Two articles about grade inflation came across the inbox this morning. The approaches to the problem are interesting and worth mulling over. The first piece from Inside Higher Ed by Peter Eubanks, an assistant professor at James Madison University, asks the question why grades get inflated: pressure from students, administrators, colleagues and finally themselves.
I’ve experienced all these things, as a Tutorial Leader and as a Course Instructor. Now my tendency is to push back against the first of these. Students seeking grade revisions must, must provide justification for an appeal. Any student who walks into my office and appeals a grade “because I need to get grade X to do Y” is thanked for their time and shown the door.
The second and third causes are a bit more difficult. Administrative pressure, thankfully is not something I have had to deal with. I have not yet run into a situation where my grading was called into question and required a written explanation. I know colleagues who have, but I have not been asked to re-evaluate – yet. As for pressures from feeling like I’m alone in the fight. This too does not right true. Perhaps I am fortunate but most of my colleagues who I’ve talked to about these things have shared strong feelings about the pernicious tendency for grades to creep. While this may be a factor in some faculties, it has not been a factor in my own experience.
The final factor – self-doubt on the part of instructors. This is an interesting one too. I find that I do doubt myself. I worry about the quality of the course. I worry about my ability to convey the information the students are supposed to acquire. But I also know that the grading process is subjective at a great many levels. For this reason I review my grades before I return assignments. I compare student work, evaluting the stronger and weaker assignments against each other. This tends to let me see where students are in relation to each other. If a class as a whole does poorly in one area that is a reason to evaluate what I might not be getting across to them. If the results are poor but across a variety of areas it may just be that the class in question is an anomaly. These are some of the tools I use to try and ensure that the grading is fair and that my own evaluation process does not lead to an upward creep in grades. Try as I might, however, I cannot remove the subjectivity from the grading process entirely. It is that subjectivity that informs the second article.
Jeffery Young, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, considers the approach of Western Governors University. WGU is a bit of an experiment in its own right. Its an online school that describes its model as “competency-based education”. The how of the education is not as important as being able to pass the evaluations students must write in order to pass. The University is online and it hires 300 adjunct professors who are solely responsible for grading student work. This approach is supposed to answer the human frailty dimension of grade inflation.
“The evaluators have no contact with the students at all. They don’t know them. They don’t know what color they are, what they look like, or where they live. Because of that, there is no temptation to skew results in any way other than to judge the students’ work.”
I can see the appeal. How many times has a student’s personality impacted my response to them? Good question. I don’t know. The other approach is to have machines do it. My problem with this particular issue is that the machines I’ve had experience with – the ones that are supposed to guard against plagiarism – have not been very effective. I have met colleagues who swear otherwise. Anecdotally, however, I’m unconvinced. What I do know is that Young can cite some convincing data on grade inflation itself – something lacking in the first article.
Professors do score poorly when it comes to fair grading, according to a study published in July in the journal Teachers College Record. After crunching the numbers on decades’ worth of grade reports from about 135 colleges, the researchers found that average grades have risen for 30 years, and that A is now the most common grade given at most colleges.
And I was happy to accept that observation until I got to the next two sentences.
The authors, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, argue that a “consumer-based approach” to higher education has created subtle incentives for professors to give higher marks than deserved. “The standard practice of allowing professors free rein in grading has resulted in grades that bear little relation to actual performance,” the two professors concluded.
The problem is that if we’ve been incentivized to grade higher I’ve yet to recieve my payola. I agree that a commoditized education system has created distortions in the way administration views instructors and courses. I agree that students now feel entitled to a good grade because they “paid for it”. But by saying “allowing professors free rein” suggests that somehow the professors are the ones who should be punching back against these pressures and the failure to do so is their fault. This really is a bit too much to bear and irritates me. Its the commodification that is the problem in this instance rather than the professors.
A professor at University of Central Florida ran an experiment with her TAs. The professor compared her grading and those of her TAs against a grading machine for reliability. The variation between TAs for the same student/test was way off. Graduate students performance grading declined after several assignments in a row. This actually isn’t a surprise. I know that my grading suffers if I have to grade a large number of papers in a very short period of time. I like to grade each paper with a break between. My eyes are fresh. I’m not still digesting the last student’s work. Time is an enormous factor in my grading effectiveness. A two week turn around can be sufficient when grading 20 or 40 papers, but when you have to do 50-80, you are creeping into an increasingly tight grading schedule. You cannot easily space out the papers, grade them effectively and ensure timely completion of the grading. Something is going to give. Which speaks to an administrative problem as much as it does the foibles of human graders. Administrative time-tables are thrown at us as instructors with little consideration of how long it actually takes to do a good job.
Returning to the focus on WGU for a moment – the other thing to note is the division of the standard course instructor’s responsibility into two. The course mentor and the evaluator. The evaluator only needs an MA. For fields where this is the highest certification I can understand that but when I think back to my MA, I only had 12 months of instruction over my undergraduate colleagues. What would qualify me to grade their work? I’m not sure. I’d like to know more.
What I do like about the approach is that the evaluations are pass/fail with a pass coming in as a B equivalent.This has been the standard in my grad school experience. Passing papers are B+ or better, but a B+ is also a warning to pull up your socks. I also like that evaluations provide extensive comments. Students know why an evaluator passes or fails them. So while it is impersonal to some extent it is not a computer putting your thoughts through an algorithm.
And this is still not dealing with the problem of time constraints. Instructors and graders are under increasing pressure to process more and more students. Administrators see their jobs as part of commercial endeavour. Each student is a tuition cheque. The more students, the more revenue. The more revenue, the better the facilities. The better the facilities, the broader the choice of courses offered. More courses offered means more revenue. And so it goes.
At some point we need to stop and ask to what extent does the evaluation process become a victim of commodification?
Regardless of whether or not the evaluation is done by a human being or a computer the fact is that we seem to have lost sight of the educative enterprise as a good in and of itself. Grade inflation, as much as we can attribute it to the faliability of the graders, really it is a symptom of turning students into widgets.