Monday, June 30, 2014

The Awkwardness of Addressing Grade Inflation

 I ran into a spot of awkwardness recently that is a good example of the difficulty of changing policies at a university. I'm on a faculty committee that decides who should get various teaching awards based on nominations by department chairmen.  I looked up the class grade averages for the nominees. That's public info at IU (you can look them up too---just google), along with, very interestingly, the average GPA of the students in the class going in. [Research note: someone should do something with that data.]

      Anyway, I thought we should rank nominees low if they commonly did one of three things in their grading: 1. Violated school policy and gave more than 15% A's in MBA classes (or more than 50% A's and A-s), 2. Violated school policy and gave more than 10% A's in 100-student-plus undergraduate courses, or 3. Had a class average of more than 3.5 in an undergraduate course (that is, roughly speaking, more than half the class got A's or A-s). 

    This would knock out  about 2/3 of the nominees, it turned out. Unfortunately, it appeared that about half of my committee also grades that high. The chairman had decided to have us all turn in our rankings by email and then he'd tote up the results, and he was reluctant to have a meeting. So I boldly sent out an email laying out my arguments. The response was frosty. Two arguments were that members had already made up their rankings and didn't want to do any more work, and that grading wasn't relevant. I replied again, and we'll see what will happen.  

   What can we learn? Probably this is just another illustration of the power of incentives and the oddly principled behavior of economists.  What is most rewarded in teaching is high student evaluations. Departments get extra faculty lines if they have bigger enrollments. High grades facilitate both things.  In addition, of course, the course atmosphere is more pleasant for the instructor, especially just after midterms, if most of the students get A's. Why, then is my own department somewhat resistant to grade inflation? I'll bring up the subject and see. We do get brighter-than b-school average students majoring in bus econ,  so scaring off worse students is one thing going the other way. But what we probably should really do is bimodalize our grading so that reasonably good students get A-, A, or A+, with A+ being a large category in itself, and lazy or dim students, of whom there are now relatively few get grades from F to C+.

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