Friday, May 10, 2013

Grade Inflation Continues to Render Most College Scholastic Honors, Achievement Meaningless

The depressing recent study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, and published in the prestigious Teachers College Record is enough to make any educator shake his or her head in despondent resignation. Their finding: About three-fourths of all grades awarded at university level are “A”s or “B”s.

Of course, 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!

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!

Essentially, college teachers today - tenured profs as well as adjuncts- have given away the grade store and sold out.  And it's irrespective of whether we're talking about State U. or Harvard. Intimidated by little wet behind -the -ears punks delivering solemn, negative judgments via teacher evaluations, they've decided timidity and wussing out are the better parts of valor.  But in the process they've essentially wrecked all academic credentials, judicious comparisons and objective assessement.

Oh, make no mistake, it was done with the best of intentions. College administrations sought a cheap, expeditious way to evaluate their staffs, and 'Voila!' Some genius thought of a teacher's evaluation. Just hand out a little one page eval form to little Missy or Sonny and let them have at it. What they obviously didn't consider is that neither Missy or Sonny had the maturity to do a proper, objective assessment. No, by the time they received the forms they were already grating at low marks they'd received during the year and now, and NOW....this was the time for payback! And payback is always a bitch!

So, for the few curmudgeons who continued to demand standards as opposed to giving out A and B freebies, it was game over. For those profs who insisted that their students EARN their As instead of expecting them for just showing up, well, it was 'hasta la vista'. The college administration had to inform the uncooperative fool that this was the end of the line.

Meanwhile, for those timid souls that capitulated, the majority, the sky was the limit - not only were they popular, oh so popular, especially for the easiest, 'crib' courses like media, or deconstruction of films by Steven Spielberg. They were the ones that most often notched promotions and even got tenure. But at what cost? Well, at turning our university grading system into a global laughing stock. Because no where else in the world do kids get rewarded merely for turning in labs or papers half done.

Make no mistake, because of grade inflation, students 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 physics classes, say, and usually results in questions from administrators who may claim they believe in academic rigor and integrity, but whose slavish devotion to teacher evaluations refutes it.

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.

This sort of distribution was consistently applied.

By contrast to the above, we've learned that Education programs tend to have the highest 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...knowledge.

Sadly, there's no sign the trend is going to reverse any time soon. Too many, including colleges, students, profs and the parents, are addicted to the phony exaggerated grade system- just like coke.

So, as we approach the period of standard commencements across the nation....let's give three cheers for more bogus Summa Cum Laude's and oh.......Magnas too!

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