All “A’s” By 2064?

What is your grading philosophy?

May 28, 2015

Before I share with you some of the writings of biology professor Mark McPeek, I’d like to amplify an invitation that Mark made:

How do you set grading standards in your class, and what do you expect a student to do to meet each of those standards?

Mark is the head of a committee on my campus that is looking at both local and national trends in grading. In analyzing the data, Mark came to the startling conclusion that if current trends continue that:

“Every student in the year 2064 is projected to receive a A (no A-'s; they'll all be straight-up A's)in every class they take.”  

In a series of posts on his Mind Games 2.0 blog, Mark has been addressing many of the issues around this seemingly unstoppable escalation of student grades.

The method that Mark utilizes is to ask a series of questions about grades, grading, and student learning.  The hypothesis that Mark is looking to test is that: 

All high-performing students [should] receive high grades,all intermediate-performing students [should] receive intermediate grades,and all low-performing students [should] receive low grades in each course.”

In a post titled What If Every Student At A University Truly Deserved To Get A's In Every Class? Mark examines the premise that grades today are so much higher because today’s students are so much better prepared. Rather than disputing that the quality of students has improved over time, Mark makes the point that standards should also be evolving upwards with student quality. The proper response to better students is not to give everyone A’s, but to shift the curriculum so that advanced topics are taught to introductory students. By making all courses more academically rigorous (and therefore maintaining a more normal grading distribution), students would benefit by being pushed to: "Think harder and deeper about more nuanced subjects in the Arts and Humanities, ponder more forcefully the human condition in the Social Sciences, and explore the never-ending advances of theory and data in the Sciences.

In a post called Are Entering Students Better Prepared For College? Mark challenges the notion that nationwide rise in median grades is a function of a nationwide rise in student quality.  How could this be, Mark asks, if grades are going up at every institution - while the percentage of high school graduates is also going up? (From about 45% in 1960 to over 66% today).  Does this mean that all of our concern about America’s mediocre K-12 system has been misplaced? Why did we need legislation like No Child Left Behind or Race To the Top if our students are doing better, not worse? If college grades are an indication of the quality of K-12 U.S. education, then the U.S. should have declared educational victory long ago.

In a post called But I Use The Latest Innovations In Teaching? Mark examines the premise that higher grades are a function of progressive teaching methods. One argument for the observed rise in grades is that new teaching methods, such as flipped classes and formative assessments, raise the floor on student learning (and hence grades). New methods allow the type of personalized learning and hands-on coaching that contribute to student mastery.  Better grades are a reflection of better teaching. Mark points out, however, that academic rigor and innovative teaching methods are not antagonistic. If a faculty member is able to utilize new methods to improve learning then space is opened up to increase the depth and complexity of what is being taught. Expectations for student performance should rise right along with the productivity of the instructional methods. As Mark writes: "Claiming that your grades are rising because you're a better teacher or your teaching methods are more effective simply means that you are squandering the opportunity you have created to have students achieve more in your course.

In a post titled Student Effort Declines When The Average Grade In A Classes Increases Mark aruges: “The most pernicious effect of grade inflation on education is to cause a substantial diminution of student effort in their coursework.”  To support his assertion, Mark sites data from a range of national studies and local surveys reporting a strong correlation between student effort and expected grades. Quoting a 2010 paper in Economic Inquiry, Mark notes the finding that that the: “Average study time would be about 50% lower in a class in which the average expected grade was an "A" than in the same course taught by the same instructor in which students expected a C.”  If you think that learning is hard, and that hard work leads to better learning, then the most direct step that a professor can take to encourage harder work is to making grading more rigorous.  When an “A” becomes scarce, students will put more effort into getting that grade.  

In a post called But Nobody Will Get Into Medical or Professional Schools? Mark addresses the concern that a return to rigorous grading standards will restrict the future professional options of students.  If one school unilaterally decide to bring back grading distributions similar to those of the 1960s, wouldn’t the chances of graduates from that school to get into a medical or professional school be harmed? Mark’s rejoinder is that his job as a professor is not to make his students look good, but to “offer the best education possible to every student”. By failing to distinguish between high, intermediate, and low-performing students in our grading systems, we are making it difficult to institute meaningful levels of academic rigor in our courses. Uniformly high grades can mask uniformly mediocre teaching. If our goal is to have the best prepared students become tomorrow’s doctors and researchers (and yes lawyers and investment bankers), we should insist on a grading structure that encourages rather than inhibits that preparation.

My hope, and Mark’s, is that our larger higher ed community engage in an open and serious discussion about grading. 

Again, a good place to start would be to share your philosophy and system for grading.  

To repeat the question: How do you set your grading standards in your class, and what do you expect your students to do to meet each of those standards?
What are your thoughts on the questions that Mark is asking, and the conclusions that he is drawing?

What do you think is the best way forward for a productive discussion on grades and grade inflation?



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