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Is Grade Integrity a Fairness Issue?

The internal pressure on grades, and how we behave in response.

November 8, 2012

A few weeks ago I received a survey invitation through an association listserve asking for information on faculty experiences with and responses to student requests for special treatment. Beyond a raw request for a grade change, many other types of request would affect grades: requests for extra credit, do-overs, late submissions, and so on that are outside of stated course policy.  Some survey questions asked about institutional attitudes toward offering/denying student requests.

I was glad to see this because its emphasis on policy and behavior—student, faculty, and institution—highlights that grades (and grade inflation) may be grounded in decisions that have little do with student performance or a belief in grading systems as a set of standards for differentiation. We’ve all heard anecdotal stories about adjuncts who give good grades to get good evaluations, or of an administrator changing a professor’s grade for a complaining student (or parent) who made no headway with the professor; there are several studies and books that provide support for these stories. Many schools allow students to “appeal” their grade, as if a grade is a punishment or a clear wrong to be righted (a not impossible, but likely rare, occurrence). At the extreme, law schools have retroactively raised grades for all students—or softened their grading parameters—in an effort to make students from their schools look, hmm, what?  As good as those from less rigorous schools?  The remarkable thing in this form of grade inflation is the sense that they “had” to do this to make students more competitive—that students were at an “unfair” disadvantage without easier grades.

Some schools, like Princeton, Cornell, and University of Minnesota, have made efforts in the opposite direction to try to curb grade inflation. Within these efforts is recognition of some of the many pressures, internal and external, that affect grades. You may have others to add, but at a minimum they include related pressure to:

  • attract paying students
  • retain paying students
  • increase completion rates
  • maintain a student’s eligibility for an extra-curricular role
  • compensate for diverse levels of preparedness
  • get good evaluations—for self-satisfaction, self-protection (avoid  retaliation for not raising grades), or job retention
  • make students look more attractive to employers
  • please people in a position to affect one’s welfare: funders, parents, students, politicians, colleagues
  • minimize time and energy to uphold standards

Resisting pressure to let go of values is at the heart of all challenges to integrity. It can seem like more trouble than it’s worth, especially when the “cost” seems small (a B+ to an A-?) and the return seems high. Or it can seem like an insurmountable effort: many challenges to integrity, including to grade integrity, can look like no-win collective action problems when they are placed in the context of the larger, competitive environment. So it is helpful to come back to the question, is it fair?

Of course, fair to whom? Or, put another way, does grade integrity matter?

It seems that when we stop looking at our own (internal) interests for raising grades—and this would include all the pressures listed above­—it becomes harder to justify grade inflation because the benefits to us become a cost to others. If we lower the bar so that our students are in a more competitive position, does that make it unfair to those who earned the higher grades, or who went to schools that maintain higher standards? To employers who can no longer rely on us for an authentic—fair—representation of relative student achievement? To funders or policymakers who want graduates not merely in name? To students who will be left with an unrealistic sense of accomplishment, an arrogant sense of entitlement, or both, which may be a barrier to them in the future? To faculty themselves, who may feel coerced by the pressures to be lenient?

Behavior is the measure of integrity. We can say we have high standards, or the best students, but if we cheat on that for own interest, and don’t defend our standards, then our behavior conflicts with our espoused values, and is bound to harm others. Eventually, we may harm ourselves, in the form of lost trust from those who count on us for the very things we are set up—and claim—to do.

I should add that I am no fan of grades. I am more interested in development and long-term return than snapshot measurement; as I write that, I realize that it goes with the territory in which I teach, and to a great extent with my notion of sustainable performance.  I don’t see grades as ends, but milestones on the path, letting students know where they are and how far they have yet to go. Succumbing to pressure, however perverse the incentive, is to mislead. Grades are the system we have, and as long we do it seems important that it stand for something. That’s what having integrity means.

It is not simple, I know; I have been threatened, and “punished,” over grades. But the collective action solution seems not to be to collectively give in, but to collectively uphold and communicate the reasons—the justification—for our chosen system of evaluation and its implementation, and how grades should be used, or not.  We cannot solve all of society’s (or higher education’s) ills by giving everyone an A. And if it is determined that grades are not the ideal way to go, then we should collectively work to find alternatives, including working with employers and other stakeholders to discover what would be useful. After all, the letter grade system has been a dominant design for a very, very long time. It may itself be ready for disruption.  Any ideas?


Please post under your full name or anonymously/in confidence through the post box or to me at janerobbins2@gmail.com. Follow @janeerobbins.


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