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Grade Massaging
May 12, 2011 Education

The problem of grade inflation has been well documented. I believe however that grade inflation comes from three places, while my sense is that the public thinks it only comes from two. The first common view about grade inflation is simply that professors are awarding higher grades than they did in the past. We do not need to get into the reasons for this now. But surely this has to do with a changing culture and one where students are growing up in public school environments where “feeling good” is more important than doing well. But there are certainly competitive (arms-racy) reasons why this trend might be happening. That issue requires much more space than we have here to explore.

The second view might be that some of the increase in average grades over time is due to students selectively taking courses and majors that are easier than in the past. Again there are myriad possible reasons for this, and they range from the difficulty firms and grad schools have in conducting their own evaluations of merit all the way to “new stuff is being taught and it just happens to be easier” and a whole host of ideas in between (e.g. changes to the curriculum). So the idea is something like, in the past, lots of folks suffered through abstract algebra as part of what it meant to be a college student, and received average grades of a C in it, while today more students are taking Spanish, and receive average grades of A-.

The third view is the point of this post. And both students and colleges are complicit in it. We’ll again leave the reasons why this is happening to your imagination, but I wanted to illustrate what happens. Basically, colleges have evolved to the point where students are given several chances of “undoing” the impacts of receiving a bad grade, and we have also allowed students to do things for grades that never ought to be the purview of a serious college education.

What do I mean by second chances? These are only a few of the things Rochester students can do to avoid dealing with the impacts of a C-. Most colleges sensibly have an “add/drop” period at the beginning of each semester to allow students to “shop” for courses beyond just having to look at syllabuses and course descriptions and recommendations and warnings from friends. This makes sense. However, this “add/drop” deadline has been extended to do something more than just “getting a taste” for the class. You would think that a school would allow, at most, 2 weeks from the start of the term for this period. After 2 weeks, you are no longer shopping and it is certainly conceivable that missing more than 2 weeks at the start of some classes (e.g. newtonian mechanics?) might seriously inhibit your ability to learn the material for the subsequent 12 weeks. Well, we at the U of R have extended this period to a full month! Our classes this spring started on January 10th and the add/drop deadline for this semester was on February 8. ┬áMost classes have provided students with some evaluation by this point in time, and now a kid sensing it might be a course that actually requires you to work has an easier time dropping it than before. Of course, you would think that this might actually leave the grades lower than with a less generous add-drop policy. Why? Because now kids are starting their new courses a full month behind, meaning that they would have a hard time catching up. Of course, the professors and college now each basically “excuse” students from missing the first 4 weeks of classes when we allow them to add a class at this time. For example, in my Environmental Economics class, if you come in 4 weeks late, you probably have missed 2 to 3 seriously tough quizzes (out of 8), and missed out on two paper assignments plus 8 out of 28 lectures. Yet I am asked to “excuse” them from this work. But more important perhaps is that you probably don’t see many kids adding those kinds of classes, and instead adding classes where you simply have to write some long paper for a midterm and a final for your evaluation.

This post would be incredibly long if I described in any detail all of the other things we do, so let me list them with some brief comments.  To review, these are a few of the things we do to allow students to massage their grades, manicure their transcripts, feel good about themselves, and present a misleading view of their ability to graduate schools, parents and employers:

  1. Extended add-drop deadlines (see above).
  2. Allowing withdrawals (with no penalty) in the eleventh week of a 14 week semester. So, a student could have completed over 70% of the course material, see their performance, and then withdraw from the course to avoid taking the hit of a bad grade. Week Eleven! All that shows up on the transcript is a “W” and then that W goes away when the student retakes the course.
  3. Allowing students to take a course pass-fail. Mind you, this is in addition to allowing students to “audit” any course that they would like to sit in on. I don’t know the maximum number of pass-fails allowed, but I have certainly seen transcripts with more than one on them. Not only do we allow this option, but we allow students to decide to claim the pass or fail option also in week ELEVEN. An interesting sidebar to this is that professors do not know which students end up taking the class pass-fail. And for some classes this is remarkably unfair to other students. For example, in my Eco 108 class I randomly assign students into groups of 4 to work on comprehensive research papers together. They are given a group grade (there is a lesson in there of course). Therefore the student doing the pass-fail has even less incentive to be useful than a typical free-rider in such a situation might be. And I am not allowed to put all of the “pass-fail” students into their own group because I am not allowed to know who is choosing to slack off in my class for credit.
  4. Allowing transfer courses to substitute for our most difficult core course requirements and to have those grades simply show up as “pass” rather than for a grade. We allow these courses from almost any institution in the country. For example, it is possible for a student to take our difficult intermediate macro course at a local community college. Instead of taking it here and risking getting a C or worse, they take it somewhere else. So long as they pass, their transcript will simply say, “Pass” and they get the credit for taking the course with no adverse impact to their GPA. Indeed, what this does is actually make the impact of good grades in other easier classes larger. So if this student takes Advanced Underwater Basketry and gets an A, that A helps their GPA more than it does for a kid who does not take advantage of this opti0n. Sounds a lot like our progressive income tax system.
  5. Allowing students to retake courses. If you get a D the first time around, just take it again, perhaps with an “easier” professor, and you can replace your grade without penalty (at least we do not award an additional 4 credits for doing this). This retake option even includes the ability to retake it over the summer (see below) when the student is not likely to have the burden of 3 other classes weighing him down.
  6. Allowing internships to be taken for college credit. Yes, we do this, and it is an absolute sham. We have stduents do 20 hours in retail brokerages, home security firms, dressing up as the mascot for the Rochester Red Wings baseball team, working up marketing plans, and much more. While these are often terrific experiences and very worthy endeavors, they are not academic in the least. Formally, the students are supposed to submit a paper at the end of the project, but it simply is a hoop to jump through and not a serious academic evaluation. When I query why we allow this I am told, “well, other schools do it, so we have to.” Even if the things are graded pass/fail that means one less serious course to take at the school. But these are often graded for a letter grade, and I would just love to see the distribution of internship grades across the college.
  7. Allowing students to take “independent study” courses. Typically students will be able to get away with blowing off most of the work for the semester and only do work on their project for a week or two. Typically professors award extremely high grades for the “effort.” Proof that this is the status quo comes from the outright disgust, shock and anger my students direct toward me when they receive a C for their mediocre efforts.
  8. Allowing Teaching Assistants to receive a grade for their work. These students are typically our best students, and when they do their TA jobs they are often doing extremely large amounts of work and doing it very well, so the quality is often deserving of an A. But should students really be given college credit for being a TA? I try to have my TA’s have as much of a teacher-like experience as possible, partly out of my own guilt, but partly because I think they’ll enjoy it more, but I still have a hard time accepting that they get 4 college credits for this and that they typically get an “easy” A for it.
  9. Having a virtually “open” curriculum. Since we no longer have serious requirements for the students, they are free to load up on as many courses as they like in as many fields as they like. One of my favorite economics students last year, who received an A- in each of my Intro and Intermediate Micro courses (a grade that puts him well within the top 15% of performers) did not continue as an econ major because he wanted to get into law school. What did he pick? Anthropology. What was his GPA? Over a 3.9. He is getting a scholarship to Emory Law in the Fall.
  10. Offering difficult core courses during the summer. These courses are typically staffed by graduate students who do not have it in them to grade as strictly as some of us would like to see. For example, our toughest course is Econometrics, and it is the one course that majors generally fear taking. However, a good number of our majors take this course elsewhere (see above) or take it over the summer with a grad student and no longer have to suffer the consequences of the poor grade.
  11. Allowing students to take “Incompletes” for a course. This is a policy that was intended to allow students with emergencies, medical conditions, family issues, etc. to complete a course that they had started when their life situation returned to normal. I see an increasing use of this option among students who have had no serious trouble aside from not being able to handle the workload or course materials, and then get to complete the course either by retaking it, or strategically setting the contract up so that they can do the coursework when they are not otherwise working on other classes, such as completing a Spring course over the summer.

These are merely some of the articulated college policies regarding course taking and the curriculum. I think I’d get myself into trouble if I spilled the beans on what really happens behind closed doors in terms of hand-holding, grading policies, and special treatment of students. You all can imagine what is happening when no one is watching and by now I am sure you understand the misaligned incentives that lead to these nutty outcomes.

"5" Comments
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  2. You offer strong evidence about the factors contributing to grade inflation. I find the “arms race” explanation most compelling — both professors with in a college or university competing to attract students and universities trying to market their graduates. Your tone suggests this is a problem we (or someone: central administration? government?) ought to solve, so I think it is worth asking, who is actually harmed? I cannot imagine that a graduate admissions committee, for example, would be fooled by a “P” in Macroeconomics or three semesters of internship as the school mascot. A few years ago, Jordan Ellenberg went much farther in an article making the case that grade inflation does not matter (Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation). Do you have a different take?

  3. Great questions blink. In a very self-interested sense, I would argue that I am harmed. I do take a moral line here, but in addition, I think it makes me look bad when a student with “average” knowledge at best of something I taught them gets to walk around with a B and not a C. Now, if everyone understands the B is average, I suppose there would be no problem, but my point is that grade inflation and the pressures to normalize grade distributions take us away from recognizing what a true understanding of the material means. So it’s not really the grade I care about, it is some imprimatur that I wish to imprint on people who take my classes. In fact, I am offering such a chance next year by offering oral examinations on a voluntary basis to students who wish to be recognized with some basic level of understanding upon graduation.

    I understand that I am certainly “free” to grade the way I wish, I would quickly be out of students as well as possibly in need of a new profession (it’s one reason in a different world I would have ambitions to start my own school).

    My belief is that grade inflation and a compression in the distribution of grades leads to excessive accrual and focus on credentials (even allowing for the very good example of how a system of only two grades over 32 courses would end up widening the distribution … see tomorrow’s post for what I mean by “interaction” effects). If one cannot signal ability via the simple grading process of college (4 years no less!) then other mechanisms will arise to do that. To the extent that college and these other credentials are not improving real productivity, then these are serious economic costs.

    There are also strong cultural and institutional factors that I think get watered down as a result of the grade inflation culture. Can I quantify that? No, but neither can supporters of the claim that grade inflation does not matter. For example, in a world where students “expect” the average grade to be a B or a B+, it becomes very costly to work with them if indeed they get an “average” grade and it turns into a C. More important, these attitudes translate later in life into entitlement mentality, the belief that effort and outcomes are not as highly correlated as perhaps they might be, the belief that absolute measures of anything do not matter, and so forth. I don’t want to make more of this than I can, after all, I don’t study grade inflation as a matter of my career, but I do know that I am extremely uncomfortable operating in this environment and I have seen a good number of poor outcomes at the student and college level that result from this.

    The grade inflation problem ought not be kept isolated from other things that are happening on campus, and I believe that interacting this problem with others would be where we can understand the real serious costs of this.

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  5. I completely agree with you. There are many policies at UR and probably other schools which make it easy for students to inflate their GPAs and appear more qualified that they actually are. While I find this inflation unsettling, what I am a bit surprised about, is that you find this to be perturbing. In a free market, why shouldn’t a school [looking out for its best interest] employ a policy that attracts students, while at the same time helps it attain a higher rank? I recall one of your articles where you mentioned how you view it as permissible for a politician to buy votes. I’m curious then to know how you’d feel about an exchange between a professor and a student (provided that no coercion is involved and the two willing parties agree to the terms), in which the student purchases a grade from a professor? I view these scenarios as free market exchanges taking place, so I suppose I don’t understand why you find some to be fair while others not?

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