Thursday, July 5, 2018

Thanks To Grade Inflation University 'Cum Laude' Honors Are Now Meaningless

In May, 2013, I cited a study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, published in the prestigious Teachers College Record , revealing that about three-fourths of all grades awarded at university level are “A”s or “B”s.   As I observed at the time, this makes those As and Bs next to useless precisely become of the very commonality. An 'A' used to stand for academic excellence, but it can't if so many are getting them! It also renders the achievements of truly exceptional students ho-hum. How in the world can they truly stand out if middling or loser students get the same grades they do? It's preposterous!

I went on to point out that if one went back to the mid 1960s such a college level grade anomaly would not be found, unless it was at some "Flunky U" or maybe a junior college. What did one find, say at Loyola University- New Orleans, or the University of South Florida?  Well, the proportion of As were fairly stable at about 10 percent, with Bs at 20 percent, and 'gentleman's Cs' right at around 40 percent where they ought to be.  Hence, in a General Physics class of 400 students - say at USF-  one expected to see maybe 40 As, 80 Bs, 160 Cs, 80 Ds and 40 Fs.

In other words, grade frequency conformed 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. Even in the typical astronomy class, say astrophysics - the grade distribution tended to follow the same pattern. So for maybe 10 students in AST 443, 1 would receive an A,  two got Bs, four received Cs,  two received Ds and there was one F.

But what do we find today? Barely 5 percent Ds, if that many,  and zero percent Fs! Essentially, college teachers today - tenured profs as well as adjuncts- have given away the "grade store" and sold out . This has occurred either from capitulating to threats of bad teacher evaluations, or kowtowing to pesky ass parents who insist Junior and Missy not be docked points on a critical test.

So, given this shabby situation it's no surprise one reads (e.g. 'You Graduated Cum Laude? So Did Everyone Else',  WSJ, p. A2, July 3):

"Honors designations have become close to the norm at many top schools, according to a Wall Street Journal review of the criteria for earning honors and the percentage of the senior class that got the designation in the top 50 of the WSJ/Times Higher Education Ranking.

The share increased to 44 % from 32%  in the past decade at USC, which requires a GPA of at least 3.4 for the lowest honor- cum laude- and to 44 % from 39 % at Lehigh where students need at least a 3.4."


"At Wellesley College, 41 percent of this year's graduating class completed their degrees with Latin honors which means  GPA of at least 3.6"

Meanwhile, at Middlebury College  the proportion of students graduating with Latin honors was "north of  50 percent this spring" - which is ridiculous.

We are also informed "most elite schools cap the share of graduating class that can receive academic honors"  but "the caps vary widely".   For example, from 25 % at Columbia, to 60 % at Harvard. Again, this is preposterous, but at least Harvard re-calibrated from its "91 percent in 2001, highlighted in a Boston Globe article about generous honors policies".

And my essential point, reinforced in spades (ibid.):

"Academic researchers say the uptick is a sign of grade inflation, not smarter students."

Correct, because you simply cannot get that many smarter students! In many ways this farcical phenomenon resembles the claimed "Flynn effect" where most Americans are allegedly getting smarter and smarter each year as gauged by standard IQ tests. The phenomenon of incrementally increasing IQ first circulated in 1984, following a study in that year by James R. Flynn, purporting to show that citizens in advanced nations like the U.S. have experienced massive IQ gains over  time.

Thus Americans – for example – have gained 3 IQ points per decade from the early 1900s to today, as reflected in both the Stanford –Binet and Wechsler Intelligence scales. By another test’s standards (the Raven’s Progressive Matrices) – for which scores go back to people born in 1872- the gains disclosed amount to 5 IQ points per decade. So a guy with the same genetic background who was born in 1910 and had an IQ of 100 then, would attain an IQ of 160 by 1970 thanks to the Flynn effect, or equal to the (accepted) IQ of Einstein. Of course, the Flynn effect is supposed to apply to a statistical ensemble, not individuals - but I use the example of an individual measure over decades to make the point the claim is nonsense.

Even if we just stick to ensembles, it is foolish. Using the Raven’s and scored against today’s norms,  our ancestors in 1910 would have an average IQ of 70, or about moron level. By comparison, our mean IQ today – that is, disclosed within the ‘hump’ portion of a Gaussian distribution – would range from 130 to 150 depending on the test. For reference, 130 basically gets you into Mensa (accepting the top 2% of IQs) and 150 marks you as a “genius”. Are we all geniuses on our way to becoming Über-Geniuses? I don’t think so!  Neither are all the cum laude honors recipients at Harvard really cum laude quality.  They achieved that honor via a skewed grading system.

Most importantly, the ranks of neither Mensa or Intertel have increased markedly - nor have the potential members who would be accepted.  (Taking into account all those who've no interest in joining either one). Select a random sample of the populace, say 10,000 or 50,000 – and dispatch them to sit the Mensa and Intertel IQ tests. Those making the cut will still be only 2% and 1%, respectively, as has been the case for decades.  You will not find 50 percent getting through, or even 20 percent.

And you will certainly not find the mammoth proportions now receiving cum laude honors! An anomaly that suggests that either the courses taken are way too easy, or the professors - TAs are marking assignments, exams too easy.

Make no mistake, because of grade inflation, students use 'Rate My Professor' to  avoid professors who believe the grade of “C” is the average grade and who set up standards that require students to do more than show up, read a couple of hundred pages, and answer a few questions. This then translates into fewer students in the more rigorous courses that also feature more no nonsense profs.

Now, it's true some departments traditionally grade tougher than others, say like science and engineering departments. In my experience and at least through 1985, all tended to have lower overall grade averages than those in social sciences and humanities. The reason is that they adhered to rigorous Gaussian curve models for each test and homework grades.. If then 50 people took a class, say in complex algebra, and the grades ranged from a maximum of 80-85%  - which 5 got, and a minimum of 40 -45% which another 5 received, then those limits defined the extent of As and Fs, respectively.  The large central tendency bunch (say 28 in number)  that scored between 50% and 70% would ALL receive Cs,  no question. All the rest would get Bs and Ds, depending on whether they fell between 70 and 79 or below 50.

By contrast to the above, we've learned that typical Education, Early Education programs tend to have the highest course grade averages. It’s not unusual for the average grade in elementary education courses to be an A-minus, and in secondary education to be a B-plus. That means either our future teachers are brighter than a supernova—or that their profs don’t know there are more than just two letters in the alphabet. More likely, it means very sub-average or average students are taking relatively easy courses. The proof of this? Looking at years of GRE  test scores taken by Ed. majors vs. those of science majors. In year after year, Ed.  major grads' GRE averages seldom crack the 950 total for both math and verbal, while science grads routinely crack 1200-1250. Case closed!

Lastly, one has to factor in the role of parental expectations and pressure into the ongoing inflation of grades. Because every parent believes his kid will either be another Fortune 500 CEO, or a Billionaire hedge fund owner, he mandates to every university staff member that Jr. is expected to get As. Not to perform to the highest standards, but ...get those As. And woe betide the sorry butt of any prof who doesn't cooperate. He will be beseiged by angry emails or phone calls.

Administrators play into this absurd game, because they are the ones who've made the sine qua non index for their universities attaining a critical mass of students who consistently garner high enough grades to remain - to keep the money pumping in from Mommy, Daddy or more often now, the private lender. Better this critical inflated grade mass of lazy ass students than that they actual develop critical thinking skills, and oh yes...absorb some knowledge.

Sadly, there's no sign the trend is going to reverse any time soon, but there are solutions, none of which entitled students and their helicopter parents are likely to accept. The most plausible change would be to the grading scale. Janice herself has often stated how "stupid" the American grade scale is, as it is "so squeezed at the top".   I.e. "passing" only begins at a 70 percent mark with all 4 passing grades compressed into 30 points, (70- 100).

As she puts it: "Why not have at least 50 marks allocated to passing, so you fail only if you get below 50?"  At Harrison College where she attended, for example, anything below 50 % was an F, no arguments. Grades from 50-60 rated a D, 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 were genuinely difficult - so much so that even the 'cream of the crop' seldom  scored even 90%.

Two sample problems from one of my own Calculus Physics final exams are given below;

1)Find the root mean square velocity of a molecule of hydrogen at a temperature of -20 C on Mars’ equator if the atmospheric pressure is 0.0056 bar. (Earth’s is 1.0 bar). Take the molecular weight of hydrogen as 2.016 g/mol.

b) A group of 4 astronauts lands on Mars with solar radiation collection material of total area 2000 m2. If the efficiency of the material is 30%, and the ambient night time temperature on Mars (for their base location at Isidis Planitia) is -40 C (10C day time), will they have adequate collecting material if the solar constant on Mars is 620 W/ m2  ? (Assume insulating material with a thermal conductivity of 0.08 W/mC, and a need to keep the inside area of their domecile at least at 10 C, requiring solar radiant energy collected of at least 1,200 W per minute for an area of 10 m x 10 m.)

c) Estimate the thickness of insulating material they're likely to need in order to make it work. Comment on whether this expedition is even feasible given the limits of their materials, and that no more than 100 3  of insulating material can be taken.

2) Examine the pendulum system shown in the diagram below.

No automatic alt text available.

Here, h2 = 1.7 m and h1 = 1.5 m. Given a pendulum length, L, write out the Lagrangian for the system, i.e. difference between its kinetic and potential energy, using: g, L, h2, h1 and the deflection angle Θ.

b) Hence or otherwise compare the velocities of the pendulum bob of mass m (= 0.1 kg) for the same values of h2, h1 if an experiment evaluating energy change is conducted on both Mars and Earth at the same time, for the same deflection angle Θ and length, L = 1.0 m. (Take the acceleration of gravity on Earth as 9.8 N/kg,and on Mars as 3.7 N/kg) Compare also the potential energy in each case. Why or why not would these be different? (Take the deflection angle to be 15 degrees in each experiment.)

Five other problems of similar difficulty were included with the student having to choose 4 of the total and complete the exam in 90 minutes.    The highest score obtained for this exam was 71%, for a class of exceptionally bright students. 

Note that the level of difficulty of the physics exams are pretty well the same as for Chemistry, Biology, English Lit, History, Math etc.  For example, two problems (of 7) for an HC Math final where 5 in all had to be answered in 90 mins.:

1)(a) The coordinates of the points L and N are (5, 6) and (8, -2), respectively.
(i)State the coordinates of the midpoint M of the line, LN.

(ii) Calculate the gradient of the line LN and propose, with justification, the equation for a parabola to which the line LN would be tangent at the point (8, -2)

(iii) Determine the equation of the straight line which is perpendicular to LN and which passes through point M.  Propose, with justification, the equation of the circle that is tangent to this line.

(b) An aircraft leaves Jamaica at 13:55 hrs. and travels to Barbados via Antigua. The average speed of the aircraft is 420 km/hr. It arrives in Antigua at 16:45 hrs. local time. Given Antigua is ONE hour AHEAD of Jamaica, compute the distance between Jamaica and Antigua.

2) (a) Using Fig. 1 and the information therein, calculate (giving reasons)

i)  The Angle MSQ

ii) The Angle RSP

iii)  The Angle SPN

b)   The matrix R =

(sin (Θ)......cos(Θ))

i) Determine the coordinates of the image (1, 2) under the transformation R when Θ = 90 degrees.

ii) If the point (p, 3) is on the line (L) given by: x + 2y = 5, calculate the value of p.

iii) Given the point (1,2)is on L, determine the image of L (L') of the line L under the transformation R.

iv) Write the matrix equation to represent the pair of simultaneous equations given by L and L'.

No surprise that highest honors at Harrison College were awarded for course grade averages of 70 percent or higher. (No GPA point grades were used.)  In no way and at no time did the percentage of highest honors ever exceed 1 percent in a given year. Further at no time did the equivalent of U.S. 'cum laude' honors ever exceed 5 percent.

At HC honors implied a genuine distinction - not being one of a large, similar achieving pack that benefited from grade inflation!

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