Tag Archives: grade inflation

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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Harvard beats Yale 29-29, both beat Princeton

I’m sorry to say that I only made it to one movie at the Wisconsin Film Festival this year.  But I picked a good one.  I went to see Kevin Rafferty’s Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, a documentary about the most thrilling Harvard-Yale game ever played between two of the best teams Harvard and Yale ever fielded, just because I sincerely like Ivy League football.  But in fact it’s an authentically good documentary whether or not you care about Harvard or college football — though it might be hard going if e.g. you don’t know what “pass interference” means.

I won’t say too much, to avoid spoiling it.  But it’s particularly remarkable how Rafferty manages to develop Yale defenseman Mike Bouscaren, over about five minutes of total screen time, from a comic caricature to a sincerely terrifying villain (drawing hisses and gasps from the packed house) to a thoughtful and even remorseful ex-combatant.  There’s a good interview with Rafferty at the New York Times college sports blog.

In less inspiring Ivy news, Princeton’s admission rate bumped up a half a percentage point and disgruntled seniors went nuts on the Princetonian comment page, decrying the current administration and everything associated with it.  One of the enjoyable things about teaching at Princeton was getting the Princeton Alumni Weekly — that’s right, their alumni magazine is a weekly! — and reading the three pages of cranky letters from alumni with something on their chest about how they do things nowadays. The Princetonian comments are a great opportunity to hear from the cranky alumni of tomorrow.

At the moment, the CAoT are upset about “grade deflation” and the “war on Fun.”  Both got started while I was teaching at Princeton.  The former policy was aimed at the fact that grades in science and engineering classes were about a half-point lower, on average, than those in humanities; so that students who were planning grade-sensitive careers in law or medicine had a weird incentive not to major in science.  The “war on Fun,” refers, I think, to the establishment and promotion of a four-year residential college as an alternative to the eating clubs — and more generally a sense that the administration is hostile to the clubs.  When I was teaching at Princeton, about a quarter of the students weren’t in clubs, and life seemed to be sort of logistically annoying for them.  It’s hard for me to get my head around the idea that club members object to a nice cafeteria for the students who didn’t bicker in.

Oh, and I think “the war on Fun” also includes some kind of rule about registering dorm parties in advance with your RA.  Harvard introduced this policy when I was an undergraduate, and people grumbled about it then, too.  And you know what?  People still had parties.  Message to all undergraduates everywhere — your university is not conspiring to keep you from drinking beer in groups. I promise!

Anyway, the comment thread got linked from lots of places and so there’s some question how many of the posts are from authentic Princeton undergrads.  This, for instance, can’t be real — can it?

I am a triple legacy and I feel I have a more outstanding right to be here than a lot of the so-called Academic 1’s. Princeton used to stand for something, not just be a humorless grade factory. What’s next, bed checks? The Street is a shadow of what it was in my parents’ day and the current workload is just ridiculous.

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