Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Grade inflation and the bell curve

About 17 years ago, a Stanford professor told me one of Stanford's (then) dirty little secrets (it may still be one of Stanford's dirty little secrets, for all I know): grade inflation. According to him, even in math and sciences, professors were strongly discouraged from giving students any grade below a "B". Additionally, if a student failed a class, he could drop out after the fact and have that grade removed from his transcript. The result, of course, was that all Stanford students were "A" students. Today, in a Suzanne Fields column about Larry Summers over at Harvard, I read that "[i]n 2001, the year before Larry Summers arrived on campus, grade inflation was rampant and 91 percent of the students graduated with honors." I'm sure that this grade inflation arises, in part, from our pathological fear of telling people they're not doing well (which took its most recent, ridiculous turn with teacher's abandoning red pens for corrections). More importantly, I think the real reason behind this grade inflation is the use of the bell curve as a grading device. The bell curve posits that, in any classroom, a few people will do really well, a few people will do really badly, and the rest of the people will be spread out in a big bunch in the middle. If you chart this, it has the rough shape of a bell -- hence, the bell curve. In a class that relies on bell curve grading, a student's work is not graded based upon any absolute standard; it's simply graded in comparison to the work of the other students in the class. If you're an average student in a classroom of geniuses, you'll fail; if you're an average student in a classroom of dingbats, you'll ace the class. In other words, it's relative grading. I, personally, have always loathed bell curve grading. It's seemed to me that an experienced teacher should be able to lok at my essay, at my knowledge base, at my analytical abilities, whatever, and view them in absolute terms, without reference to those around me at any particular time. In other words, I've found bell curve grading meaningless because it doesn't apply to my own knowledge, it simply compares me to those around me. Aside from my own hostility to bell curve grading, it creates a big problem at the major universities, filled as they are with students who have traditionally earned top grades in their high schools. Prior to attending their Ivy League school, or major state university, all these students could boast about being top 2%. So the universities, rather than abandoning the meaningless relativism of the bell curve, still enshrine it, and then proceed to ignore it -- if each student expects an "A", an "A" he shall have. I guess handing out free "A's" is not a surprising extension of a system that has for decades ignored the absolute value of a student's work. What I mean is that, if the teacher has never been responsible for examining the actual quality of the student's work, but has only been responsible for comparing that work to everyone else's, it's just a small step to say that the teacher is not responsible for examining the actual quality of the student's work, but just needs to make sure that every student gets an "A" or a "B". I don't think it's stretching the point to say that this system inevitably flowed from the cultural relativism and Derida-like deconstructionism the universities long ago embraced. Nothing has any meaning; everything has the meaning given to it in context; and no student should ever feel bad about his work (or even feel obligated to work). Fine, if that's the road we're going, fine. But remind me, next time I'm hiring, to be deeply suspicious of the "A" transcript that college student is flashing around. It's doubtful that it has any meaning at all and, in my business, you can't rely on deconstructionism to fund your bottom line.