well, I got all hepped up, and wrote a letter to the Editor of the Chronicle. Here it is:

Dear Editor:

The news is filled with outrage about AIG, and other Wall Street companies. Seems that they paid out large bonuses, to everyone. Think about it: even though these people did terrible work, and lost billions, they still get bonuses, because they worked hard, or at least they came to work.

I bet a lot of faculty tut-tutted about AIG over their morning New York Times, Starbucks, and double-fiber bran muffin. Then you went to your office and graded a midterm where the low overall grade was an A-. You poor little students. It doesn't matter that your work was appalling. You tried hard. You should still get a high grade.

On the first day of class this semester, I had a waiting list of ten for a large class. I announced in class that I would be giving real grades. "At least ten percent of you will get Cs; maybe more," I told the assembled throng. The next day, the waiting list was 11, and no one had dropped.

The fact is that if you teach a real course, with real content, you can give real grades. If you don't, then you can't. And if you don't give real grades, then you are the cause behind the new AIG mindset: I showed up. Give me my bonus.

In retrospect, I could have been more circumspect.


Christoph said...

This post just made my day. It bothers me when bad students receive good grades. Grades become useless as a quality signal.

Of course this standard shouldn't hold in grad school. People should definitely be awarded Ph.D.s (and pass their prospectuses) just for showing up.

Angus said...

LOL u went all Boudreaux on them!!

nice one

david said...

I give this post a B-

fortyquestions said...

It was a letter way too filled with self-congratulation and low on facts. Some of the material seems to conflict with the word on the street that about half your grades are A's. I'm guessing that people aren't deterred by the mention of C's at the outset of your class because they have a Las Vegas mentality. They've heard you give out a lot of A's and they figure they won't be one of the losers. Here's my response.

Concerning Professor Munger's letter on grade inflation.

While it's good to know someone still gives C's at Duke, something I definitely could not do when I taught there, the issue of how many C's a professor gives is a bit of a red herring. At Duke, C's are given out about 5 percent of the time and that number isn't dropping very much. D's and F's are about 1 percent of all letter grades. The rest are A's and B's.

Because C through F grades are so rare, grade inflation right now at highly selective institutions like Duke is mostly being driven by B's becoming A's. Essentially what is happening is that every year in a class of one hundred, three to four students who were once given B+ to A- grades are seeing their grades go up one notch. The B+ student gets an A-. The A- student gets an A.

At almost every highly selective college and university in this country, over half of all letter grades are A's. Duke is not an exception.

If Professor Munger gives about 10 percent C's, his average grade is likely about 3.3, which was about the average grade at Duke when he arrived on campus in 1997. That was an inflated grade then. It's still an inflated grade. Professor Munger's likely grades in his well attended class are a mere 0.1 less than the average grade given in the social sciences at Duke today. He shouldn't be congratulating himself so heartily.

What Professor Munger doesn't say is whether he grades exactly the same way now as he did in 1997 when he arrived at Duke. Does he give more A and A- grades than he once did? That's exactly what grade inflation is about today.

Mungowitz said...

I think fortyquestions has this right.

To wit, he makes two good points:

1. The letter is awfully pompous and self-congratulatory, yes. Just on the merits, hard to say that is very useful, even if justified.

2. And it really isn't justified. The cause for this spree of LOVIN'ME is thin, at best. I was reacting to classes where the grades are ALL A's, but still.

Tacitus said...

Until the collective voices of undergraduate institutions tell prospective job employers and graduate institutions that "a C is for dutiful, though par, work and an A is for exceptional, above and beyond work," we will get no closer to a solution.

Think of it this way: suppose a small, liberal arts school decides to extract the grade inflation problem from its departments. After four years, all of its graduates have an median grade in the range of 2.5-2.8. No matter what you try to tell prospective employers or graduate institutions, that's a black eye and, in many cases, reason enough not to get an interview or an acceptance letter. Especially, precisely, because the Ivy's, the Dukes, etc. still practice grade inflation and its graduates' GPA are far "superior" than to the small school.

Now, four years later, that particular liberal arts school's US News' ranking drops 50 places because its graduates can't place anywhere near the top jobs or grad schools in consistent numbers. Who knows, maybe its death knell isn't too far off (not that the liberal arts school wasn't in enough trouble).

The problem is not this one professor, but the entire higher education grading scale in general. It is not enough for one professor to change his grading habits; it isn't even enough for one institution to change its grading habits.

If there was anyway to compel colleges and universities to change their grading schools (and in effect, colluding with one another), who is to say one wouldn't cheat just a little bit and raise its avg GPA .2 points to give incentive to prospective students? Then a competitor of that school raises it just a little bit more. Well, then we are back in the same bucket as we are now.

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