Grades are increasing everywhere – at colleges and universities and high schools across the country — despite the fact that we have been in a panic about the quality of our entire US educational system for at least the last 20 years. Imagine the day, and it’s coming if we don’t do anything, when every student at every university in the USA gets an A in every class that she or he takes. What should we do on that day? Or before we get there?
Dartmouth, like all universities in the United States, is on this progression of ever-increasing grades. For the past month or so, a group of colleagues and I have been developing a plan at Dartmouth to try to stop many of the pernicious effects of this upward march of grades at our institution. (I’ll write about these pernicious effects in a later post.)
Our plan is devilishly simple. It is to change the incentive structures on faculty and students so that we return to a system in which the following is true:
All high-performing students receive high grades, all intermediate-performing students receive intermediate grades, and all low-performing students receive low grades in each course at Dartmouth.
I gave a talk to a meeting of the full Dartmouth faculty on Monday of this week about our work on this subject in which we addressed these issues. An excellent description of what I discussed and the data I presented can be found at dartblog.com, written by Joe Asch (Dartmouth 1979). Rob Wolfe (Dartmouth 2012), a reporter with our local paper, the Valley News, also wrote an excellent article describing my presentation of our work, but it is behind their pay wall.
As always happens when discussions of this topic occur, many people want to justify grades going up. Many students will tell you with a straight face that higher grades for them are justified because they are obviously better students than their parent’s generation and much better than their grandparent’s generation and very much better than their great-grandparent’s generation.
Some faculty will tell you with a straight face that higher grades now are justified because they are obviously better teachers with innovative new teaching methods as compared to past generations of educators.
In a series of posts (this being the first of that series), I want to explore these and other arguments and what they mean about grades. In doing so, maybe one can come to a better understanding of the meanings and uses of grades in our educational system and what they signify. At least, that’s why I’m writing this – for myself; I write papers and blog posts to struggle through my thinking on a subject. I’ve struggled for a very long time about what grades are supposed to do and supposed to mean.
In doing this, I don’t want to argue the validity of the above propositions. In fact, in this post I will work from the start with the premise that students are better today that they were 20 years ago, and those students were better than those 20 years before them, and so on. Let’s accept the premise that students are getting better over time, then think through how a university should respond to that, and what those responses should do to grades. Maybe we’ll figure out a little bit about what grades are for and are not for.
So let’s begin with the proposition that students are getting better over time, and so grades are rising because ever better students have matriculated at Dartmouth. Given the Dartmouth data I presented on Monday, every student in the year 2064 is projected to receive an A (no A-‘s; they’ll all be straight-up A’s) in every class they take at Dartmouth.
Let’s imagine that year, the years after then, and the implications of this situation. In 2064, and every year after that if Dartmouth or any university remains static, one will have to seriously question whether students even need to go to a college or university. At this point in time, students all now have excellent mastery of all the subject matter at Dartmouth, probably even before they matriculate. At this point, every class at Dartmouth would be very close or equivalent to the situation of teaching 5th-grade arithmetic in every Mathematics class today: the student body would be that advanced relative to the curriculum in their classes.
If it’s true that students are justifiably getting all A’s at every university in the United States (which we’re actually on our way to right now – Dartmouth ain’t special at all), one conclusion one could reasonably make is that no person in the United States would then need to go to college at all. Everyone’s schooling would end at high school, because everyone has learned all they need to know in high school. But this would be true only if university courses today and in 2064 taught absolutely everything there is to know. However, we do not teach absolutely everything there is to know in courses, so there’s still a lot more advanced stuff that we could be teaching.
Ok, here we are in the world projected for Dartmouth in 2064 and beyond and for every other university in the nation for that matter, where all students are getting A’s in every class, they deserve every A they get, but we’re not teaching them absolutely everything there is to know. What should we do?
At this point, should this and every other university simply board up all the classrooms and go out of business? The obvious answer is that we should make the curriculum more rigorous so that we start teaching things that students don’t already know.
Let’s see what we should do going forward from this point by doing a little retrospective projecting into the past. Our math and science courses in universities today are not the same as when Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary and James Madison attended Princeton in the 18th century, or Daniel Webster attended Dartmouth at the turn of the 19th century. Their math courses did not include linear algebra, multivariable calculus, differential equations or complex analysis. Their biology courses did not include biochemical respiration, molecular genetics, Mendelian inheritance, evolution, neurobiology, or ecosystem functioning. As new knowledge is made in the world, the curriculum gets harder by shifting topics down the curriculum. What were topics for introductory college courses even just 100 years ago, are now topics for junior high and high school courses now (I speak from personal experience here since I am fond of looking through very old textbooks).
So the solution to everyone getting A’s in all courses at our universities in the future is to shift the curriculum down levels. Make what is now taught in advanced courses the subject of introductory courses. Then make the advanced courses even more advanced and teach topics and materials that weren’t even taught in advanced courses before because it was thought to be too advanced. This is exactly what we’ve done over the history of mankind. Since much remains to be taught after high school, a college education is not obsolete in our projected future (there’s still lots more to teach), and so this is the solution.
By definition, this solution is making the courses academically more rigorous: teaching more advanced material in all disciplines, making the students think harder and deeper about more nuanced subjects in the Arts and Humanities, ponder more forcefully the human condition in the Social Sciences, and explore the never-ending advances of theory and data in the Sciences.
OK, now back to what happens to the grades. As we shift more advanced material into the introductory courses and ever more advanced material into advanced courses, what should happen to the grades in all the courses? The answer is that a few people will now start getting B’s as we start to ramp up the rigor of the courses. In other words, the distribution of grades will spread away from being only A’s.
When should you stop this spreading of the grades because of increasing the rigor of the courses? The exact level is certainly debatable, but my solution to this problem is this. Make it rigorous enough that the students who can absorb the material the fastest are getting a very substantial amount of material, but at the same time it is not so much material that it completely overwhelms the other students in the class. For me, this is the point where some fraction of the students in the class can only develop adequate mastery of the material with diligent and hard work, but some good fraction of the students are developing excellent mastery of the material. Obviously though, the largest fraction of students will be between these two, and capable of developing good mastery of the material, but not excellent mastery. For those of you who know the secret code, I am describing C (adequate), A (excellent) and B (good) students, respectively, according to the Dartmouth Scholarship Ratings.
So from this thought experiment, let’s think through a few scenarios of what grades mean comparatively speaking.
1. Because the first college course in math today, usually Introductory Calculus, teaches much more advanced mathematics than Thomas Jefferson or James Madison or Daniel Webster took in their first math courses in college, should everyone in Introductory Calculus today get A’s?
2. If Thomas Jefferson got an A in his Introductory Mathematics course for material I had in junior high school, and I get an A today in Introductory Calculus, does that mean that I’m smarter than Thomas Jefferson?
3. Does the fact that harder material is taught in the first math course in college today than what Thomas Jefferson had in his first math course mean that today’s Introductory Calculus courses at every university in the United States are unfair to today’s students?
4. What does comparing Thomas Jefferson’s A to my A mean exactly?
My answers to these questions are (1) No, (2) No, (3) No, and (4) Nothing.
So what does this mean about comparing grades across time? I think the only logical answer is that such comparisons are meaningless. Grade comparisons are meaningless as a signal to the inherent amount of knowledge a student has. They are clearly only relevant to the courses they took in the context of the time that they took them.
What does this entire thought process imply about the academic rigor of courses at any level of our educational system? It means that classes that have the appropriate level of rigor for their position in the curriculum should have a wide distribution of grades among the students in the class. Some fraction should have A’s, some fraction C’s, maybe even a very small fraction D’s, and usually the largest fraction with B’s in the middle. At least, that’s what seems reasonable to me today.
In addition, the curriculum at every level of the educational system should progress in increasing rigor over time as our student population gets “smarter” over time. However, following the logic above, the distribution of grades should not change if the curriculum of colleges and universities are responding appropriately to the increase in preparedness of students over time. As entering students become better, the curriculum of our colleges and universities must become more rigorous for them. They must have more education to take.
This is exactly why the plan we have proposed to the Dartmouth administration in response to ever-increasing grades over time is to incentivize faculty to increase the rigor of our courses. If students are getting better over time, we need to crank up our curriculum to keep up with them!
If students are getting better over time, when will we know we are keeping pace with the increasing abilities of incoming students? When the grade distributions across years do not change!!
And when will we know when we have an appropriate level of rigor in our curriculum again? When we have some good fraction with A’s, some good fraction with C’s, maybe even a very small fraction with D’s, and the largest fraction with B’s in the middle. At least that’s my idea of an ideal distribution to maximize the education benefits to students at all levels of course mastery. Reasonable people will disagree on exactly the right mix, but it can’t be all A’s.
As a result of thinking through these issues, some of my colleagues and I have decided that we shouldn’t wait until 2064 to start this process, particularly since the distribution of grades seems already way out of whack to us. We simply want students that come to Dartmouth to get the best educations they possibly can. They have to take their educations (nobody can give you an education: you have to take it – demand it). And we should give them all the education they can take.