Sunday, November 16, 2014

Repost: Curing Grade Inflation

By Professor Doom

     The recent UNC scandal, where students took completely bogus courses to get a better GPA, puzzled me. See, the average grade in college now is an really, really, have to be a terrible student not to do well.

    "Grade inflation" is the term used to describe why grades are so much higher now, and it's can be fixed, easily. Allow me to repost this fix to something of a problem.

     First, I want to talk about how grade inflation got to the point that a graduating student with a GPA below 3.5 is now rather uncommon:

     Coursework is a joke, for most courses, anyway. The entire reason for this is the administrative control of higher education, but it’s rather indirect. Administrators only want retention and growth, and education just isn’t on the agenda.

“Exceeds expectations.”
--in order to qualify to apply for promotion at one of my institutions, the faculty would need to have this on his evaluation for three straight years. The evaluation is given by exactly one administrator, in my case an administrator who has never taught a course and admits has no means of evaluating anything mathematically related. By the way, punishment is meted out if anyone hints that there might be some lack of due process there.

      Administrators control hiring and firing, and to a vast extent, control promotion and advancement in higher education. Their primary means of evaluating faculty is through student evaluations. Now, granted, students are probably not the most qualified to determine if the faculty knows what he’s doing…but I do admit it’s better than being evaluated by wildly incompetent typical administrators.

--after being allowed to apply for promotion, this is how much of the promotion is dependent upon student evaluations. The faculty voted and agreed that 12% would be all student evaluations would count for, but administration secretly added another 10%. I became unpopular with admin for exposing this.

     While students are more qualified than administrators to evaluate faculty, it’s still a funny business, with obvious consequences. Faculty that catch, much less punish, cheaters are slammed heavily by cheaters when it’s evaluation time—this is why cheating is so prevalent in higher education today, as faculty quickly learn not to even look for cheaters. Faculty that assign “too much work” (this amount decided by students) are also punished by students come evaluation. Faculty that assign tests that cannot be easily passed are punished by students. Faculty that actually fail students are punished severely by students.

      Study after study after study has shown the obvious: student evaluations correlate strongly with grades. Better grades give better evaluations.

“…norms against holding exams except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays…”
--a professor explains a useful trick for better student evaluations. Tests on these days are less likely to interfere with drinking and sporting events, important student pastimes.

      Herpy derpy doo! Is it any wonder at all the most common grade in higher education is A?

"For education, 71% of the grades were A's; in music, it was 67% A's,"
--sorry, I had to take one more dig at Education, it’s one easy target I love to hit. How did no administrator look at 71% of grades being an A and think that maybe the class was far too easy? Realize about 20% of students in most classes get an F, simply because they never show up, so really we’re talking 71% A’s, 20% got an F for never even showing up, and the rest got C for showing up on the last day of classes and begging to be passed. It’s a grade distribution that administrators with experience teaching would find highly suspicious.

 Faculty like me, that assign work, give actual tests, and think it should be possible to fail a course, are a rare (and admittedly, stupid) breed in higher education.

“…it is clear that he was denied tenure for one reason: failing too many students. “
--The administrative stranglehold over hiring and tenure is a major factor in the annihilation of standards, honest. Tenure used to be granted for scholarship and research…but it can still be denied if admin is displeased. Interfering with retention and growth displeases admin.

      Now, many of the fixes I’ve proposed previously will offset some of the problem of grade inflation. I do feel, however, that student evaluations are of some minimal use in evaluating a teacher, and the fact remains that teachers who don’t do their jobs get better evaluations than teachers with integrity. My fixes are very vulnerable to being undone by an institution loaded with faculty that don’t do their job (for example, courses could be taught by Math Education, English Education, Physics Education, Music Education, and Art Education degree holders…those are links to online offerings, for your convenience, and no, you don’t need to know the subject to get into the graduate program, which likewise doesn’t cover the subject. And, of course, you can just hire someone else to take the courses for you).

“there is a clear expectation from administrators …that 70 percent of students should pass.”
Wow, and I thought the 85% passing rate mandated at a university I taught at was unusual. Faculty that don’t meet a percentage ‘suggested’ by admin are removed. I again point out, that both this institution and the one I was at were fully legitimately accredited. How can grades mean anything when admin determines grading policy? The students realize that most of them will pass, so are highly unmotivated to study. Even if a student fails, he can just take the course again, and probably get into the lucky % that are guaranteed to pass. Imagine if medical doctors got their credentials that way…

     Because of grade inflation, GPA is completely meaningless. This is unfortunate, because GPA is one way for a prospective employer to distinguish one college graduate from another.

      So here is at least a partial fix: grades aren’t assigned by the teacher of the course. Instead, students must take tests constructed and graded by someone not teaching that particular course section. For more writing-intensive courses, the papers would still need to be graded by people not teaching the course. Now a teacher can’t boost his evaluations just by giving easy grades and no assignments. A teacher can no longer load up the course with bogus assignments without anyone knowing about it (trust me, it happens. A lot. Edit--I wrote this essay long before the UNC scandal became common knowledge).

      This sounds like a radical, unworkable, idea, but wait just a second. The SAT?  ACT? PRAXIS? PARCC (at some point I’ll talk about Common Core, honest)? GRE? GMAT? These are all tests that grade students, at least if you’re willing to consider a score as a grade, with both grade and test given by people that did not teach the students. My idea might be untried, but it’s hardly without unrelated precedent.

     This doesn’t get faculty off the hook for grading student work, of course—they’ll just be grading someone else’s students’ work. I imagine there will be lots of standardized testing in any event (keep in mind, almost all Psychology courses are graded via Scantron machines anyway). There should also be an exit exam for degree holders—just a general exam to see if the graduates are actually learning anything and gaining skills. Academically Adrift has shown higher education is a flat out embarrassment, and a double embarrassment considering the vast sums of money involved. Administrators don’t care if students don’t learn…but educators and people of integrity do, and something needs to be done.

      I imagine “But teachers will just teach towards the test!” will be given as protest against this idea. It’s a protest given against high stakes testing today…but it’s a protest only given by the ignorant or intellectually dishonest.


--this is the average grade for one year at one institution I taught, for their departmental exam. Yes, that’s a very solid F; it was a multiple choice exam, so even a toaster would score 25%, to give an idea of how little the students were learning. Nevertheless, the average departmental grade was still A. Why? Because the teachers were not obligated to use the departmental exam when they give the final grades for their students. The students had to take the test…it was just irrelevant. Honest, grades mean nothing now. Professors receive praise from admin for giving an A to every student. Professors that don’t get praise, get fired.

      Let me help out the ignorant that make such a protest: when I teach, I already teach towards the test. Granted, I teach towards the test I make and give, but I’m still teaching towards the test. I make absolutely sure that students have every opportunity to learn what will be on the test, and to gain those skills. Every teacher already teaches toward the test.

      I’ve never heard of a teacher that deliberately teaches only the material that won’t be on the test.  What a silly thing to do, what a silly protest “teachers are just teaching towards the test” is…that’s what teachers always do (except for the thoroughly psychotic ones, which is what student evaluations can identify with 49% accuracy). Instead of teaching towards “my” test on calculus, I might teach towards a standardized calculus test. Perhaps that won’t be as easy for me, but it’s not so great a change.


     Last time around I proposed my least workable fix for higher education, addressing the problem of grade inflation. Grade inflation is a natural consequence of student evaluations being basically the only means of evaluating faculty, since a student evaluation is just a reflection of the grade the student thinks he’s going to get. My fix, let grades and tests be given not by the teacher of the course, is great in theory, and not without precedent…but has a few problems beyond simple resistance to change, a resistance that will be very strong by corrupt typical higher education.  

Student: “How come we didn’t do any of this any of the other times I took this course?”
--quite often I get students that have taken, and failed, math class three or more times with other faculty. As these students systematically take faculty until they find one that can pass them, they eventually end up in my course. Often they fail. Then they go to another faculty, and pass. Sometimes I get hate mail from students saying “I finally found a good teacher,” little realizing that the reason they finally could move ahead was I gave them a push.

      I grant this isn’t feasible for highly specialized coursework (i.e., graduate school, which I hope to get to later—I’m sorry to keep saying “I’ll get to this later”, but higher education is fraudulent on so many levels, that even though I’ve now posted over 100,000 words on it, there’s still much to cover). It almost certainly won’t work for heavily skill-based work, like, say, piano playing. I should probably address the latter, because it highlights yet another problem: why are all degrees 4 years long? It’s so bizarre that, according to higher education, it takes just as long to train a chemist as it does to train a high school guidance counselor or a parking lot attendant

     Administrators and Educationists in higher education devote a positively stupid amount of time looking at education, but this obvious issue has yet to come up, at least as near as I can tell.  I guess “not every degree should take the same amount of time” is too radical an idea for now, however. A related idea is “why does it cost just as much to take a course in the factual truth of calculus as it does to hear the questionable arguments of diversity or the material of 3rd grade math?” but now I’m getting way off topic.

     Back to the original idea. Putting testing and grading out of the teacher’s hands (at least, for his own students) would go a long way to restoring legitimacy to higher education. 

     Unfortunately, it will take years before that sort of system is fully implemented, assuming schools had the guts to do it.

     I have another fix that is quite trivial to implement, would serve in the interim, and would serve even after a more sane grading system is set up. Here goes: give an exit exam to all graduating students. An exit exam upon graduation would give employers a far better measure of what the degree means than the utterly useless GPA of today. Just one general exam to verify the students have learned a little something, before the degree is awarded.

--as a student, I was on the honors council of presidents—a student “club” consisting entirely of presidents of other student clubs. Our sole source of revenue was selling a tassel that we sold to graduating students to put on their cap at graduation. Our monthly irrelevant meetings were VERY well catered, as the above was our average yearly revenue.

     Would graduating students be willing to take one more exam? Absolutely. Already, students get their degrees held up for unpaid library dues, making them take that one more exam before they get the degree would be trivial.

      Unlike my grading system, such exams already exist. For example, the GRE General exam would work perfectly for this purpose, since it’s specifically intended for college graduates. I don’t work for ETS, the makers of the exam, but that exam has been around for years, with no major cheating scandals, and nothing but legitimacy to it…the latter is the kind of thing higher education needs.

     The scores on the GRE aren’t the easiest to interpret…but they could be converted into percentiles that anyone can understand. No longer would “average” be an “A”…average would be around the 50th percentile, right where it should be. It would no longer be possible for everyone to get an A.

     Doing poorly on the exam wouldn’t prevent the student from getting his degree, any more than a relatively low GPA did back when low GPAs were possible. It would just be another number to put right next to the useless “4.0 GPA” that everyone has on the resume. In times past, the GPA was part of how someone evaluated a resume, but since GPA is now useless due to corrupted higher education, the GRE (or other standardized) test score could be used instead.

“Our best students average over 20 on the ACT!”
--local high schools take pride in having students that do well on standardized tests. I’m not wild about standardized tests, but we need them, as I’m less wild about the absolute fraud of higher education. Seeing as these tests already exist and are cheap to implement compared to college tuition, why not use them?

     And just like that, the completely bogus degree students could be separated from the students that actually had to do something to get their degree. It would also go a long way to eliminating the unjustified “legitimacy” of accreditation. An unaccredited school that turns out graduates with high GRE scores will humiliate, humiliate, humiliate all the accredited schools that crank out graduates that can’t break the 25th percentile on the GRE. Think about that for a second: an unaccredited school right now has nothing to offer students besides “we can’t give you federal loan money.” Easy grades? Nope, accredited schools already offer those. Easy courses? Ditto. Easy degrees? Ditto. But schools that can show their students do well in controlled settings? That’s a plus.

     In fact, schools that can’t get students to do well on the GRE will probably get questions asked of them, questions that nobody asks now, like “why is education so unimportant at this school?” and “Why do your college graduates consistently perform at the sub-high school level?” I bet universities that crank out students like that and get asked such questions will suddenly look into that “integrity” thing I keep talking about.

      I used to end my essays with a homework question, and I’ve been remiss of late in challenging the reader to think about what I’ve written. So, it’s long past time for an assignment:

     Administrators have known for years that most degrees are bogus and worthless. Administrators have also known for years that GPA is meaningless. Perhaps I’ve said some unduly harsh things about administrators. However, I seriously doubt I’m so blazingly brilliant that I’m the only one to come up with an idea of an exit exam for college graduates to alleviate the irrelevance of GPAs and even degrees.

     Homework question: why does the gentle reader suppose no administrator at any institution, from sleazy to ivy league, has taken even the simple step of an exit exam to encourage legitimacy to their institutions?

Think about it.