Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Cure For Grade Inflation, part 1

By Professor Doom

     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).

      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.

     Next time I’ll address a trivial way to nullify grade inflation, one that’s so easy to implement that it’s quite puzzling it hasn’t happened already. 


  1. Boy have things changed from my days at the University. Attendance roll was not kept, though most students did show up for class (often with slide rules because the new-fangled electronic calculators cost as much as the textbook and $100 was a princely sum for a young student even with loans, grants and scholarships).

    Maybe some of that was that you fought to get into the university in the first place, you wanted to learn, you were expected to work for it (even if you did miss class, people kept notes and you could meet with the instructor for questions), you were expected to take the exam in person and you knew you could fail it even if/when you put the work into it.

  2. Attendance didn't use to be important, but once Federal loan money came on the table, we had to track attendance. Of course, once admin realized they got more money if we always claimed 100% attendance, then that rather changed as well.