Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"Free Students From The Grading Curve"? - That Depends

Loyola freshman Theology class, ca. 1964.

One night's freshman Theology homework for Loyola University, Sept. 1964). In every case HW was marked on a curve with the top ten percent awarded  As,  the next twenty percent Bs, the next 40 percent Cs, the next 20 percent Ds and the lowest ten percent Fs. Students never complained about this grading curve scheme and indeed, expected it - also that in every Theology class at least 10 percent would fail.

This sort of marking would be unheard of in today's grade inflated universities where - for example - 40 percent of all the grades awarded at Harvard are As, which is absurd.

Wharton School (Univ. of Pennsylvania) Professor Adam Grant, who teaches management and psychology, presented a recent  NY Times Sunday Review piece pleading for schools to "free students from the grading curve trap". (Which was the title of his piece).  He begins by pointing out, as I have before, that the most common grade at Harvard was an 'A', i.e. more students received As than any other grade which makes them essentially meaningless.

Grant  then goes on to point out that "at over 200 universities over 40 percent of the grade were in the A realm".   He also correctly observes:

"Among older graduates, figures like these usually elicit a comment involving the words 'coddled', 'damn' and 'millennials'"

Absolutely true, in a sense.  However, I trace most grade inflation to the idiotic teacher evaluations that came in around the late 70s, early 80s . See e.g.

As I noted therein,

"There is NO way in a real universe, there can be such a preponderance of high grades! Go back now to the 1960s, before the emergence of the surreptitious blackmail device known as "teacher evaluations". What did one find, say at Loyola University, or the University of South Florida?  Well, the As were at about 10 percent, with Bs at 20 percent, and 'gentleman's Cs' right at around 40 percent where they ought to be - if conforming to the standard Gaussian distribution or normal curve. Similarly, at the other end of the curve Ds would make up 20 percent and Fs 10 percent. But what do we find today? Barely 5 percent Ds and Fs and Cs marginally higher because college kids consider those failing grades!  This is nuts!"

Basically, any student with more than air between the ears can extort a high grade out of a prof by merely the veiled threat of giving him a lousy evaluation. Since these evaluations are the main instruments used to assess a person for promotion or even to remain on permanent staff (as opposed to adjunct) they are critical.

Grant, contrarian that he is, seems to fret the opposite could happen when he writes:

"But the opposite problem worries me even more: grade deflation. It happens whenever teachers use a forced grading. The top ten percent receive As, the next 30 percent get Bs and so on.:"

He insists it's "mandated by institutions" but is unable to square the claim or basis for real worry with his already cited stat of  40 percent of the grades given out by universities as As.  And if one digs deeper, one will likely find an even bigger inflation proportion for Bs, including at less well known universities.   Much of this can  be traced to tests-exams and even homework assignments that are much too elementary for the levels taught.  If an exam is proper for a given level -  including a 3rd year Harvard course in astrophysics or economics- it should possess considerable discriminatory power.  So, even in a class of 30 Harvard over-achievers it ought to be able to separate out the 10 percent or so who demonstrate peak excellence and really merit As. This as opposed to having such an absurdly easy test that 40 percent or more get As off it.

In truth, the chances of "grade deflation" (illustrating typical economist think to compare grades with inflation-deflation in an economy) are overblown so long as teacher evaluations (leading to too easy exams)  exist and are a major part of assessing performance.  Since there is no chance in the forseeable future that I see evaluations ending, then Grant's worries are misplaced. He'd do better to fret about the ongoing effects of grade inflation on the quality of academic learning, teaching.

Grant's most ludicrous argument is:

"The more important argument against grade curves is that they create an atmosphere that's toxic by pitting students against one another.  At best, it creates a hyper-competitive culture, and at worst it sends students the message that the world is a zero sum game."

Well, I hate to break this to our Wharton School prof but the world does operate according to a zero sum game. But I am not at all surprised that a guy based at an economic enclave wouldn't believe so, because when they work out their abstract econ models they always exclude "externalities".

These glaring and inexcusable ecosystem omissions (as global monetary values), were assayed for one particular year in the study Putting a Price Tag on Nature's Bounty, Science, Vol. 276, p. 1029):

Ecosystem Area (10^6 HA), Global Value (trillions)

Open Ocean ------ 33,200 ---- 8.4

Coastal ----------- 3, 102 -----12.6

Tropical Forest ------1, 900 ----- 3.8

Other Forests ------- 2,955 -----0.9

Grasslands ------------3,898 -----0.9

Wetlands --------- 330 -------4.9

Lakes and Rivers ------ 200 ------ 1.7

Cropland -----------1,400 --------0.1

--------- Total Worth $33.3 Trillion

Until economists incorporate such "externalities" in terms of assessing costs, they are fooling themselves that they have any real science and that the world-planet is NOT a zero sum game.

In terms of human dynamics, wealth this is also true. The more wealth -resources accrued (in whatever form not just money) by the top 1 percent, the less is available to anyone else. Not only that but we already know that degraded energy in terms of EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) is getting lower and lower.  See e.g.

As noted therein:

What we already know, and this isn't even up for debate, is that the EROEI or energy returned on energy invested, has been steadily decreasing for almost two decades.  In the case of oil alone, what used to engender an EROEI of 16:1 to 19:1 several decades ago is now headed for 5:1. This means less efficient energy use and by extension less efficient use of human labor to produce whatever products or services are needed by a complex, mainly industrial economy. Take everything from MRI machines, to automobiles (and auto factories) , to passenger jets, a lower energy EROEI means a lower productivity for the manufacture of all of the above, because it takes much more energy to produce each unit.

As for student competition I really don't understand Grant's objection. Far from being "toxic",  grade competition at the university level prepares students for the real world where research grants, for example, aren't just handed out to everyone. Only the top caliber researchers usually get the grant money.

Hence, helping another student who may be struggling, say in graduate astrophysics, may not always redound to one's own benefit.  Far better to allow students to compete and it also lends vigor to their efforts and energizes further research. Ultimately, the very act of doing research - especially in a scientific field - is an aggressive enterprise. It would have to be if the researcher proposes to tackle an object as vast and complex as the Sun, or a black hole, or even a delta class sunspot.  Such intellectual confrontation is not for the weak, easily intimidated or those who need hand holding.

At the same time there is a place for some limited cooperation. When fellow graduate physics students have come to me for help with setting up a space physics or regular physics lab, for example, I was always ready to lend a hand and insights.  When they needed a little clue to get started on a quantum physics, E&M or statistical physics problem, I'd usually be agreeable to citing a specific book, page reference to help them out. I never ever worked a problem for them, however, nor do I now when students come to All Experts and have questions on astrophysics or astronomy, But I am always ready and open to providing clues. Above all, I want those I help to be also able to help themselves!

The bottom line is that Grant's arguments against using grading curves are full of holes. But there is another choice if he detests "forced grading curves" and that is to employ locked -in grades matched to percentages.  At Harrison College for example, anything below 50 % was an F, no arguments. Grades from 50-60 rated a D mark, from 61-70 a C, and From 71-80 a B. Marks higher than 80 earned an A but virtually no student attained a 93 % the usual starting point for an A in the U.S. The reason is that exams at HC are genuinely difficult - so much so that even the 'cream of the crop' will never score 100%.

At the same time I absolutely don't agree with Grant's  proposal that if a student encounters a too difficult problem on a test, he can  "write down the name of a student who might know the answer - the equivalent of a lifeline on a game show". Sorry, you sink or swim with what you bring to the exam, and there are no "lifelines" allowed!

I DO agree with the concept of study groups, and have always encouraged them in every venue of tertiary education I've been. But at the same time such study groups must not tolerate loafers who merely show up to feed off the knowledge and expertise of the others, like parasites.

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