Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Do We Really Have To Come Up With A Grading System That Faculty Can’t Game?

The first thing you hear from people about how to fix grade inflation is that we should change the grading system.  Give students their percentage rank in the class.  Go exclusively to Pass/Fail.  Redefine what the various letters mean.  Go to a numerical system.  Write evaluative essays about each student instead of trying to distill their performance to a single number or letter.  Get rid of grades altogether.  We heard them all over the course of the past month.

If you ask people why they want to change the grading system, the overt statement they’ll give is to prevent other faculty from cheating and gaming the system.  For a few, the undercurrent of their reasoning is to prevent themselves from gaming the system.  

The committee I’m on at Dartmouth to deal with grading practices considered all of these various options for changing the grading system.  In fact in 1974, Dartmouth did change its grading system from a 5-point scale to a 4-point scale explicitly to stop the rapid inflation of grades that was occurring then.  What they did was translate a GPA of a B on a 5-point scale in 1973 to a B on a 4-point scale in 1974, and grades have increased linearly ever since (see data here at dartblog.com).  

Also, if you think through the ramification of all these alternatives, they are either exactly the same as our current 4-point system simply with the scale changed (like we have already done here), or they would actually be detrimental to the education of the students (e.g., ranking every student in every class will turn education into a bare-fisted competition among the students, and the ranking tells you nothing about which were actually good or poor).

What our committee arrived at is a simple conclusion:

It’s not the grading system. It’s the graders.

No grading system will prevent the faculty from giving inappropriate grades to students.

Why not this? Have the faculty do their jobs of holding students to rigorous academic standards, and then hold the faculty accountable themselves for the academic standards they set and for the ways they hold their students accountable through the grades they give.  In simple language – just do your job!  Giving appropriate grades to students based on their performances according to the standards the faculty set for a course is the job of each and every faculty member.

Grades are also one clear metric of the rigor of a course. If a faculty member never gives low grades, it’s a sign of one of two things:

Either

Their course is not rigorous, and so every student can achieve excellent mastery with little or no effort.

Or

Their course is academically rigorous, but they do not hold students to appropriate standards of engaging that rigor, and so they are giving high grades to low-performing students.

Both are detrimental to our students’ educations  

If you read the Dartmouth Scholarship Ratings, I think you would agree that these descriptions of what grades of A, B, C, D & E mean (E is the grade for failing a class at Dartmouth) are pretty much how everyone would define each grade.  At least for me, I wouldn’t change a word.  

The system that we have proposed to the Dartmouth administration is one in which

high-performing students receive high grades, intermediate-performing student receive intermediate grades, and low-performing students receive low grades in each class.  

Doesn’t that seem reasonable?  And is it not reasonable that faculty should be held accountable for doing so?  We do, and that is the entire basis of our proposal to the Dartmouth Administration. 

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1 Comment

  1. Matt

    When I went to business school, we were on a forced curve which required a certain and same percentage of students to get A and D equivalents.

    I never worked harder in my life, and there was no way for the faculty to game the system.

    It’s not politically correct, in our “everyone is a winner” society, but I learned the material and frankly was pleased when I received a B.

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