on grades, part I

Grading schemes, grade distributions, and the meaning of failure. The public’s expectations for, and the significance of, an education. These were my mental lightning rods this week.

I’m the co-chair of my school’s curriculum committee. That means I meet every week with colleagues to talk about … yes, majors, classes, learning outcomes… the list goes on and on. Last week we were looking at two different degree programs, Business and Chemistry, with different approaches to grades. In Business, any class you earn a C- in counts toward your major; in Chemistry, only C or better counts. If you get a C- in organic chemistry, you can’t graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry.

You might imagine that this difference led to no small amount of discussion as to the meaning of “pass a class”. Traditionally, of course, “D” is a passing grade, but only in the formal sense of not failing. Not failing is not the same as succeeding, in terms of the piece of paper they hand you as you leave college.

This definition of success is, of course, totally arbitrary. We’re comfortable with the “D” passing-but-not-really thing, because it’s familiar and seems to have a certain logic. But to a student, D and F are about the same. What I like about the C/C- thing is that it pulls the cover off the arbitrary-ness of grades and their meaning, and forces us to look at how stupid the distinctions are. Yes, you intuitively think C means ‘ok’. Why? Because that’s how you were trained, not because it’s an axiom of expertise.

And why does Business allow C- to count? I don’t know that precisely, but it’s my impression that they think a C’s a C, regardless of the modifier, and a C’s good enough. Which seems perfectly reasonable… that is to say, perfectly reasonable in the context of a generally agreed upon, but totally arbitrary, set of expectations.

And why does Chemistry not allow C- to count? I, even though I’m a tenured member of the Chemistry department, routinely ignore many such minutiae… That is to say, I just don’t know, even though I probably supported it in some faculty meeting. I think it’s rooted in concern about “what kind of students we graduate”. If we demand higher performance than “average” for our graduates, then those students that get through are more likely to a) succeed and b) show that CSUCI Chemistry is a rigorous and demanding program which both applicants and employers may prefer in their employees.

The C/C- discussion in Curriculum led directly to a discussion of grade distributions, which many feel are inflated at my school.* Here’s a graph of some data that are really similar to, but not actually from, my campus… just to give you a sense of what grade distributions can look like. Of course, we share the inflation trait with such distinguished institutions as Princeton and Harvard, and we’re no clearer than our more august sister campuses in terms of what it means, let alone how to deal with it.

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Indeed for the CSU system generally, and for my little campus specifically, grade distributions run smack into our mission: helping every California high school graduate with a GPA of 2.0 or above get a college degree, and with it a chance for a better future. In California, programs for helping students get into the CSU are thick on the ground. And the CSU itself is awash in programs to help these students succeed once they get in.

A quite progressive objective, I swan! And as an educator and liberal, I am firmly convinced that everyone, everyone, needs to be educated, somehow.

However, can everyone with a C average in high school be expected to succeed in college? And how do so many manage to claw themselves up from the C’s to the A range once they get here? Here’re two scenarios:

1) We expect this group of students, from whom we’ve already cut the lowest performers, to do better than a normal distribution centered at “C”. Because “C” was the bottom of the cutoff. If that’s the case, then inflated grades – relative to a high school population’s broader distribution – make sense.

2) College is just so fundamentally different from high school that we should expect a downward renormalization… that C students in high school should be D or F students in college. If that’s the case, how does such an expectation square with our social objective of providing C students a chance at a college education? Do we make it work by inflating our assessments? Or is it enough to give C students a chance, in the hopes that at least some will bloom, even if most fail?

Then, of course, there’s the expectation that comes along with the price tag. When I pay $45,000 for an Acura MDX, do I expect it to probably, maybe do ok when I pull out of the driveway?

Ok, I drive a 15 year old Corolla, so I don’t know from MDX’s, but here’s the arithmetic: CSUCI costs $15,000 year all told, and most kids transfer in as juniors from incredibly cheap community colleges, so their education costs less than their car, notwithstanding all the talk about college debt.

Now, the cost argument is never absent from the discussion, at a state school, but I find it pretty problematic. As soon as students become clients of the school, then they’re paying for a service, and the product they’re buying is a degree, regardless of the student’s ability. And where in that economic equation is students finding themselves?

Nevertheless, parents and students pay lots of money and expect a degree at the end. Should we assume that half the clients will fail? And by fail, I don’t mean get F’s, I mean fail to get the C’s or C-minus’s required for their degree. That’s what a C-centered grade distribution tells us to expect.

Now my own kids attend a posh private elementary school, and so I’m pretty familiar with parents’ conviction that their kids are all angelic geniuses (they even have a better** standardized test than your kids’ school), and so I know it’s normal to expect your child to excel in college even if you know that half the students should fail. But I do think it’s wise for parents, students, professors, university presidents, societies, to take a minute to think about how grades, how grading systems, interact with our expectations of what it takes to become educated, and what it means to have had a particular type of education.

Will I get an A? Will I get a job with this degree? Will my company fail if I hire someone with a 2.0 GPA? Will society collapse of everyone is above average, but not really? An old friend from graduate school used to say, “What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of their medical school class? …. Doctor.”

At some point, people do stop worrying about GPAs, and get on with the business of applying expertise. Of course, I never did worry about it, and so we get to the point, at last. All the above handwringing about C’s, C-’s, and distributions actually is hot air to me, as I’m committed to the notion that grades only answer one kind of question, and it’s probably not the question we thought we were asking… and it’s definitely not the question we should be asking.

Anyway, it makes much of my job on Curriculum seem – ah – academic. During the course of our discussion of what kind of C constitutes failure, we considered creating a policy to make that cutoff uniform across programs. Actually, I think it might be fun to bring that to Senate this year, if only to provoke discussion… I doubt it will lead to change of any kind; opinion is too divided. But I also proposed forwarding a policy that would eliminate grades altogether… folks were just plain flabbergasted by that idea. Leave us our grades, even if we don’t understand them, even though they don’t tell us what we need to know… at least they are familiar! Let’s all be Normal.

*for the record, I don’t agree that grades are inflated at my campus. Neither do I assert that they are not. I’m just not exercised about grade distributions at all… can you tell?

**I feel similarly about standardized tests and grades.

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One response to “on grades, part I

  1. Ah, the topic that will never go away: Grades and grade inflation.

    For the most part, I share your disaffected indifference to the whole issue, and share your light preference that there be at least some kind of internal consistency in our institution. For a long time, I couldn’t even really care about that. Everyone know that some majors are the “easy” ones for average students, and some are…. not. So, who cares if grades get compared across disciplines. It’s so unlikely that a graduate from the chem program will ever be competing for a job directly with a student from the (just to pluck an example out of thin air) sociology program. Who cares if their GPA’s are on totally different scales?

    I’d still hew to that, *except* that I’m starting to see it affect my students in ways I had not put together until recently. First off is the fact that for years now, it has seemed like the most common “last name” at graduation id “Cum Laude”. We passed the 50% mark on that one a year or two ago. So, the campus response? Up the GPA necessary to get that distinction. Gee, who suffers from that? I think we had 2 or 3 people graduate with honors in the sciences last year. Other majors were still sitting WELL above 50% of their graduates. As you have noted, though, GPAs don’t matter as much as people might think in the job market, so maybe that’s just an annoyance.

    But, here’s where it’s not an annoyance: scholarships. I’m sure your students, like mine, are scrapping for every dollar they can get to reduce their debt. We may be a private school, but our students are *not* the classic sons/daughters of the well off. They are just scraping by for the most part. So, when institutional scholarships are offered and “merit” is a category, my students get screwed. How do you compete against a pool of 3.95 GPA students whose only A- was in their general education chemistry class? (Yes, a stereotype, but not *that* far off….)

    So, my point? Hmmmm…… I think it is best summed up as: It might all be academic to US. It is NOT academic to our students. Since “we” (the academic, institutional “we”) use it to measure, track and sort our students, it has real life impacts on them if they are not competing on level ground for the recognition and other scarce resources that are often linked to that number – no matter how meaningless most of us think it is.

    Sorry for the long and rambling comment. As always, I love the blog.

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