Getting that A, by means fair and foul

This week’s Capital Times leads with a story on grade inflation at UW-Madison.  I’m with ex-chancellor John Wiley on this:  “Grade inflation is one of those topics that initially seem clear and simple, but become murkier and more confusing the longer you think about them.”  I more or less stand by what I wrote about grade inflation in Slate in 2002.  The discussion on grade inflation has improved since then, actually:  I think people generally understand now that our moral standing doesn’t rest on whether our shorthand for “student did fine, showed they basically learned the material, is about average among classmates” is “B+” or “C.”  The Cap Times focuses on the more important question of whether different grading standards between departments creates weird incentives for undergraduates.

“I’m trying to get into medical school and it’s frustrating,” says Sheala M_____, a junior majoring in pharmacology and toxicology.  “I can work my butt off and come out of school with a 3.5 in my major, and a women’s study major going pre-med can come out with a 3.9 due to a much easier schedule. All of my courses have very strict policies — some where only 10 percent or 20 percent can get A’s.”

If you like statistics and large .pdf files you can look directly at the source of the article’s numbers: the registrar’s data for GPA in every department in Madison in 2008-2009, broken down by course number and class year.  For instance:  Sheala M_____ is required to take statistics, pathology, and biochem, which have average GPAs around 3.  (All give well above 20% A’s.)  The courses in her major, on the other hand, will be  in the pharmaceutical sciences department, where the average undergrad GPA is 3.43 and 46% of the grades are A.  The corresponding figures for women’s studies are 3.5 and 48%; not much of a thumb on the med school admission scales.  (Remember, the women’s studies pre-med has to take orgo too!)  That said:  I think the weird incentives are real and I think they’re bad.

Meanwhile, at my alma mater, Winston Churchill HS in Potomac, MD, up to 50 students may have broken into the school computer system and changed their grades.    The description of WCHS’s current reliance on computer-graded multiple-choice tests is sort of depressing.  But the worst part is I now have to stop making fun of my friends who went to high school with Blair Hornstine.

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3 thoughts on “Getting that A, by means fair and foul

  1. Dirty Davey says:

    I like to play with the economic metaphor–how do you know whether increased salaries (grades) are due to systemic “inflation” or are a result of increased worker (student) productivity? Looking solely at the grades and their distribution does not actually provide a way of making this distinction–and yet it is the only real evidence provided by those who deplore “inflation” and deny that improved student performance is a factor.

    The decline of the “gentleman’s C” coincided rather well with the decline of the “gentleman”–especially at elite colleges, the proportion of students who are happy to take a C and walk away with a degree is now vanishingly small.

  2. David says:

    Do you think you could change it to Sheala M. or something? I am friends with Sheala, and she hates that this is the first thing that pops up when you google her.

  3. JSE says:

    Changed. It may take a while for Google to notice, though.

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