Grade Inflation? What Grade Inflation?

A friend sent me “Should I feel guilty for failing my students? As an adjunct English professor, I know I shouldn’t inflate grades — but I feel like I’m ruining people’s lives,” an excerpt from “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” which began life as a frighteningly accurate Atlantic article.

I agree with a lot of the “Should I feel guilty for failing my students” excerpt, but I don’t think this is correct: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people.” The biggest reason it’s hard for professors to fail students, as economists like to remind us, involves incentives.

I’m a grad student in English lit, and when I go to the job market in the near future, I’m highly unlikely to be judged at all on my grade distribution; as far as I know, the University of Arizona doesn’t even send that information out. I may or may not be seriously judged on my teaching evaluations, depending on the kind of university I try to go to. I probably won’t, or won’t very much, but the easiest way to improve evals is to give higher grades (see “Judgment Day” for one popular explanation). Perhaps not surprisingly, students give better evals to profs who get higher grades. So professors, in the absence of any institutional or professional incentives not to give higher grades, do—at least on average, even if any single prof denies doing so (I have yet to hear anyone in a public forum announce, “I inflate grades.” I do not inflate grades).

To recap: we might be looked at poorly for having bad teaching evals, which are linked to student grades, and there’s no pressure on student grades. The big thing I will be judged on is academic publishing. The more I do that, the better off I am professionally. When you give students bad grades, not only are they likely to take it out on evals, but they’re more likely to complain to your teaching advisor, show up in office hours to fight about grades, be unhappy in class, and generally take more of time, which you can’t spend writing the academic articles that will get you a job and tenure.

Combined, these two forces encourage you to give higher grades and maximize academic publishing. This force is probably strongest in softer subjects, like the humanities, business, comm, and the like (students want to argue papers all day long) and weakest in math and the sciences (if you didn’t get the right answer, your instructor will demonstrate why you’re objectively wrong). Fields like nursing probably don’t see a huge amount of grade inflation because students who don’t understand the material will kill someone if they don’t, which is a big problem for lots of people. Same in engineering—if your bridge collapses, you can’t complain that there is no such thing as a “good” bridge, or that bridge design is so “subjective.”

All this stuff might contribute to how little students are actually learning, as discussed extensively in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The book shows that most college students, through most measures, don’t acquire much real knowledge over the course of their four or more years in school. Part of Academically Adrift details the evidence used to reach this conclusion, the other big part describes how this might have happened and be happening, and the last (weakest) part discusses solutions.

How could one solve this incentive problem? Probably by plotting eval scores against grades. If you’re giving an average GPA of 3.0 and getting a 4.0 on your eval, and Suzie down the hall is giving an average GPA of 2.9 and getting a 4.3 on her evals, then Suzie is probably doing better. I don’t know why colleges aren’t moving toward systems like this, aside from inertia and the complete lack of incentive to do so. Which, I guess, means that I do know why. This wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it would at least be a step in the right direction. A few schools are apparently doing something about the issue.

Professors don’t want to champion better evals, however, because it distracts them from the research for which they’re rewarded. Administrators don’t want to because they want tuition and grant money, not rocking the boat. High school seniors have not shown a great swell of interest in attending schools with rigorous professor evaluations; they have shown a great swell of interest in beer and circus, however, so that’s what they mostly get. Grad students want to claw their way up the academic ladder and/or finish their damn dissertations. Parents want their offspring to pass. Employers are too diffuse and don’t get much of a say. So where does the coalition for improvement come from? Some individuals, but we’ll see if they get very far.

The validity of grades

Marco Arment writes at (proving that he was prescient when it comes to domain names) and created the awesome web service Instapaper, which I use solely for its Kindle export feature. One of his favorite posts is “School grades are hopelessly broken.” It’s worth reading, and Marco is probably right: school grades are too high and don’t reflect real knowledge, but like healthcare or the military, there’s no easy way to fix them.

Although Marco’s essay is mostly right, it also doesn’t propose any real solutions to the problem he describes—because there aren’t any. The incentive for parents in high school is to want their kid to get the highest grade possible; consequently, they will often fight for their kids, leading to an overall negative equilibrium, and one that I benefited from in late middle and early high school when I decided to effectively fail math as an ill-conceived protest against my parents. At the time I didn’t consciously realize this dynamic, or that protesting in ways that chiefly hurt me aren’t terribly wise, but I was also 13 – 15 at the time and didn’t know any better.

For most teachers, the easiest thing to do on an individual level is inflate grades, which reduces complaints from both parents and students. This isn’t optimal on a societal level, which generates posts like Marco’s, but it is on an individual level, and I don’t see an easy way to generate incentives to change this (more on that later). Marco says:

Grades don’t reflect your aptitude, intelligence, or understanding of the subject matter. You don’t need to actually learn much useful material to get good grades. (And many of those who learn exceptionally well don’t get good grades.)

This is probably true. But if grades don’t reflect all this, then imagine what the people with really low GPAs are like. Grades aren’t good at stratifying the high end of the curve, but they at least show some of where the low end is. And I suspect the really high end, especially in hard college majors like engineering, CS, and so forth, are still reasonably good guides to aptitude. Marco says, “You can understand why I don’t trust the validity of grades.” You shouldn’t trust grades fully—but that’s because grades aren’t supposed to be the full measure of man. Nothing is, except maybe life, and what does that really mean?

I see a lot of comments about colleges, high schools, grades, and how to improve those kinds of issues on sites like Hacker News and Slashdot. Most are good at identifying problems; Chris Smeder, for example, tells us how to improve college teaching in three major ways. He’s probably right about all of those, but he misses an important point: most universities are not set up (or, if you like buzzwords, “incentivized”) to reward teaching.

Smeder misses the main point, which isn’t identifying the problem; a gazillion people in the Chronicle of Higher Education have said virtually the same thing at various times. The real problem is solving the problem, which requires changing the incentives that drive professors. At the moment, hiring and tenure decisions at virtually all universities (and all the big ones you’ve heard of) are made mostly on research and publication. Teaching simply doesn’t count for much. Therefore, the people who succeed in getting hired and getting tenured optimize for what they’re being judged on: research and publication. Teaching is secondary. Heroic individuals and people who want to practice better teaching will help somewhat, but they aren’t enough to change the system as a whole.

Once you’ve realized this incentive problem, the question becomes, “How do you change the incentives?” I have no good answers for that, but it’s the real question you should be asking if you’re genuinely interested. And it might keep you from generalizations like this one, which is back to Marco’s essay:

Most people from my generation can’t really do anything else in the real world except bullshit jobs because nobody ever held them to very high standards.

This probably is true of all generations, and the rhetoric of most people during most generations (consider, for example, the New York Times’ Generation Me vs. You Revisited). I suspect that not all the jobs Marco assumes are bullshit are bullshit. And even if all this is true, schools aren’t going to be offering the kind of information he’d presumably like GPAs to show.

I’d get near-zero homework grades because I’d never do it, so I needed (and usually got) near-100% test grades to make up the difference. I’d barely pull through and get a C most of the time.

This works for some people, especially who start their own businesses. Most people don’t and never will. So their grades count. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s comment from “What You’ll Wish You’d Known:”

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that’s against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.

The right thing to do is your homework, because it’s presumably easy, and then do the rest of your work on your own time. And although GPAs are broken, they’re also the best we’ve got. As Joel Spolsky says in his advice to Computer Science majors:

Never underestimate how big a deal your GPA is. Lots and lots of recruiters and hiring managers, myself included, go straight to the GPA when they scan a resume, and we’re not going to apologize for it. Why? Because the GPA, more than any other one number, reflects the sum of what dozens of professors over a long period of time in many different situations think about your work. SAT scores? Ha! That’s one test over a few hours. The GPA reflects hundreds of papers and midterms and classroom participations over four years. Yeah, it’s got its problems. There has been grade inflation over the years. Nothing about your GPA says whether you got that GPA taking easy classes in home economics at Podunk Community College or taking graduate level Quantum Mechanics at Caltech. Eventually, after I screen out all the 2.5 GPAs from Podunk Community, I’m going to ask for transcripts and recommendations. And then I’m going to look for consistently high grades, not just high grades in computer science.

Marco can be largely right in a micro sense and still be wrong, or at least doesn’t really deal with what should happen in a macro sense. If you’re the principal of a high school, or a college president, or an individual employer, or any number of other positions, what can you do to change the presumed brokenness of grades? How can you transform the system producing said grades? Until you’ve answered that, you’ve done a lot of the work that’s already been done (see, e.g., here for an older view of school problems) without facing the hardest part of the task.

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