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Inflation of the Educational Kind

Today, I came across a couple of articles on grade inflation, and they resonated with me for several reasons:  I’ve noticed the increased pressures and tendencies to do it, the authors identified the same causes I did independently, and I believe some of the current political controversies about higher ed have the potential to make the problem worse.

The first article talks about the causes, listing pressure from students, administration, colleagues, and even ourselves.

 I have students come to me at the end of the semester with their entire semester’s portfolio of papers wanting to examine every single point taken off to see if the sum total of ‘mis-grades’ will bump them up. My response is to remind them they’ve had all semester to challenge those points, and I’m not going to do it now. I warn them on the first day that if the points will matter in December, make them matter in September. They also like to complain that if they had gotten x number of points on this one assignment, they’d have the higher grade. I remind them that they have a semester to make their points, and if they had chosen to follow directions at any one of these ten other places, they’d have those points, so for every spot of blame they claim for the grader, I can point to several genuine errors they made. The hard part is helping the graders withstand the onslaught when students go to them directly, or when it makes a pass/fail difference for the student.

Because administrations look at student evals, and there is a correlation between giving higher grades and getting good evals, there is some pressure to raise grades. Furthermore, the way some schools charge tuition can encourage grade inflation. I know of one faculty member with a straight scale passing rate of 90% in a challenging course (meaning 90% of students pass without the use of a curve), who was admonished by an administrator to cut their 10% failure rate in half because it cost the college too much money when a student failed and had to retake a course. The twisted logic here is that the school charges the same tuition whether the student takes 12 or 18 hours, so when a student fails a course, they essentially retake it for free, so the department loses money when a student fails. Twisted.

If your colleagues inflate grades, then if you don’t, you look like a bad teacher. This is especially problematic as students are arriving at college less and less prepared each year. They are just as smart, but nowhere near the preparedness and maturity former classes exhibited.

As good teachers recognize their imperfections in teaching, they tend to second guess where they made mistakes themselves and tend to want to give complaining students the benefit of the doubt.

All four of these causes are exacerbated by the now nearly universal approach by colleges and universities to treat their degrees as products and the students as customers, complete with the ‘customer is always right’ mantra, which puts the inmates in charge of the asylum and penalizes all faculty for the abuses of a few by taking away much of their authority and autonomy as subject matter experts. Many faculty cave to students because they know or strongly fear that the chair or dean will not back them up if the student complains up the chain of command, and the students know this, and have developed a strong entitlement mentality.

The second article, also discusses grade inflation in addition to the challenge of grading consistency on writing assignments, and what some schools are doing to combat these:  hiring outside graders who are anonymous and who don’t have a relationship with the students to prevent bias, or having advanced computer programs grade the papers based on criteria set by the instructor. This article cites peer-reviewed research demonstrating that grade inflation does occur and that in their study, an ‘A’ was the most common grade assigned by traditional graders. However, when using remote graders, this was reduced. Also, use of ‘robot’ graders proved to be far more consistent than human graders who get tired or adjust their grading over time. Both of these results are somewhat surprising because conventional wisdom says that having human graders familiar with the class are the most effective to find nuances in writing quality and accounting for ‘special circumstances.’

My concern with some of the intense scrutiny higher ed is currently receiving is that it is just as myopic as any other transparency issue. By focusing on ‘quality of teaching’ issues, we tend to overlook student preparedness and effort. Since teachers are being paid to teach, since they are the professionals, any fault in the system must be theirs and theirs alone. Many administrations are happy to allow this misconception to continue because it takes the magnifying glass off of them. The students have become so addicted to positive affirmation that they often fail to see their own responsibility and culpability. “They just don’t understand my situation and why my problems are unique/worse/deserving of special treatment.”

There are ‘bad’ professors, and even ‘good’ professors make mistakes like any human. There are also pressures to compromise standards. But many if not most faculty are reasonable to excellent teachers working (like many today) in environments of increased demands with fewer resources. I’d just like to see our critics take a step back and look at the full situation rather than go for what appears to be low hanging fruit.


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